Aside from the constant drizzle, persistent gray and dark short days of the winter months, the Seattle area of today is greatly changed, for better or for worse, from a decade ago.
Amazon has become practically synonymous with the city, Seattle sports teams (notably: the Seahawks, Storm and Sounders) have become perennial title contenders, and as a literal symbol of all of this change, construction crews and cranes seem to be on every corner, busily remaking the cityscape.
Who were the people behind the changes? Who were the people who’ve had the most influence on the region in the past decade?
The Seattle Times put the question to readers, reached out to an array of local thought leaders, and culled through dozens of names to find the few who were most responsible for change in the greater Seattle area from 2010-19.
Like any list, we know our selections will be debated. Some of the area’s longtime benefactors, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who’ve had a massive global impact over the past several decades, are not on this list because we wanted to acknowledge the individuals whose effect has been felt specifically in this region in this decade.
Other omissions will no doubt be argued: attorney Alison Holcomb was instrumental in the ballot measure to legalize marijuana, while Nick Hanauer helped finance campaigns to lift the minimum wage and strengthen gun regulations and Tod and Tim Leiweke played a significant role in bringing an NHL franchise to Seattle.
We hoped to narrow it down to 10 people, but there were so many good candidates that we ended up with a baker’s dozen. Thirteen people who’ve been instrumental in transforming the region over the past 10 years. These changemakers hail from numerous fields — from politics to sports, business and the arts.
We also came up with a list of up-and-coming local changemakers who are doing interesting things, and whom you should keep your eyes on as we head into the 2020s.
Based on reader nominations, suggestions from leaders in a diversity of fields, and our own newsroom experts, here are the 13 people — listed alphabetically — who have profoundly influenced Seattle this decade.
— Crystal Paul
Paul G. Allen
University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce described Paul G. Allen, for whom the university’s School of Computer Science & Engineering was renamed in 2017, as “truly a Renaissance man for our time.” The homegrown billionaire co-founder of Microsoft had an influence that began well before the decade, now extends beyond the region, and is expected to reach into the future as, following his death on Oct. 15, 2018, his pledge to give away the majority of his wealth takes shape.
The 2010s saw Allen add scientific institutes devoted to artificial intelligence, immunology and cell science, while his original brain science institute grew, bolstering Seattle’s position at the leading edge of research in these areas. His Seahawks made two Super Bowls and brought home the Lombardi Trophy in 2014. He continued to fund a portfolio of local museums, including one devoted to computer history that opened to the public in 2012. His eclectic philanthropic portfolio includes homelessness, arts, science and environmental causes near and far (including support for The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless reporting team).
The redevelopment of South Lake Union that his real-estate firm embarked on at the beginning of the century also came to fruition this decade, transforming the neighborhood into a global technology hub with Amazon’s headquarters and major offices of Google, Facebook and, soon, Apple.
Jeff Bezos’ decision to move Amazon to Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood went against the pattern for tech companies at the time. Instead of a suburban campus, Amazon’s headquarters would be dense, walkable and woven through with transit options at the edge of downtown. The company’s monumental growth arguably changed Seattle more than anything else in the past decade, bringing tens of thousands of new employees — and their dogs — as part of a population boom that stressed road capacity and housing stocks, and again changed the city’s conception of itself.
Amazon’s success catapulted Bezos to the topmost ranks of the world’s wealthiest at a time when income inequality expanded and a backlash against tech grew. In Seattle and beyond, Bezos is an obvious foil, his face appearing on protest signs, often wielded in the public space around The Spheres, a new city icon built at his direction. Amazon capped a decade of breakneck growth in Seattle with a high-profile search for a second headquarters and public clashes with the City Council over taxation. But the company shows no signs of abandoning the region. Its tallest tower yet is in the works for Bellevue.
Beyond Amazon, Bezos is working on his biggest dream — human colonization of space — through Blue Origin, the rocket company headquartered in Kent.
