Railroad Redux: The stakeout, part II

New businesses seem to be having positive impact on the
downtown area; the same set of problems still persists, however

KennyBrown and J.J.Jensen
   One year ago, staffers at The Bellingham Business Journal spent a night monitoring activities on Railroad Avenue — long a haven for homeless people, street toughs, delinquents, drug dealers and users, prostitutes and other undesirable characters.
   After hearing countless tales from Railroad Avenue merchants of troublesome nighttime behavior by the street dwellers, such as blatant drug use, public drunkenness, fighting, harassment and vandalism, the staff members had to see the scene for themselves.
   The stories were true.
   During a four-hour period on a Monday night last January, the reporters came across, among other things, a street brawl, gang members taunting police, panhandling, and a crack pipe lying in the street.
   During the last year, though, the area has undergone some positive changes. New businesses have opened, and are keeping later hours; the liquor control board has shut down a problematic tavern; and the Downtown Renaissance Network has hired an employee to perform regular cleaning on the street.
   How much have things really changed on the block in the past year, though?
   According to some business owners in the area, problems still persist on Railroad after dark, but the situation is improving. Slowly.
   We decided to again check things out for ourselves.
   Though the weather on this Thursday night was cold, we were able, between rain and sleet showers, to get a good sampling of the nightlife.

8:15 p.m.: Positives, negatives
   Turning onto Railroad Avenue from East Champion Street, we see from our vehicle that the flower box outside Otion and the former Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce location is as deserted as a ghost town.
   This is good because this location has been identified by business owners as the popular new gathering spot for street people, who’ve been seen by retailers harassing customers, urinating in public, doing drugs, shouting profanities, and being a general nuisance to merchants and their patrons.
   On this night, however, on about a half-dozen visits, the area is void of vagrants. For the most part, it’s quiet. Almost tumbleweeds and crickets quiet.
   Off to a good start, we head south toward Everyday Music.
   Within seconds of leaving our car, we see a blue minivan pull into a parking space. A man in a hooded sweatshirt standing against the music shop’s wall heads to the van’s driver-side window. The two engage in a quick handshake and the loiterer quickly puts something in his pocket. The van drives off and the man hastily walks up East Magnolia Street.
   If these were two old friends who happened upon each other, they didn’t have much to reminisce about on this occasion.

8:30 p.m.: Walking the beat
   Approaching Avenue Bread and Deli, we see a police car parked at the curb and three men talking with a police officer on the sidewalk. The men, one dressed in a leather jacket, and two others in dirty ski jackets, are visibly drunk and slur their speech in conversation with the officer.
   The group is not threatened by the officer’s presence and the officer doesn’t appear to be breaking up trouble, just stopping by to see how the night is going.
   Surrounding the conversation are more loiterers. Two more men congregate in the entryway of Avenue Bread, and more characters wander around nearby.
   Navigating the half-block approaching the Little Cheerful Cafe requires dodging some people along the sidewalk. The street dwellers yell belligerently from time to time, dance around a bit, and probe passers-by, including us, with the casual question of “What’s up?”
   Although no one in the pack is outwardly threatening, walking through their territory raises an awareness of the environment and forces a tactful response to their volatile behavior, as it is uncertain if something could provoke confrontation.

8:31 p.m.: ‘Looking for a good time?’
   Despite the group of characters loitering outside, we’re pleased to see that the new Mallard Ice Cream & Café location at 1323 Railroad Ave. is hopping, with many tables filled with high school and college students laughing and socializing.
   As we continue south down the block, however, someone on the street is especially interested in our plans for the night.
   “Hey!…HEY!,” we hear a woman call to us from behind in a gravelly voice.
   We stop and are approached by a blonde woman in a dirty white jacket. She appears to be in altered state of mind, her eyes rolling from side to side in her head, like the old cat clocks with the rhythmically swaying eyes and tails.
   “Where you going,” she asks, as she tightly locks her arm around one of us and pulls herself close. “Wanna smoke out?”
   “What are we smoking?”
   “Lets take a walk,” she suggests.
   “Uh…I don’t know. We’ve got to go check on some things.”
   “What else do you want to do tonight,” she asks in a way that suggests interesting times may be in store for someone in her company.
   We duck into the Ranch Room, away from our new “friend.”

8:50 p.m.: A pecking order
   On the corner of Railroad and Holly, in the doorway of the Little Cheerful, two men and one woman are sitting, huddled out of the rain. The group looks to be in their mid-twenties, and will occupy that post for most of the night.
   The trio seems quiet but, as a girl (whom we later discover is homeless) in her late teens or early 20s, wearing a lime-green knitted hat and draped in checkered quilt, moves down Holly, the crew takes notice.
   “I’m not afraid of you,” screams the woman in front of the Little Cheerful.
   Provoking no response, she yells again.
   “Stay off my side of the street!”
   Without changing course, the homeless girl continues past the shouts and quietly heads toward Cornwall Avenue.

