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Originally published September 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 12:23 PM

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Danny Westneat

Seattle's most hated public art

It might be the first work of public art that's ever compelled someone to arm up with a 600,000-volt stun gun. It doesn't look like much...

Seattle Times staff columnist

It might be the first work of public art that's ever compelled someone to arm up with a 600,000-volt stun gun.

It doesn't look like much. Just a two-level bench of fiberglass, with legs made from steel plumbing pipes. It was designed to evoke an era when labor halls and working stiffs ruled Seattle's Belltown. The art bench juts slightly into the sidewalk along Second Avenue, intervening in the right-angle-orderliness of the urban grid. Its goal, says the city's art Web site, is to "engage passers-by physically and mentally, as well as visually, by providing places to sit and think."

"Well, it provides a place to sit and think where you might find your next beer," says Dave Markovich, owner of Belltown Barber nearby.

"Or maybe your next crack hit," says Joe Corsi, manager of Concept One, a 70-unit apartment building that opens onto the art bench and a bus stop.

Welcome to Seattle's most hated work of public art. Part of a decade-old "integrated streetscape" called Second Avenue Project, this art bench, between Blanchard and Bell, has become a magnet for an astonishing array of depraved activities. People smoke crack on it. Sell drugs from it. Fight around it. Pee or have bowel movements near it.

Even after a rain Tuesday, the art bench smelled of urine. It was strewn with empties and bags of half-eaten food. While I watched, two men used it to stub out cigarettes.

"It's no longer technically art," Corsi says. "It's a crack house. A bar without walls. This goes on day and night. Everybody — and I mean absolutely everyone who lives on this block or runs a business here — is sick and tired of it."

The art-bench crowd is so rough, Corsi says, that a month ago he bought a Taser-style stun gun. Now he sometimes waves it around, emitting a crackling, high-voltage sound, in order to clear a path to his building's front door.

Can all this be the art's fault?

Amazingly, some neighbors say it is.

Any place to sit here might draw the wrong crowd. There are other benches in Belltown. But something about this bench, with its faux-junk appearance, seems to invite contempt. After I saw it used as an ashtray, another man came by and inexplicably poured a soda on it.

Even if the art itself isn't to blame, what irks neighbors is that because it's art, it can't be moved without special permission from a city arts panel.

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"We've been trying to get rid of it for eight years," Markovich says. "But it's part of this Belltown art theme, so the city won't let it go."

The theory was that art can help design away crime. Make a place interesting and vibrant, it will be safer. Only it turned out drug dealers and pimps appreciate art, too.

The artist, Kurt Kiefer, wrote on the city's public-art Web site that he placed that bench and other objects on the Belltown sidewalk as a way to "remember the experiments and improvisations that ... continue to define the Denny Regrade."

Corsi says the city must end this art exhibit, or neighbors will do it for them.

"The bench is going to show up one morning on the mayor's front lawn," he said.

I don't know if that will do much for Belltown's crime problem, but it sounds like the spirit of improvisation to me.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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