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Music Deters Crime - 2001-08-28

In business, location can mean everything. But what are entrepreneurs to do when their business is in a transitional part of town? In places where loiterers can be more common than customers, some business owners are turning to unconventional methods for relief.

Most every city has areas that shoppers tend avoid because of crime or panhandling. For Seattle, such a place used to be right outside a downtown McDonalds. Loitering teens and homeless crowded the restaurant's entrance. That is, until the owner started playing country music.

Seattle Police Captain Jim Pugel, who supervises this downtown precinct, says "it does seem to have dissipated, if not displaced, some of the activity that was occurring before that music started to be played."

Downtown businesses routinely call on Captain Pugel to disperse loiterers. It's a complex task, he says, but music can often help. "You'd have to figure out what type of music that particular group doesn't like and does like," he said, "and you try to pick the type of music or format they don't like."

News of this successful formula for "shooing" people away spread to business owners across town, on University Way, one of Seattle's most eclectic shopping streets. Janine Bracket-Sauer, of the local Chamber of Commerce, says homeless teens congregated along the businesses' sidewalks, intimidating customers. "It was discouraging for the clientele to get past these groups of youth."

So last year, several business owners agreed to change the street's atmosphere, starting with a new sound. "We decided we would try the music to see if that would help to encourage customers and maybe discourage youth from being in that area," she said.

From speakers high above the sidewalk, merchants began piping classical music onto this street, known as a hang-out for grunge and punk teens. The symphonies and sonatas cause some passersby, like Walt Stawicky, to scratch their heads. He said, "I think they might use something a little bit more contemporary, something a little bit younger than the music they have. I don't think it's the kind of music that's going to be appreciated by the people going by here very often, so it might just be that much more noise for everybody else along here, too. You know, if they're gonna do that, a better speaker would help."

That sentiment is echoed by 16-year-old Nikita Van Sans, who made this street her home for the past few years. "For the person that hangs out in that area," she said, "you hear it clear down the block and you're like, this is just getting annoying."

Though the music gets on the nerves of the loitering teens, it hasn't gotten them to budge. If anything, the tactic has caused the young sidewalk dwellers, such as Sain McLaughlin, to dig in even further. "It's 'cause they just think that just by playing that type of music that it's going to scare people off, or encourage them to go somewhere else, which it isn't gonna work," he said.

Though classical music hasn't struck the right chord on this Seattle street, across the country it's having more success. Police in West Palm Beach, Florida, cleared out a crime-ridden corner with the help of Beethoven's finest, broadcast from speakers on the side of a building.

"The businesses that are right there on the corner are extremely appreciative of what's going on," said West Palm Beach Police Captain Allan Ortman. He got the okay from local residents before letting the classics loose. "We went from 50 to 60 arrests a month on that corner alone to within the last six months I think we've had four arrests there total. The businesses are extremely happy to the point where now they wanna play music from their businesses as well and it's like it's spreading up and down the street. As a pilot program, this has proven very successful and we're going to try to expand it."

So back on Seattle's University Way, what kind of music should businesses play to make their potential troublemakers move? Whatever style they choose, Seattle Police Captain Jim Pugel says that can't be their only tool for fighting loitering and the crime that often accompanies it. "So it's just not concentrated in one area," he said. "It has gone someplace else. It is still going to occur though, somewhere."

And then, it becomes a problem for other businesses to handle.