9:00 p.m.: Good times crew
   Much of the same crowd is still hanging out in front of Avenue Bread but the police are now gone.
   Walking through the heart of the scene a man yells at us from behind.
   “What’s up, guys?”
   “I’d sure be better if I had a bowl of weed,” he answers, expressing his boredom.
   In front of the group, we see the blonde woman from earlier who had offered us the opportunity for an interesting evening. This time, she’s sitting on a bicycle, leaning into the cab of an old white Ford pickup with peeling paintjob chatting with the driver.

9:15 p.m.: No place to go; some sobering honesty
   We decide to check the scene on Railroad’s neighboring streets.
   Heading up Holly toward North State Street, things are quiet until we near the YMCA. Outside, two police cars are parked. A man wearing a tattered tan jacket and straw cowboy hat is being led out of the building’s doorway in handcuffs.
   The man in custody is relatively calm, and the officers ask him if he was trespassing again. He answers yes.
   As he is being put in the back seat of the squad car, he asks the officers if they will take him to the hospital. They decline, saying he has no reason to go.
   Inside the YMCA, a group of climbers scaling the rock wall look on.
   As we continue walking south, we are soon greeted by an unusual sign.
   In the recessed doorway of Rudy’s Pizzeria one man is sitting bundled up in ragged winter clothes, while another is standing and holding a sign that reads, “Why lie, I need a drink.”
   The two panhandlers do not speak as we move past them. It’s debatable if their tactic to get a free drink will work.

9:30 p.m. Forgotten belongings, street sickness and a familiar face
   One block west of Railroad, in front of Key Bank, at the intersection of Cornwall Avenue and Holly Street, things appear quiet in all directions, except for a few bar patrons smoking outside the Ranch Room. A look down at the ground, however, tells us a different story.
   On the sidewalk sits a rank potpourri of items. Included in the mix are broken headphones, a half empty bottle of lotion, breath mints, a cloudy bottle of Gatorade, a packet of beef jerky and a crushed can of Steel Reserve malt liquor. There’s also vomit.
   Holding our noses, we turn our backs to Bellingham Bay and head north on Cornwall, where we recognize someone familiar.
   The young woman from earlier, in the lime-green knitted hat and quilt, who was shouted at in front of the Little Cheerful, is now turning in for the night in a doorway in the 1300 block of the avenue. She is wrapped up in her quilt with her head just barely visible. In an attempt to get more comfortable, she is rolling on the concrete but, between the building’s entryway light and her firm bed, it might not be easy.

10:20 p.m.: Cruisin’ for a bruisin’
   Things have been peaceful and calm for a while. Railroad is so quiet, in fact, that a tall, dark man in a green sweatshirt, huddled in the entryway to Avenue Bread, casually rolls a cigarette paper.
   He doesn’t leave any guesswork to what it is he plans to light up.
   “Gotta love weed,” he says as we walk past.
   The quietness on the block is suddenly interrupted as the beat-up old, white Ford truck from earlier rumbles down the street. Three men in their late teens or early 20s have the windows rolled down and are confrontationally shouting to people on the street.
   “What?!… What?!… What?!,” they bark to a handful of loiterers near the Little Cheerful.
   “Oh, that guy owes me 20 bucks…and I’m gettin’ it right now,” a woman grumbles angrily.
   The truck circles the block and finds a parking space. The woman approaches the passenger window and screams for the man to get out.
   Finally, he obliges her but she doesn’t come at him with any haymakers. Instead, she embraces him in a hug.
   Problem solved.

11:20 p.m.: Joint effort
   By now, Bellingham college students’ Thursday night beer bacchanal is well under way, the downtown streets teeming with liquor-fueled young women and men making the rounds between watering holes such as The World Famous Up & Up Tavern, The Royal, State Street Depot, The Rogue Hero, Downtown Johnny’s, The Nightlight and Ranch Room.
   It appears the street people who frequent Railroad Avenue’s nooks and crannies have ceded the block to the young revelers for the time being.
   Some illegal activities persist, however.
   Outside the Ranch Room a group of about eight or so partiers gather in a jagged circle and pass a rolled cigarette.
   Judging by its smell, though, it’s not tobacco.

