Before Mike and I lived in any new city, on any continent, we researched the area as best we could on the internet. We tried to find other expats who lived in the area so that we could ask them pointed questions about life in that city. We located grocery stores, bakeries, fresh markets, the local library, banks, and transit centers on a city map. If possible we also tried to locate information on crime statistics in a certain city.
Because we were heading back to Olympia, Washington, and we had only been away for seven years, we figured we knew enough about the area. Thus, we did no prior research. Before arriving we had planned to find something to rent in or near the downtown Olympia core.
Somehow, somewhere and without many people noticing, downtown Oly became a not-so-nice place to live. They even managed to turn my much-loved and often-visited Olympia Farmers Market into a tourist hot spot where the prices are now so outrageous that it is no longer a must-visit experience for many locals as it once was.
A walk through Sylvester Park in central downtown on a beautiful warm day had us walking through a maze of people, young and old, strewn all over the lawn, smoking and drinking. Many of the cities homeless now congregate on the lawns and under the trees. It was no longer a nice place to sit and enjoy a good conversation or a cup of coffee. When a city loses a place for families to play with their children, they have a problem.
Also, while walking around the city center Mike and I were shocked over the increased number of tattoo parlors we found spread throughout the city. When a city has more tattoo parlors than bookstores, they have a problem.
To better understand what happened here, I walked into several downtown businesses and chatted with the owners. I learned that over 80% of the downtown housing was now section 8 low income housing. Eighty percent is a major saturation. No one had been paying any attention to the housing infrastructure during the past seven years, and low income housing became the standard. When people run out of Section 8 assistance, they become homeless. Homeless people tend to remain where they are familiar and comfortable, and that equated to the downtown park.
We also noticed that there were no grocery stores to buy everyday staples in the city center. We wondered, where are people supposed to shop? We were told that they had to head out of the area to nearby Lacey or Tumwater to buy groceries or they had to pay the incredibly high end prices at the only grocery store in the area which is nearby but not located central to downtown.
Many of the businesses we had frequented and shopped in were no longer around. Many of the buildings are vacant and waiting for someone to come along and fill them. We learned that much of the turnaround was due to the type of people who fill the streets at night in Olympia because of the homeless situation and people no longer felt safe walking the streets at night. If people with money no longer want to dine at, shop in or even walk through your city center, how can one expect the restaurants and the businesses to thrive?
Is it too late for there to be a turnaround? Can something be done to lesson the number of section 8 housing options and to equal out the type of people they want to draw to downtown? In a special three part report in The Olympian entitled Taking Back Downtown Olympia, several people are reportedly trying to do just that. Will they succeed? I hope so. Olympia is after all the state capitol of Washington, and it should be a bustling, vibrant, fun and safe place to live. I hope they can make it happen.
Until they do we will be living further north in Bellingham, Washington, where the statistics and our research indicate Bellingham is one of the best cities in not only Washington to live in but also in the United States. We therefore have learned our lesson. Just because we are American and just because we think we know our own country better does not mean we shouldn’t be doing our research on a city or a location with as much depth and clarity as when we researched for a safe place to live on four other continents. The mindset really does need to be; once an expat, always an expat.