In my first 90 minutes in Seattle last week, I was yelled at — F-bombed, actually — three different times. I believe that’s one more than I received in the 32 years I lived here.
You probably don’t need me telling you how much the city has changed. But, like a longtime friend who on a periodic visit observes how much the kids have grown, I might offer a bit of helpful perspective.
You see, I worked for this newspaper for three decades, and was its top editor for most of my last decade here. Since leaving for an academic job in Philadelphia in 2013, my wife and I have returned a couple times a year to see the friends and city we love.
On each visit, we noted changes: More traffic. More graffiti. More trash. But it was only on this trip, after a nearly 2-year hiatus driven by the COVID-19 crisis, that Seattle seemed like a truly different place.
That realization came quickly. Emerging from our downtown hotel and standing a bit too close to the intersection of Sixth and Pike, I was the target of a profanity barrage from an angry, speeding, spittle-spewing driver. A few blocks later, a woman offended by my polite dismissal of her demand to give her money fired off the same choice noun. And on our way back to the hotel about an hour later, a group of young men verbally abused me as racist because I had reached out to hold my wife’s hand as we walked by them — not knowing that we’d held hands on nearly every walk since we met in college a long time ago.
It’s worth noting that I now live near and work in the city many think of as America’s toughest: Philadelphia. While I’ve been flipped off a few times on the highway in my eight years there, I’ve yet to experience anything remotely like that first hour and a half in Seattle. And that first afternoon of our visit wasn’t the end of it. After a week of walking various neighborhoods, I can’t help but mourn the civility for which Seattle was known.
We may not have been particularly friendly, but we were polite as hell. Now, the “Seattle Freeze” I knew feels like warm Southern hospitality compared to this.
Certainly, the economic and social stresses of the COVID-19 crisis have contributed. And the entire nation is a meaner, coarser place these days. But the Seattle I knew was different — better, in so many ways — than other places. It was a town where neither wealth nor poverty were conspicuous. It was a town that prided itself on its clean streets and verdant parks. And it was a town where the integrity of governmental process — albeit often painstakingly slow — was as important as its results.
But just as Tesla Model Xs and Vine scooters have replaced old Volvo 240s on Seattle’s streets (the scooters often abandoned right in the middle of streets, I noticed), all of that has changed. What hasn’t, I hope, is the compassion of Seattle’s citizens. That compassion seems to have taken a perverse form, where the parks where my kids played have been swallowed by tent encampments that not only have degraded treasured public spaces, but that should be viewed as unacceptable habitat for those who are otherwise homeless and deserve better.
In a region that is home to several of the world’s richest companies and people, and in a city with a median household income in the six figures, can Seattle not do better than this?
Of course it can. This erstwhile Ballardite can reflect back to you that your city has all the ingredients to again be among the nation’s most livable: Enormous economic resources that need only be unlocked by meaningful tax reform at the local and state level, so that the “haves” share far more with the “have-nots.” A relatively narrow ideological spectrum from far-left to center-left, where, despite the ugly political theater of City Hall, consensus should be easier to find than in most American cities. Two vastly different newspapers, in The Seattle Times and The Stranger, that are both owned and run by local people who care deeply about this city. And a collective ingenuity that has already changed the world in remarkable ways, and surely can show the rest of America a path forward.
Perhaps, I might suggest, that way forward can begin with this admonition from an old friend who loves you: Be nicer to each other. Please. And thank you.