Three years ago, when the WNBA celebrated its 20th anniversary, the league included Sue Bird on its list of the 20 greatest players of all time. When the 39-year-old Bird retires, she’ll go down as one of the greatest athletes in Seattle history and a pioneer whose influence transcends sports. Bird is the consummate winner, and in the past decade, she became the face of women’s sports in Seattle. She’s led the Seattle Storm to three WNBA championships, two of which came in the last decade (2010 and 2018) and she’ll be back next season after sitting out this year due to a knee injury. As the point guard and leader on Team USA, she’s won five World Championships, four-straight Olympic gold medals and is going for a record-breaking fifth next summer at the Tokyo Games.
Off the court, Bird made headlines in 2017 when she came out as a lesbian, and since then, Bird and her girlfriend, soccer champ Megan Rapinoe — a Seattle sports superstar in her own right — have been outspoken champions of women’s and LGBTQ rights.
Theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton is a titan in the Seattle cultural scene. She got there not by being flashy (though she’s certainly capable of inspiring a crowd), but by doing the hard work, in the trenches, with the community and inside arts organizations large and small, doggedly insisting on two things: artistic excellence and increasingly incorporating a Black lens into the collective view of what theater is and can be.
As a prolific working director and decadeslong faculty member at the University of Washington, she’s left her imprint on many, many artists — but her most visible influence has been on institutions.
One example: Her company The Hansberry Project lived inside ACT Theatre for six years, bringing work by Alice Childress, Aishah Rahman, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and others to ACT, showing large theaters — and white-led arts organizations — across the city they could and should produce work by Black artists previously unknown to some Seattle audiences. The uptick in playwrights of color we’re seeing on local stages these days? Credit Curtis-Newton.
She’s also famously courageous. “Find the fear in the room” may be one of her most famous sayings, as a director and as an organizer. “Scared is OK. Paralyzed is not so much.”
K. Wyking Garrett
Few Seattle neighborhoods underwent as much change in the past decade as the Central District, and few activists were more vocal in addressing gentrification there than K. Wyking Garrett.
Garrett’s Africatown organization partnered with Capitol Hill Housing on the Liberty Bank Building that opened in March and struck an agreement to codevelop Africatown Plaza through a community land trust.
The decade saw long-term economic and demographic trends continue in the neighborhood that for decades was the heart of the city’s black community, where housing costs have risen and Black residents are now in the minority. But Garrett responded by helping to organize community events and to support Black tech entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the Liberty Bank Building and Africatown Plaza, across the street from each other near 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, represent about 250 affordable apartments meant for displaced households.
Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, has been with the organization from its very beginning as the city’s only day-shelter program for displaced women and children two decades ago. But in the past 10 years as executive director, she’s become the face of the crusade against one of our region’s most intractable and visible problems: homelessness.
Today, under Hartman’s leadership, Mary’s Place has become a favorite of corporate giving and private philanthropy alike.
Now, the organization operates 10 shelters with 600 beds from White Center to Kenmore. In 2018, the organization helped 650 families move into housing and opened its first permanent shelter in Burien. This year, Mary’s Place opened a shelter to rapidly move families into stable housing using one-time, flexible financial assistance.
And in 2020, Mary’s Place is accomplishing a major first: It will become the first organization to host a family shelter built into a corporate office. Amazon is providing Mary’s Place eight floors at its Seattle headquarters to serve unsheltered families, including two floors for those with children undergoing major medical treatments.
Tsilixw Bill James is the traditional chief of the Lummi Nation. He successfully helped lead his tribe’s fight against the largest coal port in North America proposed at Cherry Point (Whatcom County) to protect both the village and grave sites of his people, and defend the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing rights.
He has been a consistent voice and conscience for the Salish Sea on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border for the benefit of American Indian and non-American Indian communities alike.
Pramila Jayapal started this decade by getting arrested. It was 2010 and she led a sit-in at a downtown Seattle federal building to protest the Obama administration’s deportation policies. At the time, Jayapal was fighting to reform the nation’s immigration laws as the leader of OneAmerica, Washington’s largest immigrant-advocacy group, an organization she built from scratch.
In 2014, after helping select Seattle’s first female police chief and helping chart the course to Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, Jayapal took her fight to electoral politics, winning a state Senate seat. It was a short stop. Two years later she won a seat representing Seattle in Congress, becoming the first new U.S. House member for most of the city in nearly three decades.