The morning after: Police stats show promise
   Statistics from the past year point to a drop in problems for the area; in 2004 there were 981 calls for service to the Bellingham Police Department in the downtown section of Railroad Avenue. In 2005, this number dropped to 660, a decrease of about 30 percent.
   Chief of Police Randy Carroll said that with the facelift Railroad Avenue has experienced in the last year, from the exit of the problematic Station Pub to the remodel of the Little Cheerful Cafe and the addition of Starbucks, problems have moved northward down the avenue, away from Railroad Avenue and Holly. A remodel of Everyday Music, and the addition of a fence on the Railroad Avenue and Champion planter box (a common hangout spot), also shifted the popular loitering areas on the street. With the continuing improvements, Carroll said police have seen fewer people on the streets, at least during this winter’s rainy weather.
   Carroll does admit problems persist in the area. Drugs, prostitution, panhandling and homelessness still occur, but have been difficult to monitor, as the police department has seen a shrinking budget lead to reductions in staff through attrition over the past couple of years, he said. Despite the smaller staff, Lt. Scott Snider said the police department did add some extra nighttime foot patrols downtown from October through the 2005 holiday season. Also the department had officers working overtime to patrol downtown on periodic weekends in fall 2005, he said.
   In addition, there has been a camera system in place downtown for about a year now, but Snider said the department doesn’t have enough staff to monitor it all the time, making it only partially effective.
   As staff shortages have been a problem for the police department, Carroll said, attention cannot regularly be diverted to a small area downtown, while neglecting other parts of Bellingham. The result, he said, has been a less proactive approach to law enforcement, as resources have been directed more toward emergency calls.
   Things are looking up for this year, however, as the 2006 police department budget will allow for the addition of five new full-time officers, said Carroll. He said the new hires, which he hopes will be ready for service starting in early fall, will allow him to make up for some department losses, possibly allowing him to reintroduce bicycle and foot patrols downtown, something he said was quite effective in curbing trouble on the street.
   Also in the works are two new cameras, on the Railroad Avenue bus depot, and on the old Walton Beverage building, aimed at monitoring activity at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Champion Street.

Business owners are optimistic
   Although the conditions look to have improved this year, much like one year ago, there are still mornings when Railroad Avenue merchants arrive to work and are greeted by smashed windows, broken bottles, cigarette butts, drug paraphernalia, napping hobos, and worse in their storefronts.
   Now, however, say some business owners, mornings like that are a tad less frequent.
   “It certainly seems like we’re winning the battle now,” said Anne-Marie Faiola, owner of Otion.
   That’s not to say that Railroad is now Rodeo Drive, though.
   Lincoln Britnall, 29, an employee at Everyday Music, said the troubles still exist, he just believes business owners push problematic loiterers around the area.
   “It’s really just drunks, but it’s getting old,” he said.
   A frequent problem in the area, he said, is intoxicated people banging on windows and making noise.
   “The people on the street are really not dangerous, but they do hurt business,” he said.

Michael Strip

   Many customers, especially senior citizens, Britnall believes, are afraid to come to the shop because of the sordid activity that goes on in the area.
   While problems do persist, business owners can point to several positive developments on the avenue in the last year.
   Faiola said a new video camera, with a direct link to the police department, has been installed near the intersection, letting street people know their actions are being monitored.
   “Since the camera’s been installed, the difference has been like night and day,” she said. “They can look up and know someone’s watching them.”
   Elsewhere on the avenue, many business owners say they’ve noticed a decline in public drunkenness and a reduction in unsavory characters since the Station Pub, at 1309 Railroad, closed this summer.
   “When I’d come in at 11:30 at night, when the Station Pub was open, there would always be about a dozen people hanging out in front of their door. Now, usually there’s no one there,” said Michael Strip, a night baker at The Bagelry. “As far as I could tell it was their clientele causing a lot of problems, and the fact they’re not there now kind of tends to make me think that was the case.”
   Wendy DeFreest, co-owner of Avenue Bread, said the revitalization of the corner of Railroad and Holly, with its handful of new businesses, and new bustling vibe, has helped to rid the intersection of some street people.
   And, with the recent opening of Mallard Ice Cream, and family friendly businesses like Fiamma Burger and Bob’s Burgers & Brew on the way to the area, business people like DeFreest, Faiola and Strip believe Railroad will be even more unwelcoming to undesirable characters.
   “I think the merchants are making this a friendly place to come,” DeFreest said. These undesirable people won’t want to hang out with regular people. The more regular people we can get down here the better.”
   In the future, more new businesses on the avenue — especially near Champion Street — combined with a continued police presence and daily cleanup efforts, will likely contribute to making Railroad a friendly place for consumers and visitors, believe some business owners.
   If street people are completely removed from Railroad, some believe there are still bigger issues to tackle.
   “I don’t get what the excitement is about standing on a street corner, but maybe the police and city should do some social work and see what some of these kids want,” said Strip. “Obviously they want some contact with people their own age, and maybe there’s a better way for them to do it.”


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