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The Rainier Chamber’s Crime Fighting Spree: Harnessing Social Capital

 “Dear Sir: In donating the Remington electric typewriter to us, you have added a spoke to the wheel of justice.”

-- Jean French, Director, Rainier Community Action Center

 Closed until further notice....On December 10, 1973, in the middle of Columbia City’s holiday shopping season, Ellen Burris’s jewelry store was robbed. Five men, two of them armed, entered the store at closing time, told Burris and a customer to lie on the floor, and proceeded to fill a pillowcase with watches and rings from the store’s display cases. Then they took the cash drawer out of the register and grabbed the customer’s purse; their total haul was $12,000. Burris had already lost $10,000 in two earlier robberies that year. This was the last straw -- a month later she closed her doors for good, after 26 years in business.

David Suffia, writing for the Seattle Times, placed the closing of Rainier Jewelers in the context of a neighborhood “awash with crime and fear,” where elderly people were “afraid to walk the streets, even in daylight,” and, according to the local bank manager, “the hoods are driving the merchants out.” Some might have questioned this histrionic characterization of the neighborhood, but no one could deny that crime was up: in 1963 there had been two robberies in Columbia City; in 1973 there were 53.

Several factors contributed to the increase in crime: the “Boeing Bust” of 1969-71 had hit South Seattle hard, and the resulting exodus of white middle class residents had weakened a once-stable community. Some people worried that the South End’s concentration of low income housing had brought more poor – and possibly desperate – people into the neighborhood. And certainly ill-planned low income housing developments such as Greenwood Gardens near Holly Park had become havens for criminals.

At the same time, a decline in police manpower had left local residents and businesses to fend for themselves – and they were trying. Rainier Jewelers had a button behind the counter that sounded an alarm at Grayson and Brown Hardware next door, and according to the Times article, “police recently responded to a robbery in progress and found merchants armed with sticks and baseball bats waiting for the robbers to emerge from a store.”

But the merchants knew baseball bats weren’t the answer to their crime problem. Two weeks after the robbery at Rainier Jewelers, the Executive Board of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce met to discuss the matter, and in particular to identify strategies for getting more help from the City. Thus began a long-term, multi-pronged anti-crime campaign headed up by local business leaders determined to keep their community – and their customer base -- from slipping away.

It seems worth pointing out that these were not disenfranchised members of the community who needed to learn how to access the levers of power. These were established citizens who, in the words of social scientist William Lyons, “had long records of accomplishment and reputations in the community and downtown as serious and responsible civic leaders in the Rainier Valley. It was this long-term commitment to civic responsibility that constituted a form of social capital.” Social capital, Lyons explains, “is a form of stored reciprocity”: a network of connections among members of a community who have lived and worked together long enough to develop mutual respect, trust, and a sense of responsibility for each other’s fate. 

The Chamber members who joined forces to fight crime in the early 1970s had this kind of relationship with community leaders across the Rainier Valley, and, in some cases, among decision makers in government. They also knew how to wield the tools of the business world: colorful charts to display information, Remington electrics to pound out press releases. Many businessmen got involved in the Chamber’s various anti-crime activities: Sam Shoel, Lou DeFranco, James Wasson, Virgil Fox, Clay Yost, and John Flaherty, publisher of the local newspaper. But one of the most formidable figures in the fight was a woman: Jean Vel Dwyk.

The granddaughter of a Dutch immigrant who worked his way across the country from New York City to the Rainier Valley, Jean Vel Dwyk had attended Whitworth Grade School and Franklin High. She went to work for Allstate Insurance at the age of sixteen, “not giving them my true age.” By the time she left the company eleven years later, she says, “I supervised numerous departments. Because I could not be a manager due to the personnel code, which required all managers to be male, I took a newly designated position, ‘supervisor of supervisors’ -- training the managers.” 

Vel Dwyk’s rapid rise at Allstate was not typical of women in this male-dominated field – most women in the insurance business (or any business, really) were stuck in low-level clerical jobs with little hope of advancement. As president of the National Association of Insurance Women, Vel Dwyk worked to change that, both by promoting professional development opportunities for women, and -- perhaps more importantly -- by addressing their male bosses. “I went around and spoke directly to the heads of companies and brokerages in 33 cities in the United States to… tell them that we needed them to give us a pull up if we were going to push our women to get themselves better educated, do a better job in their position, and to be recognized for it.” Vel Dwyk’s own career served as a clear challenge to long-held assumptions -- embedded in personnel codes throughout the industry -- about what women were capable of.

