“Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights.”
The words appeared on a single billboard for only two weeks in April 1971, the brainchild of two real estate agents. Yet the phrase went “viral” before the word applied to such things, and it remains iconic. (Among the best spinoffs: “Will the last person with ethics on Wall Street …)
“It became comical to Jim and me,” real estate agent Bob McDonald told my colleague Erik Lacitis in 2009. “We’d pick up these people at the airport, and on the way into downtown, they were so surprised there was even a city, with people walking around, and business taking place. I think they were expecting something out of World War II.”
McDonald and Jim Youngren came up with the billboard as a jape on the prevailing national image of Seattle in the wake of the Boeing bust. Arriving visitors would see the sign — near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — but then get into the city and find a much better situation here.
Now, half a century later, Seattle faces another historic economic challenge and no billboard can capture it. In this dour, irritable age, no one would dare try.
In 1971, Seattle was much more dependent on Boeing, which had shed more than 62,000 mostly local jobs since its peak employment in 1967. Blame weak sales for the new 747, orders slowing for other models and cancellation of federal aid for the planned supersonic transport.
Back then, Seattle was Boeing’s heart, not merely an outpost viewed with suspicion by a headquarters somewhere else. Microsoft was four years away from being founded, and eight from moving from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Bellevue. Jeff Bezos didn’t found Amazon until 1994.
Today, in many ways, our situation is nearly inverse where it was 50 years ago.
People are still coming here. Two of the five Big Tech giants are headquartered in the area and are doing well, at least in terms of local employment and stock price.
Boeing’s future in the region is more uncertain with the consolidation of 787 assembly in South Carolina, the aftermath of the 737 MAX troubles and a slowdown in certification of the new 777X. But the region’s economy is much less dependent on the airplane maker.
Instead, Seattle is coming out of what some economists aptly called a medically induced coma — the shutdown to combat the pandemic. It especially affected restaurants, brick-and-mortar retailers, cultural organizations and tourism. This is a challenge facing cities across the nation. And some of the losses will be permanent, especially to retail and restaurants.
But Seattle’s comeback is complicated by factors that not all cities face. Riots and looting that tainted peaceful protests over a police officer’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis were especially harmful to small business here. Crime is rising. Homelessness and encampments are out of control despite hundreds of millions being spent on the problem.
Unlike nearly any other city, our “activist”-heavy City Council majority is hostile to business, especially to Amazon, Seattle’s largest private-sector employer. Hardly any members have private-sector experience.
It’s not as if Seattle is a stranger to violent protests. In 1970 alone, weeks of student protests followed President Richard Nixon’s widening of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard killing four students at Kent State University. The Seattle police were unapologetically tough.
Other compare and contrasts:
In 1971, Seattle didn’t have homelessness, per se. It had a skid row and abundant single-room-occupancy hotels for the down and out. It had vagrancy laws — no camping on sidewalks or in city parks. The mentally ill had been institutionalized.
Today’s complex situation has its roots in the 1970s, as the Supreme Court struck down vagrancy laws while most of those with mental illness were released from institutions. Changing fire codes and deadly fires in SROs severely depleted the supply of very-low-income lodgings that were conveniently clustered near social-service resources.
City Council members in 1971 were very different from today. For example, Wayne Larkin, a former Seattle firefighter and police officer, helped establish Medic One. Jeanette Williams, an accomplished violinist, was a champion of parks and early advocate of rail transit. Liem Eng Tuai, an Air Force veteran, went on to be a county prosecutor and Superior Court judge. George Cooley was a businessman.
That council consisted of both Republicans and Democrats. They were part of a reform movement that, in the words of a 1993 Seattle Times editorial, “helped transform a sleepy company town into a city known for its livability.”
Boeing gradually recovered in the late 1970s, but more importantly the city’s economy diversified in the next decades, culminating in its robust tech sector.
Seattle bounced back from losing local banks and the retail apocalypse of the early 1990s, when the Frederick & Nelson and I. Magnin department stores closed.
Nordstrom made the former Frederick’s into its flagship store. New headquarters emerged in Seattle, including Starbucks, culminating in Amazon’s campus. Small, street-level retail continued to operate.
As a result of this resiliency, the World Trade Organization riots of 1999 and loss of Washington Mutual in the Great Recession were relative speed bumps.
In recent years a left-leaning council enacted more burdens on companies. Some, such as a higher minimum wage, were made possible by Seattle’s prosperity. Others, such as the JumpStart tax on larger companies, are harmful to the city’s competitiveness.
The council majority’s priorities are “equity,” funding for homeless services, shifting funding from public safety and a grab bag of other left proposals. It shows little comprehension of the damage done by the pandemic to business — the tax base for its aspirations — or willingness to encourage companies in rebuilding and returning to offices.
Superstar cities such as Seattle have built-in advantages (talent, headquarters, etc.). They aren’t sending their best assets to the heartland. But few face the political and social headwinds of Seattle (New York City’s likely next mayor is a former police captain who ran on a law-and-order platform, a sharp contrast to politics here).
Fifty years later the lights are still on in Seattle. But the city’s genius for reinvention will be severely tested in the coming years.