It's an unusually sticky Friday August evening in Seattle. Capitol Hill's main drag, Broadway, is buzzing with activity as the sun begins to drop.

A dozen cafes and restaurants like Cafe Septieme, the Broadway Grill, and Vivace have plunked tables and chairs on the sidewalks so their patrons can escape the heat and watch the daily parade: gay couples walking hand in hand, punk kids with multicolored hair, and skateboarders careening down the sidewalk.

Two men set up a keyboard and an upright bass at East Harrison Street by the Broadway Market shopping center. A half block away, a man with a ponytail sells fragrant purple lilies. Down the street, in the doorway of what used to be Ileen's Sports Bar, a shirtless and barefoot young man plays the Australian didgeridoo, which echoes off the tile stoop.

The scene seems like classic Capitol Hill. But look closer: Broadway is not the bright hangout it was just a few years ago.

Across the street from the Broadway Market, green dumpsters spill trash onto the sidewalk. A young man sits on a bike rack and loudly asks passersby for spare change. Most of the light poles are chipped and need repainting, and many of the sidewalks smell of urine.

Phyllis Castro, a slight fortysomething Broadway Market security guard in a crisp navy-blue uniform, spends her break just outside the south entrance of the Market. Leaning against Urban Outfitters' display window, Castro smokes a cigarette, sips her sweaty Pepsi, and observes the rhythmic chaos.

After working as a security guard on Broadway for 10 months, Castro is aware that Broadway is no paradise. She regularly finds drug needles in the Market's bathrooms, and one of her main duties is to keep street kids and their pets from loitering. (There are rumors of recent heroin overdoses in one of Broadway's restaurants, but the Seattle--King County Department of Public Health couldn't confirm the stories.)

"The vendors say it harms business," Castro explains.

Barry Rogel owns the Deluxe Bar & Grill at the north end of Broadway. For the past two years he has headed up Broadway's business association, Businesses of Broadway (BOB). Rogel, casually dressed and nearing middle-age, is passionate and energetic about this street. Fifteen years working to create a good reputation for his family's restaurant have tied him to the community.

Early on a recent Thursday morning, between the squeals of delivery-truck brakes outside his restaurant, Rogel sips coffee and rattles off his concerns for the neighborhood where he makes a living.

He wants to see the sidewalks cleared of illegal activity and garbage, and he expects respect from people living on the street where he's trying to run a business. Rogel doesn't think his customers should have to sidestep drug use or harassment on their way to the Deluxe.

"When you get a group of people squatting on the sidewalk with their dogs, and somebody shouts a profanity at you, do you feel safe?" Rogel asks, in what could be described as a "Mark Sidran moment."

Indeed, Rogel's neighborhood ideals seem similar to those of City Attorney Sidran, who is infamous for civility laws that prohibit sitting on the sidewalk, penalize public urination, and fine property owners who don't clean up graffiti. Even Rogel acknowledges the analogy, but makes a point of highlighting the differences.

"I want to be real clear about this. I'm not talking about Mark Sidran's campaign," Rogel says. "But there are laws on the book you need to enforce." He also says he wants long-term solutions, like social services on Capitol Hill.

Rogel's main concerns are echoed by others in the community: aggressive panhandling, drug use, low police presence, empty storefronts, and the city's unresponsiveness to the neighborhood's concerns.

It has become nearly impossible to walk down Broadway without being asked repeatedly for spare change.

"In my five-minute walk to work, I get hounded," says Dirk Jewitt, who lives a few blocks off Broadway and is working at Payday Loans, between East Thomas Street and East Harrison Street. "But I can understand the personal side and the business side."

"Most of the homeless kids are just kicking back, spanging [asking for spare change]," says Eric, a street kid with sun-streaked dreadlocks who declined to give his last name. "Everybody [else] starts getting an attitude--they're judging a book by its cover."

But panhandling impacts business when customers start avoiding the area because of it.

"People don't like to come up here because of [aggressive panhandling]," says Kristen Salter, manager of the Seattle's Best Coffee store on Broadway. "We get a lot of complaints. It's an epidemic."

Salter sits near the window in her coffee shop and glances out at the street she's worked on since May. She describes her first few days at the Broadway shop: In addition to hearing her baristas complain about getting harassed by panhandlers, she found drug paraphernalia and blood splatters in the bathroom.

"I don't want my employees to have to deal with that," Salter says. She wishes there were a stronger police presence on Broadway to deter harassment and drug use, a concern echoed by others.

Next door at Bailey/Coy Books, Michael Wells is training a new employee. He has been a manager at the independent bookstore for 12 years. Wells recalls two police officers who patrolled Broadway on bikes in the early '90s. They knew the names of almost everyone who lived or worked on the street.

"That's gone now," Wells says. "There's much less police presence."

Three blocks south, the African-import store Mali International is going out of business. A quiet man is perched on a director's chair at the entrance, greeting customers coming in for the clearance sale. The store is run by family members, including the man at the door.

