AS PUBLISHER OF Real Change, Tim Harris' mission historically has been creating jobs for homeless people and drawing public attention to social ills. Of late, this goal has set him to afflicting the comfortable nearly as much as he's been comforting the afflicted. This is not an entirely unintentional turn of events: "My goal in life," he says, "is to make Blake Nordstrom lose as much sleep as possible."
Harris wants the entire Nordstrom family to feel so guilty about being part of the taxpayer-subsidized Pine Street retail complex in downtown Seattle that they will toss and turn themselves into donating $500,000 to local homeless and low-income housing programs.
Unfortunately, nothing Harris has tried so far has done the trick. Not the weekly "Home for Christmas" protests (lunchtime Fridays) in front of the new downtown Nordy's, complete with their leafleting homeless women. Not such rib-poking Real Change articles as "The Nordstrom Boys' Very Excellent Deal," which featured a cover photo of wide-smiling Nordstrom scions. Not the giant, sheet-metal "Nordstrom Heart of Steel" that greeted customers the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. Not letters to the editor, e-mails to elected officials, or bulletin-board fliers. "They're not going to respond to politeness," Harris says. "We're trying to make things as uncomfortable for them as possible, to embarrass them in public as much as possible."
Harris is hoping that the Nordstrom family will be embarrassed by the fact that the housing activists' funding request—$500,000—is roughly equivalent to the amount of business the corporation does in a half-hour, and about what it clears in a single day. It is also equal, in proportion-of-income terms, to a typical Seattleite's $3.50—less than what some people sprinkle in spare change to the homeless each month.
The Nordstroms aren't accustomed to being embarrassed, especially at a time like this. The new flagship store at Sixth and re-trafficked Pine is enjoying waves of shoppers and raves from the media (one local paper even published its floor plan). With corporate profits approaching $200 million a year and sales nearing $5 billion, more than a dozen new stores are being planned nationwide—including one in the decidedly un-hip Florida city of Tampa. Nordstrom is even on good terms with organized labor and the establishment media, two institutions that haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the company. Blake Nordstrom, one of six thirtysomething brothers and cousins who serve as $303,500-a-year co-presidents, is walking tall, too. He's the new chair of the Downtown Seattle Association, second perhaps only to the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce as this town's most powerful business-lobbying group.
Along with these good tidings, though, has come a steady series of troubles and scandals dating back to 1993. That year, numerous discrimination complaints from African-American employees and customers led the Black Dollar Days Task Force to bestow upon Nordstrom the "Bull Connor Award," named for an Alabama mayor who turned police dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights marchers during the 1960s. The company, already enduring cash-flow and stock-price problems, was lampooned, picketed, boycotted, and sued.
Then, just as relations with Seattle's African-American community began to warm, the subsidy scandal hit the press. A taxpayer-subsidized loan, courtesy of the US Department of Housing & Urban Development and the city of Seattle, was being used to help Nordstrom acquire the vacant Frederick & Nelson building in a swap with high-rolling Chicago developers. Another below-market-rate loan, this one sponsored by HUD's state of Washington counterpart and greased by political cronyism, bankrolled the Pacific Place parking garage (for which the city of Seattle apparently has overpaid by $23 million, and where Nordy customers enjoy city-subsidized, climate-controlled valet parking). A mysterious $20 million payment was made to Nordstrom from Pine Street Development (the private corporation that received proceeds of both the federal- and state-backed loans, as well as the city's $73 million check for the parking garage). Citizen activists activated. Federal investigators investigated. The state auditor audited. Norm Rice lost a Clinton cabinet appointment.
TROUBLE BEGAN TO FOLLOW Nordstrom throughout the country. In Norfolk, Virginia (a city with a black majority), African-American activists became incensed when Nordstrom tried to duck a promise to hire mostly poor people in exchange for receiving a taxpayer-subsidized loan to build a new store. (Feds blocked the loan, which the city summarily replaced with a loan of its own.) In Indianapolis, eyebrows were raised when the city borrowed $318 million to build a new Nordstrom-anchored mall. In Chicago, Nordstrom was derided after turning down a free building because its unpolished environs were "frequented by people who are not Nordstrom's kind of customer." (The company's later demands for a subsidized store on posh Michigan Avenue were angrily rejected by Mayor Richard M. Daley.)
