Four times

I heard gunfire again the other night. It’s not something I want to get used to

by Wendi Dunlap


I heard gunfire again the other night while sitting at home in front of the computer. One pop sound, and this time I knew it wasn’t a car backfiring, or firecrackers, or any of the other loud noises that you occasionally hear in a city neighborhood. This time I knew. I knew because it’s the fourth time gunshots have been fired within two blocks of my house in less than a year.

You might guess that I live in a rough neighborhood. You’d be wrong. North Beacon Hill, for many years, was a working class neighborhood, largely populated by Asian-Americans who were limited by redlining to certain areas within the city. When I moved here 19 years ago, that ethnic character was only just beginning to change, and the North Beacon neighborhood was a quiet, friendly small town inside the larger, busier city. “The forgotten neighborhood,” I called it sometimes. No one came here unless they needed to — it’s not on the way to or from anywhere — and often it felt like the rest of the city didn’t even know we were here.

Of course, there were the occasional crimes, like any other place in the city. House break-ins, car prowls, drug deals, a guy stealing people’s landscaping. Sometimes worse things — assaults, domestic violence, and the like. Graffiti on some neighborhood walls showed that we were not immune from the presence of gangs. Nor were we immune from gun violence. As the editor of the Beacon Hill Blog, our local news blog for several years, I was aware of many incidents taking place here on North Beacon. In general, however, it was never the kind of place where you felt unsafe. Far from it.

One: the momentary delay

Oddly, this feeling of general safety hasn’t really changed. The four times I’ve heard gunfire near my house have very little in common. The first time, I was in my living room when I heard the first three loud pops. “Firecrackers?” I wondered in the momentary delay before a fourth pop. Behind that thought was another. “Gunfire?” But it really did sound like firecrackers. I put it out of my mind for what must have been all of 30 seconds, when I heard multiple sirens, all getting closer and closer. And that was when I realized I’d heard a gun after all.

Behind local pizza place Bar del Corso, two men got in an argument. One man took out a gun, shot the other man, then himself. (That was the delay I noticed.) The shooter died from his self-inflicted wound; the last I heard, the victim was expected to recover completely. It was horrifying, but was pretty clearly an isolated incident. The Seattle Times noted that the shooting took place in “a normally quiet and safe residential neighborhood.”

Two: stop and drop

Life went on. Then in December, my boyfriend was at my house with me. He was visiting from Pennsylvania, on his first visit to Seattle. A sudden loud CRACK!, much louder than the August shots, and I was flat on the floor, having not even consciously thought before dropping to the ground for safety. “That was a gun, it was a gun —” This shot, as it turned out, was only a few feet from my front door.

Again, the sirens came closer and closer as just about every neighbor within sight called 911, and the crowd that had been hanging out in front of my house in the first place got the hell out of the area. Again, I was shaking with adrenaline. Scott tried to calm me. This shot had been so much louder than the previous one that calm was difficult.

I watched the police lights in front of my house, and the officers walking around. I wondered if they would want to speak to us, though there wasn’t really anything I could tell them. I heard a shot, it was close, that was all I knew.

After a while, though, most of the police cars went away and the sense of tension outside died away. As it turned out, a gun did go off directly in front of my house, but no one had actually been shot. Someone, apparently, was just being really stupid with a loaded weapon. I was relieved, but still jittery.

Three: the high school senior

Three months later the sound of gunfire again echoed through nearby streets, this time in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon. “I was watching TV and I heard ‘pop, pop,’ ” a neighbor told the Seattle Times. She went to the window and saw 17-year-old Cleveland High School student Robert Robinson Jr. lying on the ground at Forest and 15th. As before, the Times noted the quietness of the neighborhood, and the disbelief of neighbors that such a thing would happen here.

The community mourned the loss. Everybody wanted answers. So far, there have been none.

Four: “car covered in blood”

Surely, that has to be enough. No, that’s the wrong word. It implies that there is some amount that is all right, and no amount of this can ever be all right. But at least that should have been the last one.

A month or so later, I heard the fourth shooting, late at night while I sat at my computer just as I am now. This time, I had no doubt of what I’d heard. The pop, followed by shouting voices scattering to the northwest, and a slammed car door. I knew. I heard sirens within moments, but the siren sound died a few blocks away. I went out to the living room, looked out the window, and saw a ton of police officers and flashing lights. They got here fast, and mostly quietly.

I turned on the police scanner and all the chatter was about the shot. One comment made my blood run cold: “…shot in the head.” I stayed in the living room for a while, watching the police. They put crime tape (pictured above) around most of a block, and two intersections. Several of them walked around, searching and pointing out what they saw. “…Shell casing.” “Blood drops.”

It was obvious by this point that anyone involved had gotten out of the area, so I went out to my porch. The officers walked by the front fence. “Did you see anything?”

No, I told them. I only heard noises.

“We hope there’s not a gun tossed here in your yard somewhere.” I wondered why they’d hope that. Wouldn’t they like to find the gun? I looked around and saw nothing.

After a while they had the information they needed, and they took the crime scene tape down. It didn’t seem to be a murder investigation, so I was a bit confused about the statement I’d heard over the scanner earlier. It turned out that a bullet did graze someone’s head, which was not quite what I had visualized (thank God), but an injury that can still produce a lot of blood.

Police searching the area found “a single shell casing in the street and a car covered in blood.” While I was happy that no one had been killed, it disturbed me that it was even that close. The bullet was fired only feet away from where I live, and where many neighbors live. Why? What reason could someone have to fire a gun at the gas station late on a North Beacon Saturday night?

No more

So that was four. Four too many. No more. The neighbors who live here want answers. It’s been only a week or so since that last incident, and I don’t know if anyone’s found any specific answers to the gas station shooting, or any answers to the death of Robert Robinson. All of the gunfire could be unrelated, a sad coincidence in a small area. (The alley shooting in August was almost certainly unrelated, as far as I know. The others — I have no idea. Were the folks playing with a gun in December the same ones who fired one again last week? Did they have any connection with the drive-by killers? Will we ever know?)

I am hearing a few people on the neighborhood mailing list talk about suddenly feeling uneasy here on the Hill — in some cases, people who have lived here for decades. They are starting to think, even a little bit, about moving. I am not to that point. I still feel as safe as I can ever feel.

I know well that danger can be found even in safe neighborhoods, and moving doesn’t necessarily solve anything. When I was a child, one evening we were all watching tv in the living room when there was a loud sound and the window glass broke. I remember being very frightened. My parents told me that someone had shot at the window. A B.B. gun, they said. Someone driving by in a car, shouting and laughing, had fired at the picture window, as if it was nothing. And this — this was in North Seattle, in a “safe and quiet” neighborhood where people probably congratulate themselves for not living in “scary” Southeast Seattle.

So the only answer I can find for these things is that people (some) are awful. And those people can be anywhere. Other people (most, I suspect) are wonderful, and those people can be anywhere too. Many of them are here on Beacon Hill, and they are the ones who define this neighborhood. The shooters may or may not live right here on North Beacon, but by what they have done they’ve forfeited any claim to being “neighbors.” They aren’t making the neighborhood a better place. I hope the rest of us are stubborn enough to keep doing that instead.

I write this to convince myself that we will.