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Completely Repellent 

How can we expect people to find constructive uses for space that wasn't built for them?

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

It was one of those idyllic holiday scenes. A Norman Rockwell moment of the sort Spokane loves to conjure around the holidays.

Last weekend, I watched a father and daughter walk hand in hand down Wall Street. The daughter had her face scrunched up, asking a question I couldn't hear. I reached earshot in time to catch her father's reply: "I think they're called 'mosquito boxes.'"

Not the conversation I expected.

click to enlarge baumgarten.jpg

"Why do they make that noise?" the daughter asked. "It hurts." The father squeezed her hand and began telling the story of high-pitched, noise-making machines that only young people can hear, and how local property owners had installed them to shoo away "the street kids."

Except they don't just affect street kids. We know this. And though people outside their mid-20s aren't supposed to be able to hear the piercing shriek, here I am, almost 34, and my ears bleed every time I walk past one.

These painful little boxes went on sale globally in 2006. Spokane got its first unit in 2008. They are wildly popular in the UK; on the continent, though, the Council of Europe called for a ban on the devices in June 2010, saying they amount to a form of torture.

We need these devices, we are told, because of pervasive antisocial behavior.

As of April 2013, though, only about 100 mosquito boxes had been sold in America. I walked around downtown the other day and counted at least five here. Can hooliganism in Spokane be so bad that our city should account for 5 percent of America's market for youth repellents?

Maybe we've just taken the easiest, narrowest course.

When you plot the locations on a map, mosquito-equipped buildings make an L-shape around the STA block, which fits the narrative that our Plaza is the hellmouth from which all urban ills flow. But actually walk to the corner of Sprague and Howard — with not one, but two mosquitos — and you'll see a more complicated scene.

From there, look southwest to find Bank of America's homely concrete parking garage. Northwest, see Bank of America tower itself. It's prettier, but there's no street-level retail at either location and there's a skywalk connecting the two, so workers can spend as little time on city sidewalks as possible. Northeast now: the surface parking lot where Spokane's oldest block was demolished in 2005. Look east-southeast, and — yep — there's the vacant, oft-urinated-upon Ridpath. Now scan westward again and gaze upon the Symons building where our painful little mosquitos perch. Symons retail spaces make up less than 15 percent of the possible store frontage on the four streets leading to that intersection. Everything else is car parks, derelict buildings and cloistered office towers.

There's almost nothing in any direction that was built for people. How can we expect people to find constructive uses for those spaces? We can't. But the answer isn't noise machines.

Now head directly across Riverside from the Plaza. The street has enough retail to engage walkers from Lincoln to Stevens. No surprise: Mosquitos aren't needed. Go one block farther north to Main and you're in the heart of our shopping district, which is quickly filling in to encompass the entire breadth of downtown, Monroe to Division.

It's proof: Those horrific screeching boxes aren't a solution, they're a repellent. Repellents don't fix problems, they push them away. And just as often, they create new ones: like sad little girls in adorable coats.

No, the fix for downtown is returning each street, block-by-block, to person-centered uses. It's a big job and will probably take the work of a generation.

Let's begin by getting rid of those evil-ass boxes. ♦

Luke Baumgarten is a co-founder of Terrain, the founder of Fellow Coworking and former culture editor of the Inlander. He tweets @lukebaumgarten.

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