Antigay Violence on Capitol Hill: Is its Booming Nightlife to Blame?

Capitol Hill confronts a dangerous side effect of its broadening mainstream appeal
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The often-hopping corner of East Pike Street and 10th Avenue on Capitol Hill

On New Year’s Eve, growing fears that antigay violence is on the rise on Capitol Hill reached a peak as firefighters extinguished the last of the flames from an apparent arson attack at the popular Neighbours nightclub, packed with more than 700 revelers at the time. Quick action by patrons, an employee and the club’s sprinkler system averted the unthinkable, but the incident left a patina of anxiety behind, even after a suspect (a nearby resident) was arrested in early February.

The happy balance of gay and straight, artist and office worker, anarchist and entrepreneur has long been a mainstay of life on Capitol Hill. Hip and edgy, challenging and unconventional, the neighborhood has held on to its bohemian identity while downtown, Belltown and South Lake Union transformed below it. But progress has moved inexorably across the Interstate 5 chasm, bringing increased density, dozens of new businesses, tracks for light rail and a changing demographic—especially at night.

Renters and condo owners alike have flocked to Capitol Hill to live in new apartment complexes or renovated buildings. The average rent for a one-bedroom unit hovers around $1,449, making the neighborhood one of the most expensive to live in after Belltown, Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. Many of the residents paying those rates can apparently afford it. From 2000 to 2012, average household income on Capitol Hill rose from $41,308 to $50,379.

Following the money are specialty retailers that have helped shift Capitol Hill from bohemian to boutique, and vastly expanded the availability of designer apparel (for adults and children), spendy footwear and home décor. Broadway and the Pike/Pine corridor are home to some of the city’s hottest restaurants and craft cocktail bars. The new businesses have slipped seamlessly into a neighborhood known as the center for gay life and culture in Seattle, with recent establishments such as the Bavarian-inspired beer hall Von Trapp’s within walking distance of legendary leather bar The Cuff Complex and long-lived lesbian bar Wildrose.

But all that pulsating nightlife and affluence may be sparking disturbing, even dangerous consequences, especially for the community’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members. In 2013, attacks against gay men made headlines in local media, suggesting that a new wave of hate crimes was spreading through the neighborhood. While police statistics do not show a definitive spike in antigay violence on Capitol Hill, anecdotes abound among worried residents and visitors bemoaning the potential loss of a long-established safe haven for sexual minorities.  

These fears could be a result of heightened public awareness of bias attacks when they do occur, rather than an actual spike in incidents, says Detective Mark Jamieson, a spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Jamieson cited the department’s Tweets-by-Beat social media police blotter on Twitter as an example. “We’re telling people what’s happening,” he says, “but it’s a double-edged sword that can freak some people out.”

Still, others have seen a palpable shift in the community vibe. Curtis Bigelow, co-owner of The Lobby Bar, an LGBT lounge on East Pike Street, has observed the changes within the walls of his own bar, where, he says, the largely gay clientele has expanded to include a new customer more familiar to Belltown watering holes. “They are a younger crowd and don’t seem as invested in the community as our customers used to be,” Bigelow says. “The new crowd that comes in, comes in later and drinks harder. We’ve had to throw out more people who become belligerent.” The incidents have become common enough that Bigelow now makes sure he has more than one staffer behind the bar to help keep things under control.

The association of crime and disorder with nightlife has its precedents in Seattle. Belltown and Pioneer Square both rose from dilapidation and neglect to become popular destinations, especially among those looking to party. Late-night rowdiness and drunken incivility come with the territory of a thriving night-time scene. But Capitol Hill, with the largest population of male same-sex couples in the city, has suffered the unwelcome distinction of bias attacks mixed in with the violence and vandalism.

The reasons for these attacks remain as speculative as whether the city has seen an actual spike in crime. Has the neighborhood’s appeal drawn in those who may not be as open to the neighborhood’s tolerant lifestyle? Has the growing affluence of the neighborhood attracted thieves to the community? Has the passage of Referendum 74 and the election of the city’s first openly gay mayor inflamed bigots to act out their displeasure?

“A backlash impulse is not uncommon,” says Connie Burk, executive director of The Northwest Network, a domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy and community response program, in reference to other hard-fought civil and political rights movements.
Some newcomers enjoying Capitol Hill at night may be seeing their first transsexual or same-sex couple holding hands in public and responding with an angry slur or worse. But gay communities and culture have always attracted a diverse range of straight nighttime revelers, and the mix of queer and straight has been a tradition on Capitol Hill. Some wonder if it’s not the phones and flashy possessions in the hands of oblivious strollers that are attracting a more dangerous element. “Ten years ago, we weren’t carrying around a $700 easily sellable item,” says John Akamatsu, a Capitol Hill resident and vice president of the Capitol Hill Community Council. “I think we’re seeing more desperate people who think we’re easy pickin’s.”

Some in the neighborhood feel a shortage of resources is a big part of the problem. “Whether the reported crimes were bias crimes or not, is not always clear,” says Louise Chernin, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), the LGBT and allied chamber of commerce in our region. “But, we all do know that the lack of mental health services, numbers of homeless people, some who may be mentally unstable or under the influence, mixed with a wide range of folks who are less mindful of their surroundings as they leave bars and nightclubs at closing time, is a dangerous combination.”

Chernin and The Lobby Bar’s Bigelow say they look forward to a reinforced police presence following campaign promises by the new mayor, Ed Murray, to take action against antigay violence. Bigelow says he once regularly saw police officers he knew and engaged with, but that recently he has seen fewer police in and around his business, unless they were responding to a 911 call. “We have felt the police as less of a partner and more of an adversary these days,” he adds.

Not everyone supports increased policing as a solution, at least not without more sensitivity toward transgender and transsexual victims, who are disproportionately the victims of personal attacks. “Having SPD on every street corner will not make people safer, but it will keep some people away,” says Danielle Askini, one of the founders of Gender Justice League, an advocacy group representing the transsexual and transgender community.

While the city develops its strategy for controlling all types of crime on Capitol Hill, the community, known as much for its activism and engagement as for its gay identity, is already at work. Community meetings with the Seattle police have provided forums for residents and business owners to air their fears and hear reminders on how to stay safe on the streets: Walk with purpose, stay aware of your surroundings, keep distracting items out of sight, walk with a friend.

Others deploy a more direct message, as seen in the wheat-pasted poster that appeared outside The Comet Tavern last October: “Bigots and small-minded groups of feeble gay bashers, you are not welcome here. We are all sons and daughters, friends and lovers. Be kind.”

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