After hearing concerns about people feeling unsafe downtown, a handful of city leaders and business owners braved the rain Wednesday night to take a walk together and show people there’s nothing to be afraid of on city streets or the Astoria Riverwalk.
“This is not a march. This is not a protest,” said David Reid, the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, who organized the walk. “This is simply a bunch of people taking a walk at the same time.
“We’re out there to say, ‘Hi,’ to people and just enjoy ourselves.”
Complaints about feeling unsafe have coincided with a more visible homeless population. Reid, however, did not draw a direct line between the homeless and what he has heard recently from residents and visitors about safety.
He believes the unease comes from a variety of reasons and from “a general sense that there are fewer people walking around downtown than one would think this time of year.”
Compared to the bustle in Cannon Beach on a summer night, he said, Astoria can feel like a ghost town.
“Remember this is not an attempt to change bad behavior, nor is it an indictment of anyone living on our streets,” Reid wrote in an email to around two dozen people who had expressed interest in joining him on the walk. “This is simply an attempt to show the good citizens of Astoria that it’s safe and pleasant to walk downtown in the evenings.”
But the presence of homelessness — and the discomfort people feel when faced with it — is at the root of conversations Police Chief Geoff Spalding has had in recent years with people who claim to feel unsafe downtown.
While the number of calls officers respond to that are related to homelessness remain high, the calls are for what Spalding describes as “quality of life crimes.”
“We’re not necessarily seeing crime against people walking down the Riverwalk, being attacked or assaulted,” he said. “Typically, it’s just loud or belligerent behavior, intoxicated behavior.”
Remove homelessness from the equation and there doesn’t seem to be anything else to cause people concern, the chief said.
“It’s not like we’ve had an increase in juvenile activity or alcohol issues,” Spalding said. “I think it is more a perception issue.”
Reid hopes the organized walks will develop a life of their own and provide people with both an outlet to socialize and help make downtown a livelier place in the evening.
Reid drew inspiration for the organized walk Wednesday from a similar campaign City Councilor Roger Rocka launched in the 1990s to assuage fears about downtown when Rocka was the chamber director.
But where Reid is mostly addressing perceptions of safety, Rocka said downtown Astoria in the 1980s and ‘90s was an unsavory place. There was a triangle of three rough bars, including one strip club, where restaurants like the Silver Salmon Grille and Fulio’s are located now.
“What you had in the evening was downtown streets were kind of filled with these guys shuffling around, some of them appearing to be inebriated, some of them appearing to be on drugs and people were just uncomfortable going down there,” Rocka said.
Rocka organized a group of men and women who would go downtown on certain evenings, walk around, maybe order a Coke or a beer at one of the bars.
“It had an interesting effect on some of the denizens of the area at the time,” Rocka said. “It was sort of like their mom had come to watch them and a lot of them would just scatter.”
Fast forward to present day. Bars still dot the historic downtown district, but have a very different vibe and live alongside restaurants, boutiques, antique stores and other shops. City sidewalks fill up for events like the Second Saturday Art Walk.
“This is by no means a parallel situation, but it is a situation where we’re hearing people are feeling a little uneasy,” Rocka said.
Since it appears to be the homeless that people are afraid of now, the walks Reid is jump-starting could give people a chance to find out more about someone’s situation and see what services that person might need.
“It can be a learning experience for us and the community,” Rocka said, adding, “We always fear things we don’t understand and sometimes our fear is not fact-based and I don’t know that it’s really that threatening downtown.”