Standing tall and proud, McMenamins Elks Temple Hotel and restaurant, in its final stages of renovation, is set to open in April with registrations already on the books.
Just down from McMenamins is Douglass Wheeler’s Terracrux Games on one side, Patricia Lecy’s Embellish Multispace Salon on the other, and the Theater District phase of Sound Transit’s Link Extension project is happening right in the center of it all, in this New Tacoma neighborhood.
“Most people would view [the neighborhood as] sketchy.” Lecy admits in a written statement. “It’s been a struggle to stay open.” She realizes that a neighborhood like Proctor or somewhere closer to UW Tacoma would offer benefits to her business, “but the grass is not always greener”. Anyway, she’d “rather be a pioneer,” she says, and looks forward to a change for the better with the grand opening of McMenamins.
Indeed, these projects are highly anticipated by many area residents and business owners, and this growth is likely to be positive for the future of the city, but the projects are resetting norms in this downtown neighborhood today.
Neglected for so long, a certain economic demographic with its usual chronic life circumstances and conditions like mental illness and drug dependence, resorts to the many nooks and dark corners of Tacoma’s downtown core, where, at least for one night, they have something to call their own.
It was in one such gathering place days before Thanksgiving, in a parking garage along Commerce Street, not a five minute walk from McMenamins, that Jisgogo Sha was stabbed to death.
Sha was a person unhoused. He lived unsheltered in this neighborhood. He could regularly be found along this two block stretch during the day and, insomuch as he and tens of others without a home could “live together”, they did, congregating in and around that garage at Commerce Street and 7th through the night. A block away from Tacoma’s Old City Hall, it would be his shelter that evening, but it was in this place on the evening of November 17th, that Sha sustained fatal knife wounds, and later died at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
For more than five years, Wheeler’s shop has been located on Commerce Street where he’d seen many times before, but never knew his name.
Wheeler had chosen this location for its proximity to the Stadium District and freeways, but “now I know that I didn’t do all the right research. This chunk of downtown has gotten the worse.” The garage is just doors down from Wheeler’s shop.
For people living this way, sitting and resting together, warming themselves by a fire, with others who know and understand what they had endured that day and what they would have to overcome the next, this is community. A subculture, sure — news reports indicate that Sha was murdered by a transient man like himself, Patrick Shenaurlt, someone he knew; and there’s a definite violence consistent with this subculture and the places they occupy, but a community too. That’s clear by their tendency to pool meager resources in ways that the average sheltered population would seldom consider.
But what’s happening now on Commerce Street has gone past neglect, and into practices that can easily be labeled cruel.
Just after Sha was stabbed in the garage, the once open space was locked down, and the old crowd no longer had a way in.
“When they finally put those gates down, so that it wasn’t hotels for the homeless,” Wheeler says, “that has been the biggest impact since I’ve moved in here, and it was a positive one.”
The extensive construction associated with the major renovation of the Elks building, the Link extension, and the locked garage gates have effectively scattered a vulnerable population.
An existing community of people: homeless, drug-addicted, and mentally ill — all traditionally underfunded by city, county, and state government — has been swept out by gentrification’s promise of revenue to city, county, and state government. For these entities, more New Tacoma development draws greater interest, care, and attention than the stabbing death of a homeless man. There’s violence and irony in the fact that these people have been displaced within an already unhoused status. As much as Shenaurlt is responsible for Sha’s death, so is the brazen affair between gentrification and municipalities.
Both shop owners express frustration at the resignation of the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, and the State of Washington, who should provide resources and coordinated care for this demographic.
Wheeler is confident that the system is broken. “People don’t have a place to go, and I’m not advocating for building free homes or anything like that, but for people who have mental or dependency issues, there’s not a clean place. There’s no path of assistance for these people. Mental health in this country is abysmal.”
He insists that the Elks renovation and extended Link transportation should generate revenue that to fund the community negatively impacted by these improvement projects. “Opening up downtown brings additional revenue, and that revenue goes into city government. It should immediately be turned around for the [needs of] citizens. That’s how it’s supposed to run.”
Anguish and desperation are palpable among those living outdoors, especially through the winter months. “Most of the time,” Lecy says, “this demographic is not consciously choosing to be this demographic.”
But they’re aggressive sometimes, and they will make themselves heard. Vandalism has been a problem. Wheeler’s shop windows were recently broken by a man wielding a tire iron. “He just went right down the line,” breaking his windows, Wheeler recounts, and afterwards, he removed his clothes and sat in the doorway of the shop, waiting for the police to arrive. “He had a pipe on him, too, and his lips were all curled back,” from his habit, Wheeler says.
“I’m here to run a business where families can come in and play games, and that’s quickly being eliminated. There were kids in here. Families were present that I know will not come back.”
Counting the cost of lost business, time, energy, and peace of mind, Wheeler says, “I would rather pay more in taxes to have appropriate mental health for people who legitimately need it, than paying $4100 to have my windows replaced for one guy that didn’t have a place to go.”
Wheeler’s lease ends next year in the spring, but he’s in discussion with his landlord about moving that date up, at which time Terracrux Games will move somewhere close to Tacoma Mall. He anticipates increased rent, but justifies the extra expense that should be offset by the greater average household income and population density. Plus, he says, “there’ll be 100% less people breaking windows out of the store.”
Drug abuse was prevalent in Spokane Wheeler grew up. He says he watched it tear people apart, so he knows what he’s looking at when he sees it. “Heroine needles were piled right in front of my store. There’s the spoon, there’s tie off band.” Wheeler’s son, just 12-years-old, found them.
Lecy and Wheeler say that it’s really everyone’s responsibility to insure neighborhood — homeowners, business owners, commercial tenants, and residential renters. Lecy suggests an end to NIMBY-ism, “and throw a smile their way, offer a sandwich, pay them to clean the windows of your business, tell them a joke, make the feel human and welcome.”
Lecy relays, whatever the demographic, “I feel when there are more people on the street there’s less crime,” and in a rare perspective, she expressed, “even the folks who sleep on the street at night appreciate us being there and sort of protect us.”
Of the attack on Sha, she believes the garage property owner is at fault, and generally places onus “on property owners who a lot of times have a great lack of regard for what the condition of their properties breed.”
The death of Jisgogo Sha is an inevitable outcome, and just one example, of our collective lapse of humanity, caretaking, and responsibility that results when we prioritize more for ourselves.
Carla Bell is a Greater Seattle area freelance writer focused on abolition, civil and human rights, reparations to those negatively impacted by social injustice; culture, and arts. Carla’s bylines appear in many local print and digital publications; and nationally at The North Star, Essence, and Ebony magazines.