I sometimes wonder if the people in charge of and concerned about downtown Spokane live in the same downtown Spokane that I do. If you based your knowledge of Spokane on the comment threads of local news outlets, letters to the editor and the loudest opinions within business leadership, you’d probably believe that our core is positively overrun with hoodlum youth, aggressive and dangerous panhandlers, and all-purpose chaos. On the contrary, while I do get asked for money during maybe 15 percent of my outings downtown, I don’t witness any of this behavior at a noticeable level. I notice that there are people around, on a good day, who are up to all types of things. There are business men walking five abreast on the sidewalk with coffees, people on cell phones, shoppers laden with bags, young people cradling either guitars or puppies, skaters, people in electric wheelchairs dodging through the sidewalk traffic.
In short, there are a wide variety of humans co-mingled in one space. They don’t all look the same, they don’t all share the same values, and the day-to-day of their lives vary wildly. This is as true next to River Park Square and in Riverfront Park as it is at the STA Plaza. However, the characterization of the Plaza’s inhabitants and users casts bus riders as dangerous, poor (which is bad and probably also their fault, right?), and a nuisance to polite society. I have a hunch that the critics of the Plaza are comprised of the group least qualified to have an opinion on the matter: people with cars who almost never ride the bus. I tend to agree with what Bruce Nourish pointed out in his Seattle Transit Blog post about the Plaza feud: “What really ails Spokane’s retail plutocrats is not the people of the Plaza, but their own ignorance."
Part of my ongoing frustration as a decades-long STA patron is people’s attitude toward bus ridership. Their complaints about slow service, or a lack of service in their area, or lack of connections make up a self fulfilling prophecy. Without the patronage of more people in Spokane, equalling more money for STA’s operation, the services cannot improve. More people ride the bus than ever before in Spokane now and it’s due to many factors. And they are all kinds of people representing a cross section of the bottom 80 percent of income earners in the area. Here are some photos and short interviews that I conducted on Wednesday, Aug. 20 around 3 pm on the south side of the Plaza. I hope that for those who are ignorant about bus ridership in Spokane or in general, these examples can show you that there really isn’t anything to be afraid of. After all, can you read while driving or have an undistracted conversation with your kids or friends?
Jarrod commutes to Cheney for both work and school. He said that, “The only bummer [about taking the bus] is that it takes longer... but that’s what books and smartphones are for.” Overall he describes STA as a good transit system. “They stop frequently. You don’t have to walk too far to find a spot.” As for the Plaza’s downtown location, he wouldn’t change it. “It is literally in the middle of everything.”
On Wednesday, Scott was heading out the the VA. He said that he takes the bus at least six times a week, mostly to appointments. His favorite aspect of riding the bus? “It’s really convenient, pretty close to where I want to go.” He, too, had a book with him for company on the ride. Other than putting up with the occasional crying baby, he doesn’t mind taking the bus. He was familiar with the concerns about the Plaza. “A lot of kids and homeless come here, but they will be around no matter what, no matter where it is."
Khaled takes the bus to and from work every day. “I have a good time and the people are fun," he said. “This is a good place, because you can learn how to go anywhere from downtown."
When I told Traci I was taking pictures to show that bus riders are just normal people, she laughed and agreed. “It’s just a big pot of everyone here,” she said. On Wednesday, Traci was on her way to the Maple CHAS clinic, but she takes the bus anywhere she needs to go for the most part. I asked her to describe the Plaza in three words. “Not that bad!”
Steven was on the way home from taking the placement exams at SFCC when I talked to him on Wednesday. He doesn’t take the bus often, but said that the downtown location “seems to be working.” His only complaint was that the bus takes a while, but that he’s glad it’s “fairly cheap to ride."
Mohammed takes the bus anywhere he needs to go in town. On Wednesday, he was even getting ready to move from an old apartment to a new one using the bus. He didn’t seem discouraged by this task and said, “It is a great bus! I love to be able to use it every day.”
With Mohammed was Mahadi, who didn’t want his photo taken. He was on his way to his school, just across from the Riverside entrance of the Plaza, the Spokane College of English Language. He doesn’t have a car, like many other bus riders and me. He said, “It is a great thing that this city has the bus because all the people depend on it."
Sam was about to catch the bus into Browne’s Addition to go to Rosauers, one of the only grocery stores near downtown, when I asked her about STA. She takes the bus almost every day and described it as loud. “It can be kind of sad sometimes. But it also opens people up for conversations. Like, do you want to talk for 20 minutes? And I guess that can be a good thing."
Bret has been riding the bus for 10 years. On Wednesday, he had just finished up working downtown. He was very familiar with the ongoing disapproval of the Plaza from certain business interests in the city center. He said, “Moving it isn’t a solution. It’s just an easy target. [The critics] have to blame their poor business acumen on something and right now it’s the homeless and the street kids. But where else do they have to hang out?” He pointed out that as a business person, he likes having the Plaza right in the middle of things because it brings people, many of whom are customers, to the businesses who rely on them for success.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Spokane," he said. “But in some ways, Spokane is still really in an early 20th century mindset. The 1950’s aren’t coming back."