"He's our guard against that kind of stuff," owner Carol Sissoko says. She acknowledges that the street youths congregating in front of her store are one of the reasons she and her husband are closing this location and focusing on their downtown operation.

Mali International isn't the only store closing. Three large corner storefronts--Ileen's at East Thomas Street, Games & Gizmos at East John Street, and the old Godfather's Pizza space across from Jack in the Box at Denny Way--are empty. The former Buffalo Exchange used-clothing store and an office space, both near Wherehouse Music, are vacant. Across from the Broadway Market, almost everything is on sale at the Body Scent, as the owner prepares to move the business online.

In a neighborhood as densely populated as Capitol Hill, five empty storefronts and two other soon-to-close businesses--all in a five-block stretch-- should be cause for alarm.

Though Rogel and other business owners are concerned about these issues and their impact on customers and residents, the city hasn't responded as strongly.

Rogel says BOB shells out over $50,000 a year to pay for daily sidewalk cleaning, an example of a service he thinks the city should help out with. Light poles and garbage cans need repainting; there are dumpsters that continually overflow; and many newspaper boxes are used as lockers.

"The city gives us noncommittal responses about what they can and cannot do," Rogel says. "There's a lot of things we can do to make neighborhoods feel safer, and we need the city's participation."

Although Broadway has been home for street youths for years, problems compounded recently. There are several theories to explain the change: First, recent development downtown pulled customers away from Broadway. Obviously, the downtown retail core has blossomed from direct city spending (i.e. the Pacific Place garage), city-backed loans, and special grants totaling nearly $100 million since the mid-'90s. Second, Sound Transit's light-rail plan threatened to rip up Broadway for tunnel construction, leaving shop owners uncertain about the next few years. Third, rents on Capitol Hill grew faster than most of Seattle in the late '90s, forcing some businesses to close. Any of these trends--or a combination of them--could explain the increased social and physical ills on Broadway.

Some business owners say they held off on remodeling or expanding their businesses until they knew the full plan for light-rail transit. Sound Transit's plan threatened to tunnel through the neighborhood, turning Broadway into a construction site for several years.

"Most of us thought we couldn't survive if that happened," Wells explains from the back office of Bailey/Coy, where a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of Broadway in the 1930s hangs on the wall.

High rent is another factor working against the neighborhood's efforts at improvement. Higher rates might deter potential retailers who would otherwise thrive on a street as diverse and busy as Broadway.

"Maybe because the rents are too high, a tenant comes and looks at the street conditions and says, 'I'm not willing to invest my money until that's taken care of,'" Rogel says.

The economic boom of the late '90s raised rents across the city for residential and retail spaces. Trendy Capitol Hill's rents are still among the highest. Currently, a one-bedroom apartment near Broadway goes for $807 per month, and a two-bedroom fetches $1,310 on average. For all of King County, the averages are lower--$742 and $995, respectively.

Retail rents average $28 to $35 per square foot per year in the Broadway area. That is a fraction of the cost to operate downtown, but it's far higher than other neighborhoods, such as the University District.

Meanwhile, other neighborhoods in Seattle have taken action on street conditions, and customers have taken notice. The Downtown Seattle Association hires safety ambassadors to keep loitering and panhandling to a minimum. Pioneer Square businesses voluntarily pulled cheap alcohol from store shelves in an attempt to curb public inebriation.

So, while downtown and Pioneer Square have lessened their problems, it seems the people doing the loitering, panhandling, and public drinking have migrated to Capitol Hill.

"You can't take problems that were in one place and just displace them into another," Rogel says.

Certainly, Broadway shop owners have noticed a drop in customers since downtown and Pike-Pine retail picked up.

"Our business has gone down a lot in the past year and a half," says Tahis McQueen at the Body Scent. "There's a lot less shoppers up here."

"If you find a different place, and it's easier to walk around and not get hassled, maybe you as the consumer are going to go there," Rogel says.

Broadway's business association worries that the social and economic problems will keep getting worse unless the city intervenes to help take control of the neighborhood.

To combat the social problems in the area, BOB and other community groups began working with the Neighborhood Action Team Seattle program, which brings different city departments and agencies together to look at public-safety and livability issues in neighborhoods.

To speed up the process, business and community leaders held a meeting with City Council Members Peter Steinbrueck and Jim Compton in mid-July. At the meeting, groups from Broadway and other areas of Capitol Hill with similar public-safety concerns implored the city council to work with city departments and clean up the neighborhood.

On September 21, city council members, city bureaucrats, and Capitol Hill community and business leaders will meet to discuss solutions.

There is hope that the city will strongly enforce current laws--clean up graffiti, catch drug use, discourage panhandling, and empty dumpsters--and get more social services in the area for street youths, alcoholics, and drug addicts.

Rogel has another idea to revitalize the neighborhood: bring in more people. He would love to see the development of apartments encouraged, especially above retail space on Broadway.

"My theory is that if you want an incredibly safe neighborhood: you put apartments above it," Rogel says. "If you live above what you're seeing and you're seeing someone on the street that you have a real concern about, you're going to deal with it."

amy@thestranger.com

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