In the Time of COVID. Day 62
May 19, 2020.
Drawn Toward 1st Avenue: Seattle 1971-73 : Part 1
This evening while preparing dinner we listened to NPR All Things Considered. The story that struck home was about unemployment and housing insecurity. The person being interviewed has been trying to get through to his state unemployment office to file a claim so that he could gain some financial security. It’s taken him weeks to get a proper case number so that he can go to the next step of filing a claim. Each time he goes to the next step the phone disconnects with the message that the system is overwhelmed, try again later. He is desperate. His landlord is giving him until the end of the month to pay the rent or face eviction. He has a family. Will they have to move into a car?
I remember during the last financial collapse that people were being evicted en masse in Stockton, California and there were eviction squads who dumped people’s possessions on the curb. Tonight I was reminded of two events in Seattle in 1970 and 71 that were the beginning of a homeless crisis that still exists.
My Uncle Earl was a fireman. He was the skipper of the Alki Fireboat at Station Five on Alaska Way, below the Pike Street Market. In the early hours of March 20, 1970 an arson fire broke out at the Ozark Hotel on Westlake Avenue. Earl, along with a hundred other firemen, from several firehouses, came running. Hook and Ladder, hose teams, ambulance, the whole fire army. The Ozark had been constructed around 1900. The fire had been set with propellant in a stairwell and the structure was tinder dry. Before they could be rescued, 21 residents were either burned alive or fell to their deaths. 13 residents were injured. Of the injured firemen, Earl was one. He was near retirement age and hoisting bodies over his shoulder and carrying them down ladders took out his back. That was the last night he suited up for work.
The Seattle City Council and the Fire Chief went into heated closed door meetings and then held public hearings. By the end of it, they adopted what they Called the Ozark Hotel Ordinances. These new fire codes required fireproof stairwells and at least two exits. This caused a flurry of remodeling to meet code. In some of the pensioner’s hotels along 1st Avenue, it caused closure due to financial insolvency.
13 months later another terrible fire broke out at the Milton Apartments, 7 blocks from the Pike Market. In That fire, 12 residents died and 11 were injured. The cause was blamed on a smoker falling asleep. Again the City Fathers met. This time they strengthened the Ozark Codes. Now, unless hotels came up to code at once, they were either shuttered or all floors above the 3rd floor were condemned. This had a massive impact on the financially vulnerable elderly pensioners and a wave of homelessness began. That wave was exacerbated by the push for urban renewal. Seattle has not solved it’s homeless problem to this day.
Uncle Earl fell on hard times. Not long after he retired due to injury, his wife Evelyn died. When that happened, a deep family secret was exposed. During World War II, Evelyn’s sister was a bar fly, she went with all sorts of men. She had two children, a daughter and a son. They lived in one of those 1st Avenue flop houses. Earl and Evelyn got a phone call one night. Her sister was dead. She was beaten to death. Evelyn had never been able to have children. She and Earl adopted Michael, who was an infant. They did not take Michael’s sister.
Michael didn’t know he was adopted. He didn’t know he had a sister. When the truth came out, He drained the family savings and disappeared. He left his father a hateful note. Our family has never heard from him sense then.
Earl was beside himself with grief and remorse. I invited him to my place in the flats. He was a truly decent guy who had made a terrible decision that he could not make right. He needed to cry. He needed to weep and let his sorrow out.
When he showed up at my shack in the Flats he said that the place was a fire trap. That we should move. But, after several glasses of wine and a full belly of BBQ he leaned back and told me the whole story. Then he talked about my mom as a little girl. Much later, he passed out on the couch. In the morning he was embarrassed but took a cup of coffee and gave me a long, strong hug. It was the last time I ever saw him.
A couple of weeks later I moved. Some hippies were thrilled to take the place over. I warned them not to put anything too close to the wood stove. But, the very night they moved in, they stoked the fire and cardboard boxes near the stove ignited and the shack burned down. They got out alive but all their stuff was burned up. More homeless folk driven out by fire.