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Artist hopeful, but understanding if protesters ‘need to destroy’ East Precinct art

"Neighbors," 1986, is an art installation in the lobby of SPD's embattled East Precinct; it was created by artist Diane Katsiaficas. (City of Seattle)

The artist who created an installation called “Neighbors” for the lobby of the Seattle Police Department’s embattled East Precinct is OK if the work gets destroyed.

Diane Katsiaficas lived in Seattle from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, when she took a job at the University of Minnesota and moved to Minneapolis.

“I live in Minneapolis, not that far from where George Floyd was murdered,” Katsiaficas said earlier this week by phone from Greece, where she now lives part of the year after retiring.

“I’ve been following [the news] online, and when I read about the police precinct in Seattle, and then it said the ‘East Precinct,’ I went, ‘Oh my God, what should I do? Should I write somebody?’” Katsiaficas wondered. “Should I call somebody and say, ‘The irony is that this piece that in the lobby was designed not as a separate artwork, but an integrative work for a community?'”

The East Precinct opened at 12th and Pine in January 1986, after a long and convoluted process. The city wanted a precinct on Capitol Hill or in the Central Area as early as 1970.

Voters approved $5.8 million in funding for three precincts in September 1977. Proposition 2 replaced existing precincts in Wallingford and Georgetown, and created a new one for Capitol Hill and the Central Area, which was being served from the old Public Safety Building downtown.

Though Proposition 2 passed with close to a 70% approval rate, there was a long and drawn out battle over the first site chosen for what was then called the “East Central Precinct.” The site was at 23rd and Yesler, next door and just south of Fire Station 6 — which, as reported recently by The Seattle Times, will become a “cultural innovation center” to be managed by Africatown Community Land Trust.

Mayor Charles Royer, who was first elected the same year voters approved funding for the new precinct, supported locating the new facility at 23rd and Yesler. Another elected official who wanted the precinct in the city’s predominately African-American community was Councilmember Sam Smith, the first black person elected to the Seattle City Council back in 1967.

But there was vocal and organized opposition from many residents in the Central Area.

Longtime activist Elmer Dixon wrote in an email Tuesday, “We never considered Sam nor [Councilmember Wayne] Larkin as allies. We were opposed to the precinct as another occupying force in the Black community. Sam was part of the system and trusted the police; we did not.”

Community opposition included comments at a series of public meetings and City Council sessions, as well as at least one organized protest march. In July 1981, activists began a long occupation of the abandoned four-plex at the proposed site, and demanded that funds be spent on more housing rather than on a new precinct in the Central Area.

Even so, the City Council approved the 23rd and Yesler site. However, as part of the design process, a permit required by the project that had been granted by the city was subsequently appealed by precinct opponents. In February 1982, a Hearing Examiner upheld the appeal and rejected the 23rd and Yesler location for a new precinct, based on the community’s opposition.

Not long after the decision, a Seattle Times editorial on March 18, 1982 said:

Too many angry and deadly confrontations between Central Area blacks and Seattle police officers have occurred. Could a police station in the heart of the neighborhood have been regarded with anything other than suspicion?

The city regrouped and gave up on trying to build a precinct in the Central Area, and the current location at 12th and Pine was chosen in early 1983.

The building itself dates to around 1920, and for years had been home to the Klineburger Company, who were taxidermists. The Klineburger’s most famous project is perhaps Bobo, the first gorilla to live at the Woodland Park Zoo. When Bobo died in 1968, his taxidermied remains were donated to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and displayed for many years; Bobo has been in storage since before the museum moved from Montlake to South Lake Union.

In the early 1980s, Diane Katsiaficas had a ceramic art studio next door to the building that became the East Precinct. Through Seattle’s innovative “1% for the Arts” program, which directs 1% of capital project budgets toward commissioned decorative works by local artists, Katsiaficas was chosen to create an installation for the lobby.

Katsiaficas says she wanted the work to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, which in those years had fewer residents, more non-retail commercial businesses, and was the center of Seattle’s gay community. In fact, there was even some pushback from members of the gay community about siting the East Precinct at 12th and Pine.

“I lived in the Capitol Hill area [and] I knew the neighborhood,” Katsiaficas said. “And so I looked at it from the point of view that I wanted to create a ‘poem’ about the neighborhood.”

Katsiaficas worked with teachers and students at University Heights Elementary School and what was then called Sharples Junior High, overseeing the students as they created hundreds of ceramic elements featuring miniature representations of hundreds of people, which were then glazed with primary colors.

“I worked with the idea that we should make a kind of schematic picture of the neighborhood and make it feel comforting, because the people who were going to be going into the lobby were people who were not the purveyors, but the victims, of crime,” Katsiaficas said.

“I wanted it to be like the patterned wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom,” Katsiaficas said. “Calming.”

A Seattle Office of Arts & Culture blog describes Katsiaficas’ installation:

Textured wall and floor mosaics composed of hundreds of glazed ceramic ‘people’ fill a free-form design that cuts through the basic grid pattern of the precinct’s tile floor. Framing the large front window are two walls on which mosaics of figures have been arranged — in a ray-like pattern on the south wall, and along the basic outline of a house on the north wall. Below the window runs a curved bench backed by colorfully edged wood cutouts of nearby buildings and houses, forming a Capitol Hill skyline. A set of stairs near the wall references a front stoop and adds to the sense of community the space evokes.

Ever since she heard the news about the East Precinct, Katsiaficas, who says she last saw her installation 15 or so years ago, has been wondering how the various elements have been holding up.

On Monday, the Seattle Police Department couldn’t confirm whether or not the elements of “Neighbors” had been covered with plywood or if any other steps had been taken to protect it before SPD left the building. Late Tuesday, SPD’s Lauren Truscott wrote in an email, “Per cameras inside, the artwork appears undisturbed. I can’t verify first hand.”

While she waits a half a world away to see what happens, Katsiaficas says that she supports the goals of Black Lives Matter and all the peaceful protesters. It also seems that she feels that in some ways, “Neighbors,” first installed at the East Precinct in 1986, has potential to be more relevant now – in this particular moment and in that particular spot – than ever before in its 34 years of existence.

And that, Katsiaficas says, is regardless of whether or not it even survives.

“I think it’s great what they’re doing and I hope that if what is there can serve as a focus for constructive discussion and as a way for people to sit and just breathe, I’m delighted, because that’s what I wanted it to be,” Katsiaficas said. “I wanted it to be a place that people could come together in times of distress, and I didn’t expect it to be this kind of distress … I thought it would be more of an isolated family incident, or not about a larger social system.”

And if those hopes for the installation to play some positive role in the future don’t come true and something more destructive happens in the lobby of the East Precinct?

“If people feel that they need to destroy it, that’s just fine, too,” Katsiaficas said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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