by Robert Herold
In case you missed it, a couple of months back the nationally televised program, Dream Drives, featured our fair city. And we looked good. Viewers were taken on a stroll down Sumner Avenue, our very own dream drive. Leafy and canopied, it winds through several blocks of turn-of-the-century mansions, a number of which were designed by Kirtland Cutter. The program's hosts took viewers into two of these homes. We met the current owners, learned about the history of the homes, came to know something of former owners and were shown how renovation and restoration can be mutually supportive. Viewers were then taken to Manito Park and shown around the Olmstead brothers' jewel. St. John's Cathedral towered over us from the background, lending dignity to this glimpse into Spokane's architectural history.
Conspicuously, our dream drive tour avoided making the right-hand turn at the west end of Sumner onto Cliff Drive.
One might have thought the swing from Sumner down Cliff Drive would be a no-brainer. Cliff Drive, after all, offers the best view of Spokane to be found. It's an overlook that matches anything that Queen Anne Hill in Seattle has to offer.
But instead of a carefully landscaped and bricked view point, such as can be found on Queen Anne (and in San Francisco, and in -- well, you name the city), our viewpoint is defined by two ugly trash cans. They sit there, right next to the new sign noting that this area is a park, founded, we learn, back in 1945. The cans are, of course, chained to the tree, their sides bent out of shape. Trash yet to be picked up often overflows from their tops, some of it having found a new home on the pothole-marred ground beneath.
Last year, when neighbors were out and about complaining about lewd, loud conduct along the drive, and most particularly on the overlook, one of our city's finest underscored the civic importance of the Cliff Drive vista by comparing it favorably in importance to our community's official "crown jewel," Riverfront Park.
This mess of a spot is one of Spokane's crown jewels?
Dream drives, we presume, aren't supposed to be magnets for people who don't know how to behave in public. But they come to Cliff Drive, day and night. Some residents in the area proposed to close the stretch of street to automobiles.
Enter our new city administrator, Jack Lynch. While some on the Park Board have grumbled about being bypassed by a heavy-handed administrator, Lynch did what needed to be done. He came up with a quick fix that respected the broader public's interest, did nothing to compromise the aesthetic look of the area, but did offer the prospect that we could at least control the uses of Cliff Drive to some degree.
Lynch ordered the city staff to place basalt boulders up and down the side of Cliff Drive, between the pavement and the cliff. Cars that previously could find a convenient hideaway no longer can do that. They must now stay on the road, where they are just all that more conspicuous.
We should applaud Lynch's decisiveness; but, at the same time note that, at best, his action can only be considered a temporary solution to a much larger problem.
So why do we tolerate this embarrassment? Why hasn't the City Council or the Park Board or some agency somewhere, in all these years since 1945, taken action to restore the garden, to landscape the stretch of road and to create a suitable overlook similar to what we see in any self-respecting city? Lack of vision? Lack of will? Bureaucratic snafu?
Park Board members will tell you that in the long run, plans are in the works to fix the problem. This brings to mind John Maynard Keynes' famous line about how in the long run we will all be dead. For a moment, set aside the compelling aesthetics argument. Set aside community pride. Set aside "crown jewel." The city government should fix the area immediately, if only to provide for public safety. Years ago, political scientist James Q. Wilson advanced his now famous "broken window" thesis. Wilson observed that deviant public conduct is drawn to places that have a look of abandonment. If your window is broken and you don't fix it, you are inviting in crime. Take care of how an area looks, and you will see crime drop.
New York City under Mayor Guiliani and Chicago under Mayor Daley have borrowed on Wilson's thesis to make a real difference. Street crime in those cities has dropped as attention to appearance has risen.
Daley, for example, has declared war on graffiti. It is reported that he drives around looking for it, and when he finds it, the city staff had better get it fixed. Visual blight in Chicago is no longer a joke.
But in Spokane, we can't even manage to fix a problem so obvious and manageable. And in our case, the sin is compounded by the fact that Cliff Drive should be the city's best viewpoint. Instead it may be our biggest civic visual embarrassment.