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Could Ping Pong And Foosball Revive Downtown Seattle?

Joshua Curtis stands behind a foosball table.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Joshua Curtis of the Metropolitan Improvement District wants to give you a reason to hang out in Westlake Park, whatever your age or income.

Westlake Park in downtown Seattle has a lot going on. Besides the café tables, the foosball tables and the park rangers, you’ll find free classes almost every day. On Monday at 10 a.m., kids will be building stomp rockets out of paper. Tuesday evening there’s a Yoga class.

But the park is better known for drug dealing than downward dog.

The new activity is part of the city’s efforts to bring more people into downtown public spaces to reclaim them for everybody.


It’s a sunny day in Westlake Park. Kids play on a climbing structure while their parents sit at colorful café tables. A band plays on a small stage. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Concerts such as this one by Billy Brandt are one of the tools officials will use to draw people into Westlake Park", "fid": "118642", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201506/IMG_8017.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]The city, and private investors, are pouring a heap of money into "activating" Westlake Park: $60,000 from the city, $650,000 from private downtown groups. 

They’re trying to get people to fill this park. All kinds of people. Rich and poor. Here, homeless people and CEOs take their lunch breaks together. 

The head of a high tech company could find him or herself playing ping pong with a homeless heroin addict. It’s not likely. But it’s possible.

Curtis: “You would be surprised how many people play ping pong."

That’s Joshua Curtis, of the Metropolitan Improvement District. He says all this stuff happening in the park brings people together.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The ping pong tables at Westlake Park feature robust metal legs. An earlier iteration with flimsy legs didn't stand up so well when people tried to sleep on them. One of the big changes to Westlake is that the night time park closure will now be enforced by the city.", "fid": "118637", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201506/ping_pong.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Curtis: “It’s our firmly held belief that successful urban spaces need to appeal to everybody. And are opportunities for people that are more vulnerable or struggling to have a place to engage with others. It’s really an opportunity for social engagement.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle Mayor Ed Murray tosses bean bags in Westlake Park with Downtown Seattle Association's Jon Scholes", "fid": "118644", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201506/IMG_8033.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Underneath what he’s saying is a big idea. The holy grail of urban planning. The idea that if we could just create the right kind of space, it could start to heal this city, which has such a huge economic divide.

As part of that effort, the police have been reaching out to drug users in the park, trying to get them connected with services rather than putting them in jail.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Kevin Henderson, a homeless man who has struggled with addiction (but says he deals with his addiction privately, not in the park), says homeless people also enjoy all the stuff going on at Westlake Park.", "fid": "118633", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201506/IMG_8054.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Kevin Henderson says the cops are doing a good job. He’s a homeless heroin addict, but he says he keeps his drug use out of the park. He says all the stuff going on at Westlake is great.

Henderson: “Yeah, I think it’s great. We like it too, it’s something for us to do. Especially for the young homeless kids, it’s something for them to do instead of just hanging around lounging all day.”

Maybe he’ll never play ping pong with a high power executive. But it’s a start.