In 1959 Vel Dwyk struck out on her own as a real estate agent (changing the spelling of her name to “Vel Dyke” for professional purposes). She might not have heard of the notion of “social capital,” but her charisma, hard work, and can-do leadership meant that she was producing and banking it at an impressive clip. “Well, as a businessperson – in real estate, it’s just a natural that you have to be outgoing. You have to communicate with people, and you have to make yourself visible and aware, and just meet as many folks as you can, and tell them what you have that they might be interested in, or how you might want to help them at some time if they care for that help, or what you might need from them.” When she joined the Rainier Businessmen’s Club, she was one of its only individual women members. Later – after the organization had become the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, she served as its first female president.

The activities of the Chamber at that time reflected the members’ desire to socialize, network, promote their businesses, and improve their community. In the 1960s and ‘70s they had luncheons and dinner dances, sponsored the annual Rainier Pow Wow, elected Seafair Princesses, and worked on projects like installing a pedestrian bridge over Rainier Avenue at Franklin High School and closing Seward Park’s outer loop to automobile traffic. That last project drew a certain amount of flak. “To this day,” says Vel Dwyk, “there are a couple of people in Rainier Valley that won’t talk to me – no kidding! Because they thought that was a crime.”

The Chamber also tackled thornier issues, like the concentration of low income housing in Southeast Seattle, which they felt had a negative effect on the surrounding communities, and in particular on local businesses. And they tackled the complicated, ongoing issue of crime.

The Chamber had to walk a fine line when they spoke about crime in the Rainier Valley – they didn’t want their complaints about, say, the slow police response to 911 calls to contribute to the public’s impression of Southeast Seattle as a crime-ridden war zone. That impression – often exaggerated in the press -- was just as bad for business as the actual crime rate. Lou DeFranco’s 1974 letter to the Seattle Times reflects some of this frustration:

Your recent article… concerning [a] Rainier Valley robbery is certainly erroneous and damaging to our area. Your article refers to the fact that the robbery took place at LaCantina Tavern at 8601 Eighth Avenue South which is hardly in the Rainier area. I am sure you are well aware that 8601 Eight Avenue South is in South Park and should be so indicated. Crimes that have been committed along the freeway - airport area as well as along Hiway 99 South and in South Park have time and again been referred to as happening in the Rainer Valley, and as an insurance agent we are having much difficultly in keeping people insured in our area as a result of this bad publicity. We are not trying to minimize the problems that we have however, it would seem to me that you ought to correct your articles so that in the interest [of] truthful newspaper writing you place the crimes where they actually happen.

The battle over perceptions of crime was a minor one, though, compared to the Chamber’s mobilized effort to fight the real thing. After the December 1973 Executive Board meeting, Chamber President Jean Vel Dwyk met with Mayor Wes Uhlman, requesting that more police officers be assigned to the Rainier district. After the meeting, an increasingly pointed correspondence between the two resulted in the temporary assignment of mounted police officers to the Columbia City business district. “Frankly,” the mayor wrote at one point, “I do not understand what your organization expects from my office other than continued direction to the Seattle Police Department… to work with you in solving the problems of crime in your community. None of the powers or authorities granted to me as Mayor make it possible for me to simply eradicate a complex problem at the local level by executive decree.” Unsatisfied, the Chamber broadened its efforts.

They turned Ellen Burris’s shuttered jewelry store into the Rainier Community Action Center (RCAC), where coordinator Jean French distributed public safety information and displayed local crime statistics on large color-coded charts so the public could see the latest trends. French also organized Block Watch groups (which were credited with a sevenfold decrease in crime in one Rainier Beach neighborhood) and oversaw a revolutionary Court Watch program.

