Seattle started the year as one of America’s superstar cities, having enjoyed a remarkable run over the previous decade. The pandemic has brought it down much harder than the Great Recession.
But the crisis has been worsened by City Hall.
In its haste to defund the police — without a serious Plan B — the City Council treated police Chief Carmen Best shamefully, leading to her retirement. Mayor Jenny Durkan seems helpless.
This is the same council that wants to impose a tax on “highly paid” jobs in the city when Seattle’s economy is in a historic downturn.
That downturn reaches from Boeing and international trade to such critical sectors as tourism, conventions, hotels and cruise lines, the arts, as well as restaurants and retail.
Activists running the council seem not to understand important connections. For example, a safe city is essential to having an economy to generate the tax revenues and social justice they claim to seek.
The looting, vandalism and arson that marred peaceful protests have been catastrophic for business. I spoke to one local merchant, an immigrant person of color, whose shop had been looted three times. Buildings remain boarded up downtown. So much for the “eyes on the street,” uber-urbanist Jane Jacobs’ observation about what keeps cities safe and livable.
Big business feeds small business, so both need to be understood as part of the same ecosystem. Now, especially with Amazon largely working from home, many restaurants and small businesses are reaching a point of no return. My barber is one example. He told me his business is down 85% and his lease is up in four months.
“Chef in the Hat” Thierry Rautureau sent an email this week saying he was temporarily closing his famous Loulay Kitchen & Bar “until further notice (meaning when folks come back to downtown), as the core of our city is right now in a still position as never seen before.”
To be sure, Seattle isn’t the only city facing troubles.
A recent New York Times story described how national retail and restaurant chains are abandoning Manhattan.
“In Manhattan’s major retail corridors, from SoHo to Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, once packed sidewalks are now nearly empty,” because of the pandemic. “A fraction of the usual army of office workers goes into work every day… .”
Richard Florida, the influential urban scholar, released a furious Twitter response that I will condense and edit for space:
“I remain fully confident in the wake of all this gloom & doom that NYC will end up just fine down the road. This is not the 1960s, and it’s not the end of cities, particularly NYC.
“That said, I fully expect retail and office, and also parts of the luxury housing sector to be gored. But, please, let’s not confuse the goring of retail & office and luxury real estate with the end of cities.
“Chain stores were a huge part of the gentrification & dullification of NYC. … Good riddance. And get on with rebuilding the city & the metro region around 15-minute neighborhoods, in the city, in the suburbs, where people can work closer to where they live & shorten commutes.”
He went on to dismiss “gargantuan office towers” and an “over-stuffed” central business district as “physical manifestations of a bygone era.” Commercial space can be turned into housing, especially affordable housing.
Florida concluded: “But the main point is that COVID-19 creates a once in a century opportunity to rebuild our cities and metros better — along more equitable, inclusive and resilient lines. Let’s do it!”
Much here to unpack and argue over.
I’ve been very reluctant to make blanket statements about how COVID-19 will change everything — the case that’s launched a thousand hot takes. For example, CNN ran an article titled “Our cities may never look the same again after the pandemic.”
Really? The much-deadlier 1918 influenza didn’t stop the trends that were at work before the pandemic hit, including rising urbanization. And in America, the great flu was followed by one of the greatest economic booms in history.
Today Europe and Asia certainly aren’t giving up on their cities and their over-stuffed central business districts. Studies show that neither density nor public transit are synonymous with COVID-19 danger.
But America has come apart so badly. Maybe my medium-term optimism, after a vaccine, is misplaced.
Chain stores were already abandoning downtown Seattle before the pandemic hit, including Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy’s. The losses weren’t only a consequence of e-commerce but the city’s tolerance of shoplifting. Far from “dullifying” areas such as the Pike-Pine corridor, national retailers attracted shoppers who also patronized local shops and restaurants. They served central core residents, too.
Far from being a liability, our central business district is an efficient creative and economic engine. With 88,000 residents, many of whom also work here, downtown is already a convenient 15-minute neighborhood. And with transit connections, such job centers are especially important to fighting climate change compared with car-dependent office “parks.”
A tectonic reordering that moves jobs and assets from so-called superstar cities to the left-behind places is a noble-sounding aspiration, at least on first glance. The nonstars, mostly older heartland cities, are victims of 40 years of lax antitrust, Wall Street vulture capitalism and offshoring that plucked their prime economic assets.
But in many cases they also made their bad luck. Underfunding education, and inattention to preserving urban assets, historic preservation, abundant transit, and cultivating tolerance — these all hurt. Being blue cities stuck in anti-urban red states further held back these nonstar urban centers. Many have longstanding and deep racial divisions.
I love cities such as Cincinnati and St. Louis. Getting top tech talent to move there is another matter. These aspirations would require huge national investments and policy changes. In addition to the consequences of the pandemic, left-behind cities are facing the headwinds of few big-employment breakthroughs that could spread nationwide.
Changing customs to create 15-minute, live-work-play neighborhoods in such road-warrior cities as Phoenix is impossible until carbon is taxed appropriately. And that would take winning many elections nationally and statewide.
As for Seattle, the Denny party first christened it New York Alki — “eventually” or “by and by” in Indigenous jargon — when landing on the eponymous point in 1851. Maybe we have finally arrived, but not in a good way: Many of New York City’s challenges, few of its advantages, and a toxic City Hall.
By and by, the next few months will tell us whether a recovery can take hold and sustain itself. The November election will be of prime importance. But the destructive political leadership in Seattle, heedless of the economic consequences of their policies, will be with us longer.
As other superstar cities bounce back quickly, repairing the damage here could take years.