Closer to home, in Spokane, widespread opposition to a $24 million HUD-backed loan, a street closure for Nordstrom, and a publicly funded shopping-mall parking garage swept a populist-minded outsider into the mayor's office. (Just last month, HUD investigators found that Spokane city officials violated federal rules, among other things, for withholding official documents from the public, including Nordstrom's subsidy-softened lease. The investigation may doom Spokane's HUD loan.) Taxpayer handouts have also laid the foundations for new Nordy-centered malls in Fort Worth, Kansas City, Miami, Providence, St. Louis, San Diego, and Scottsdale. Last April, Forbes called the "extraordinary concessions" Nordstrom has been reaping from government and developers alike "outrageous."
Despite competition from a flurry of local tragedies and national scandals, "Nordygate" has endured for more than three years. It's climbed the media food chain—from The Washington Free Press to The Stranger, from the Weekly to The Seattle Times, and finally to The Washington Post. Many prominent activists have weighed in—Rick Aramburu, Jordan Brower, Charlie Chong, Stan Emert, John Fox, Matt Fox, Nick Licata, and Brian Livingston among them. Young, green-minded activists formed TANG—Taxpayers Against Nordstrom Greed—a group that met in living rooms and marched through the streets.
HARRIS' REAL CHANGE picked up the ball in September, joining with the women's housing-advocacy group WHEEL to issue Nordstrom the $500,000 challenge. The activists asked company executives to match the half-million dollars of city money Mayor Paul Schell sunk into his effort to house all of Seattle's homeless women and children by Christmas (two weeks from now). Benefiting as it did from public housing subsidies, Nordstrom, the activists felt, had a duty to give something back to the community. "That money was supposed to help our neediest citizens, but instead it went to an upscale mall," Harris says. "That's wrong. That's an injustice."
Responding to a "Dear Nordstrom Family . . . " letter, Blake Nordstrom agreed to meet with Harris and WHEEL representatives on September 23. After a television camera was turned away and the number of activists allowed in Nordstrom's office was negotiated, Harris and crew stated their case. Nordstrom then made his, responding that the retailer is already committed to helping the homeless via organizations such as the Downtown Seattle Association and the Housing Resources Group, a DSA-founded nonprofit (see "Stealth Nonprofit," p. 14). The answer didn't satisfy Harris, who complained that Nordstrom gave only "vague" descriptions of those efforts.
As for what comes next, Nordstrom is unavailable for comment; spokesperson Angela Uhl stresses the company's "genuine concern for the well-being of all people," citing its donations to the Pike Place Market Foundation, United Way, and neighborhood projects such as the International District Village Square.
Harris and WHEEL, unimpressed, now plan to turn up the heat on Nordstrom as Christmas approaches. Activists are planning to dress homeless people in mall-friendly garb, send them into the new downtown store, and politely ask for help trying on clothes and sampling perfume—all the while not making a single purchase during the "shop-in." "We want to gum things up as much as possible while they're trying to make money," says Harris. "It's simple: The Nordstroms can set themselves up as people who really care about the homeless, or they can spend the holiday season having their image tarnished by the homeless."
Schell's $500,000 pledge, meanwhile, is already making a discernible difference. The money has helped open a 25-bed women's shelter in Belltown, create a 50-bed men's shelter on Harbor Island, expand the city's motel-voucher program, and boost the Salvation Army's emergency housing fund. Any money Nordstrom agrees to donate directly to homeless programs would further serve to close a 3,100-bed shortfall in city shelters—the gap between an estimated homeless population of 5,500 and a supply of 2,400 shelter beds. For all of his determination, Harris is not optimistic. He expects to have to extend the "Home for Christmas" campaign far beyond the holidays, and even at that holds out little hope of shaming the Nordstroms into giving back a portion of what they've proven so adept at taking from the public sector. "We've given the Nordstrom family every opportunity to respond in a positive way and come out of this looking really good, like heroes," he said last week. "They still have an opportunity to show that they care about homeless people in Seattle, but I'm not hopeful."