She’s brought her activism to Congress, where she’s quickly become a progressive force. She co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she’s the lead sponsor on legislation to provide “Medicare for All” and free public college and several presidential campaigns would very much like her endorsement.
For decades, Diane Narasaki has fought for human rights and a better world, forged by the unjust internment of her parents behind barbed wire during World War II and the social unrest of the 1960s. She served for more than 20 years as the executive director of the nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service, overseeing behavioral-health programs, human services and civic-engagement activities for Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other communities.
Narasaki retired in 2018 but remains active in social-justice work, particularly her indefatigable efforts to bolster police reform in Seattle. For a period, she served as a co-chair of Seattle’s newly formed Community Police Commission, a citizen advisory panel created in 2012 as part of federal consent decree requiring the city of Seattle to address allegations of excessive force and biased policing.
Social-justice advocate. Civil-rights defender. Community organizer. Estela Ortega has fulfilled all these roles in her 47 years at El Centro de la Raza on Seattle’s Beacon Hill. For the past 10 years, she has served as the executive director of the organization that works to build unity across all racial and economic groups and to “organize, empower and defend” marginalized people. For instance, under Ortega in 2015, El Centro de la Raza built a low-income housing development on the El Centro site in Beacon Hill.
From the time she was 8, picking cotton in the Texas fields, hard work and tenacity have defined Ortega, who was an early voice for police reform in Seattle and has continued to push for change. When video began capturing police misconduct, she noted the behavior had occurred previously but not been caught on camera. “From our perspective, El Centro de la Raza and other communities of color, police misconduct has been an issue for decades in our community,” she said.
SEIU 775 grew into a dominant force in local politics this past decade, and David Rolf was at the helm, building the union for home health-care workers into a 43,000-member behemoth and establishing the advocacy organization Working Washington in 2011 to push a new-look labor-movement agenda.
With Rolf serving as president (and as an SEIU international vice president), 775 helped persuade voters and policymakers to adopt groundbreaking $15-an-hour minimum-wage laws in SeaTac and Seattle and a statewide minimum wage hike, along with new rights related to sick time, scheduling and overtime. Seattle mayors Ed Murray and Jenny Durkan both relied on his support to win election.
A community-college instructor and Occupy activist who became one of the country’s best-known socialists when she unseated an incumbent in 2013, Sawant added pressure to the political process that yielded Seattle’s nation-leading $15-an-hour minimum-wage law.
As the decade wore on, the 46-year-old headline machine pulled the Seattle City Council to the left on issues ranging from tent camps and youth detention to renter protections, while regularly castigating her colleagues as “corporate Democrats.” Her drive to apply rent control in the city ran up against a wall at the state level, but she championed Seattle legislation capping move-in fees, and she won reelection twice despite attracting the ire of business leaders. In the 2019 election, she defeated challenger Egan Orion, who was backed by Amazon. Before Bernie Sanders stormed the 2016 presidential election, she made socialism mainstream in Seattle.
Russell Wilson has been the Seahawks’ most important player during their greatest sustained run of success in Seattle’s modern major pro sports history. There have been a lot of great players for the Seahawks in the past decade as the Seahawks won their only Super Bowl since entering the league in 1976 (and were oh-so-close to another). Coach Pete Carroll also deserves his share of the credit for putting it all together (with an able assistant in general manager John Schneider). But it’s the players who have to make the plays on the field. And Wilson has provided a steady, consistent — and often spectacular — hand at the game’s most vital position. Without him, it’s hard to see it happening quite the same way.
Wilson has been a model representative for the franchise on and off the field; his Tuesday visits to Seattle Children’s hospital have come to symbolize how he has invested himself in a city that’s grown weary of seeing its superstar athletes look to greener pastures at the first sign of possible freedom. Wilson meanwhile, happily signed a new contract last April, ensuring he’ll stay in town well into the next decade. He and his wife, Ciara, also recently joined the Sounders’ ownership group.
Percy Allen, Daniel Beekman, Sydney Brownstone, Bob Condotta, David Gutman, Brendan Kiley, Lynda Mapes, Steve Miletich and Benjamin Romano contributed to this report.