A Visit to the Jungle, A Year After the Murders

The greenbelt shows some signs of improvement, but still suffers from neglect.

There are bright spots to Ed Murray’s Jungle cleanup.

Off the Holgate Bridge, Parks and Recreation opened a small farm, two acres of a family garden. The trees–pears, cherries, plums, a nut producing walnut and a big, beautiful willow–survive. You can see it as it is, a food forest.

But the Jungle is restless. The city’s approach is meant to be a CPTED–crime prevention through environmental design – project. In the woods and along the freeway, Parks, SDOT and WADOT cleared brush on 33 acres.

North on the Mountains to Sound Trail, you’ll find the hillside mown. Trees are limbed shoulder-to-head high, forest floor cleared of some debris. Sword ferns and other natives got chopped. You can see the lay of the land, in the light of the day.

South of Beacon Avenue, it’s not cut back so much as across the way. Spots open near homes. The access road has more gravel than it had. But old man’s beard clogs trees, roots are big as bowling balls. Hemlock and blackberry, knotweed and ivy cover up ground. There’s a stand of madrones down from the gate. Somebody chain-sawed bigleaf maples for a view, and left the slash to bramble and junk.

Winter is an odd time for this sort of work. You can’t see much on the ground, covered by leaves, branches, twigs, cane. After the cleanup, stuff is scattered about, smashed plastic, metal, rags, glass, small personal items, a blanket, toys. Bags of trash are left on the hillside. An open latrine offers a spectacular view of the Mountains to Sound Trail, West Seattle, and the mouth of the Duwamish River. Near I-90, dozens of camps were cleared. One has six foxholes. Another shows signs of narcotics.

I worked with the Nickels and McGinn administrations in The Jungle. I know these woods, the policies and practices around them. Now that homeless camps are being cleared in Ballard and Eastlake, and from “The Field” – that once grassy spot of state land in north SoDo – the shuffle of poor people will begin again in earnest.

The Field is an annex of The Jungle. It’s where many ended up who’d lived under I-5 and on the west slope of Beacon Hill. The decision to clear came after news broke of six teenage girls raped and trafficked, there and at a camp in the Dearborn Cut. They were regularly abused. Two men have been arrested.

The city’s approach to The Jungle and its residents is piecemeal, marked equally by a desire to help and haphazard execution. On the one hand, a navigation center to transition people into homes is coming to Little Saigon. On the other, shoving people from place to place isn’t much of a trade. There’s a lot of space between the mayor’s office and where those girls were raped.

Orders come from Ed Murray’s special public safety adviser, Scott Lindsay. February, 2016, after I met with the City Council about The Jungle, Scott gave me his card. When I called with news three weeks later, he asked, “Why are you calling me now?” He didn’t have much to say.

Two consultants met with me and SoDo business people last summer. They were hired to study street ends on waterways, then got tasked to do The Jungle. They didn’t follow up.

The Office of Sustainability and Environment – nominally in charge of Seattle’s environmental programs – isn’t found in the East Duwamish, the Dearborn Cut or the northern valleys. Fall, 2015, a rep returned a call, she said, “We’re committed to the East Duwamish.” The Department of Neighborhood’s last district coordinator was directed not to be involved in The Jungle, whereas two preceding coordinators under different management had actively researched conditions.

The Seattle Police Department can’t be so easily dismissive. A policing model put in place into 2012 had a dedicated officer from the South Precinct, who knew the wood and its people. After an April 20 demonstration at Mike McGinn’s house by activists opposed to cleanups, a sweep south of Holgate was cancelled. With it went engagement in The Jungle. Over the next two years, retirement and reassignment drained institutional knowledge of the East Duwamish. Without a strategy, Seattle would react to conditions on the ground, rather than plan for them.

While Ed Murray transitioned to mayor over four months – November, 2013 to February, 2014 – the Seattle Fire Department twice refused to put out fires caused by exploding propane tanks off the Bayview public stairs. A witness reported they would not proceed without the SPD. When the cops arrived, they wouldn’t go down there, either. The site is easily accessible. Flames burnt a stand of bigleaf maples. Later, the city and state brought heavy equipment onto the access road to remove a large encampment. The Jungle would be neglected for almost three years.

Community police teams from the East, West and South Precincts would seem to be involved, as they overlap the neighborhoods affected by The Jungle. Yet, this is a place of borders, an administrative no-man’s-land. The city promised at a public meeting – after Donnie Chin’s death in July 2015 – more patrols in Chinatown/ID. Events along Dearborn and graffiti in Little Saigon suggest they could be more effective. Any given morning, you can buy drugs, hire a prostitute, shake someone down.

A cop confirmed weapon sweeps didn’t happen in the latest cleanups. Why? Police know the weapons are there. At last year’s trial of Jungle gangster Black Long Truong, testimony revealed he told his guys to stash their guns in the Jungle as the heat came down. An informant turned in a pistol found buried. I turned over to police five large weapons, including a crossbow, found on October 13, 2013. I own a Colt revolver from the woods. A weapon sweep should be part of any cleanup.

People still sleep here. Some pay rent to dealers: extorting money from Seattle’s poor is a business opportunity. The gang who ran junk before last year’s murders still does, despite other crime, outreach or sweeps.

A year after the I-5 shootings, can Seattle put the pieces together? This sweep may be another flash in the pan, while the pieces play out in a dangerous dance.

Craig Thompson has received Seattle’s Denny Award and other civic honors for public safety and environmental work. He lives on Beacon Hill with his wife and four cats.