The Chamber held public meetings with City Councilmembers and the Police Chief, demanding action on the crime issue. (Here again, the collective social capital of the Rainier Chamber ensured that officials would show up at such meetings when they were invited.) Early on, Chamber activists had identified repeat offenders as a major source of criminal activity, and this was the focus of their most well-attended public meeting. Jean Vel Dwyk explains:

We went to the police and said, “Why are you not solving our problem? You need to get these people off the streets.” And they said “Well, it’s not us, it’s the prosecutor.” And then we went to the prosecutor and said, “The police say that you’re not willing to take these cases.” And the prosecutor said, “Well, that’s because the courts [are] just letting them go anyhow, so why would we waste our time with this when the judges aren’t giving us any kind of support?” So then we went to the Juvenile Court, and they said, “Well, Superior Court gives us our direction,” and then we went to Superior Court -- you know, we just went all the way up the line, until one day we said, this is ridiculous! We need to get these people together -- in front of the public.

So [we called] a huge meeting. We got the prosecutor, the head of the judiciary, the head of the Juvenile Court, the police, everybody there. And it was a great meeting. I think I moderated it, as a matter of fact. And it was a great meeting because [they] couldn’t give us an excuse for what was going on. [When they tried], one of the others would correct that. We had studied this enough that we could say, “Well, Mr. Prosecutor, didn’t you say that this happened in that case? Could you explain that what’s going on here?” We had a marvelous series of meetings, but that one big meeting was the peak, I think.

The RCAC’s Court Watch program was designed to look into – and hopefully influence -- the sentencing patterns of the Superior Court.

Sentencing debates raged in the newspapers: columns with headlines like “Who is more important, criminals or people?” reflected the public’s frustration with judicial leniency. On the other hand, Judge Donald Horowitz told the Times that “prison is not the answer to providing public safety,” and pointed out that “98 percent of all prison inmates come out of prison and ‘are worse when they come out.’” Horowitz believed that probation was “more effective than prison at stopping repetition of criminal activity.”

The Court Watch program provoked alarm in some quarters – a Seattle Times editorial expressed concern that “an element of vigilantism may develop” -- but the RCAC proceeded with its plans, assigning volunteers to attend trials and report back on the outcomes of various cases.

Eventually the Court Watch program included an in-depth statistical analysis of the sentencing patterns of individual judges. According to an RCAC press release, “The case records were turned over to evaluation teams after substituting code numbers for the identity of the judges and the convicted criminals.” Co-chairs Buzz Anderson and Jean Vel Dwyk “developed a rating system which they feel is highly objective,” taking into account “the actual crime committed… the past criminal record and conditions of probation, if applicable.” Five hundred criminal cases were reviewed by program volunteers.” When the numbers were released two years later, Horowitz and seven other judges were deemed “unacceptable.”

In judicial elections later that year, according to Rainier Community Action Center President James E. Wasson, every one of these “unacceptable” judges was defeated, and seven of the eight candidates endorsed by the Court Watch program were elected.

In November 1976, James E. Wasson received a letter from the King County Superior Court. “The debate will rage among lawyers and others as to what sentencing attitudes ought to be,” Judge Jerome Johnson wrote. “Regardless of such debates, I personally believe that the efforts of your group have resulted in dramatic influences in the handling of both adult and juvenile correction matters. Many of the recommendations made by you after the long study at Juvenile Court were considered carefully and resulted in changes. The robust discussions alone in the community have been beneficial.”

While the Chamber (and various offshoots such as the RCAC) certainly enjoyed victories such as this, it is difficult to pinpoint the direct effect of its various efforts on the crime rate in Columbia City. Their advocacy did result in some increased patrol coverage in Rainier Valley business districts, and they supported the Police Department efforts to get better radio equipment so officers could respond to calls faster. These were probably among the many factors that contributed to the lowering of the crime rate in the Rainier Valley (at least until crack arrived in the Rainier Valley ten years later – but that’s another story!). 

What is clear, however, is that the members of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce successfully used their social capital to raise awareness about the problem among residents, merchants, and elected officials. In William Lyons’s somewhat academic language, they subscribed to “a story about [their] community” that “assumes a capacity to solve problems.” In plain English, we might say they felt responsible for their community, and empowered to act on its behalf. And collectively, they had the connections, energy, and resources to make a difference.

-- Mikala Woodward