After a decade of startling change, Seattle faces decisions that will determine our identity, and our destiny. Between 2008 and 2017, Seattle added more than 100,000 people — a staggering pace for a city of this geographical size.
TEN YEARS AGO, attorney Kyle Karinen moved to Seattle from suburban Detroit by way of Montana, Wenatchee and Tacoma.
Looking back, his impressions of the city are “overwhelmingly positive.”
He says, “The quality of life, the physical beauty of the area, the culture and arts, and the vibrancy of the regional economy are fantastic. I think everyone’s perception of where they live is somewhat colored by where else they have lived, and when.
“So, by comparison, Missoula was too small for what I wanted to do professionally … Wenatchee was not a great fit outside of work, and Detroit has no mountains and is much less diverse culturally. By comparison, Seattle is just a wonderful fit.”
He’s not the only one who thinks that. Between 2008 and 2017, Seattle added more than 100,000 people. For a Sun Belt metropolis, this is an average pace. For Seattle, with fewer than 84 square miles, the growth was staggering.
Comparisons can be found only in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. In the former, Seattle almost doubled in population. Between 1900 and 1910, it grew from about 80,600, to more than 237,000.
The past decade also saw Seattle and the Puget Sound region solidify its place as one of the most economically potent spots in North America, with headquarters of two of the five Big Tech giants and a varied set of other assets. A diverse world city facing Asia for the Asian Century.
To be sure, not everyone is happy about it. This transformative period also saw housing grow more expensive, and traffic increase. The number of people panhandling on city streets or living in makeshift camps also increased. Collegial “Seattle nice” politics was replaced by a hard-left City Council where crowds of “activists” sometimes shout down other-thinking people who try to speak. A scandal forced out the mayor.
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Longtime resident Connie De Roy says, “I have lived in Seattle for 63 years and have renounced this city as the home of my heart, even though I still live here. It’s a different place. I loved the Seattle I grew up in. It was a fun and special place back then.”
By most measures, it still is — this is one reason people keep moving here. But it’s much changed from 10 years ago.
What’s arresting is to contemplate how differently things turned out from what seemed possible, even likely, back then.
MORE THAN A year’s worth of damage control after the popping of the subprime mortgage bubble — months of reassurance that all was under control, too — lifted like a malign fog in 2008 to reveal a much larger, more-dangerous crossroad.
The world financial system faced its worst emergency since the edge of the Great Depression. By the fall, we were at the abyss.
Only the steady hands of the Federal Reserve and the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the ghost of FDR’s many Depression-era protections, averted the worst. Even so, Seattle lost one of its most important institutions, Washington Mutual, which became the biggest banking failure in American history.
The recession arrived later here than most places, but when it hit, more than WaMu was affected. Mainstay companies such as Microsoft laid off workers. By January 2010, Washington’s unemployment rate hit 10.4 percent, higher than the national recessionary peak of 10 percent in October 2009.
Meanwhile, Boeing was struggling to roll out its revolutionary 787 Dreamliner, but the jet faced repeated delays and worry that the problems could even sink the company. Civic pride staggered with the loss of the city’s NBA team, the Sonics.
So severe was the hole in economic demand caused by the financial collapse that the recovery was painfully slow nationally. It was made worse by Republicans taking the majority in Congress and instituting a destructive austerity.
But a few metropolitan areas vaulted out of the downturn and began historic booms. They shared two characteristics: a significant technology economy, and good urban bones to take advantage of the “back to the city” revival of central cores. Seattle was one.
The most dramatic change came from Amazon placing its headquarters in South Lake Union, and growing into such a giant that, by 2017, it occupied as much downtown office space as the next 40 largest companies combined. Microsoft shook off its “lost decade,” and again became a force with which to be reckoned.
Behind this was Seattle’s cost advantage over the Bay Area. It offered all the amenities and talent that tech companies sought, but at a cheaper cost than Silicon Valley or San Francisco. As a result, leading technology firms set up offices here. In a nation where startups have fallen in recent decades, Seattle enjoyed a vibrant environment for new businesses.
With scores of new skyscrapers, becoming the crane capital of America, and bringing light rail on line, it was as if a curtain had been pulled back to reveal an entirely new city.
JEFFREY D. SHULMAN, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied Seattle growth in recent years, notes a “profound change” in demographics.
“With new residents coming from all over the world, there are not only different perspectives, but also different preferences for stores and restaurants to cater to,” he says. “Seattle has also seen an increase in the number and diversity of large employers.”
For example, “Zillow and Tableau have grown to employ thousands of people in Seattle during this decade, while Google and Facebook are examples of companies headquartered in the Bay Area who will soon also have thousands of employees in the city.”
Yet for all its advances, the decade brought palpable losses. Many beloved local bookstores, indie movie theaters and specialty shops closed under pressure from the downturn and online competition. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut its print edition, Seattle Weekly laid off staff, and broadcast media were increasingly consolidated by national corporations. All this made Seattle less special, less informed.
Michelle Orgill, a pastry chef, grew up here but left for California, returning in 2012 and settling in Pioneer Square. The new Seattle pleases her and lets her down. She’s happy to be carless for the first time in her life, for example. But, she says, “Seattle disappoints me, though, in once again trying to sell its soul for the quick Amazon bucks. It shouldn’t be so expensive to live and work here. The homeless situation cannot be ignored anymore …”
She continues: “The biggest change, though, is the people. When Microsoft (took off), it was on the Eastside, and I feel like it was a lot of people who hadn’t planned on making a ton of money doing what they loved (but) ended up being able to do that. So, the materialism and constant need for shiny new objects seemed a little more spontaneous.
“Now — the people I run into in cafes, or shops, the Amazon folks — they all approach Seattle knowing how hip and rich they are. It seems very much segregated by class.”
But don’t underestimate how much newcomers love Seattle, too.
Amazon worker Adnan Ahmed arrived last year from the Pittsburgh area. He and his family live on the Eastside, and he commutes to work in Seattle. “It is a beautiful city with incredible natural beauty surrounding it,” he says. “Yes, it is incredibly expensive, like most big cities with lots of job opportunities. However, for me, the diversity and natural beauty make this place a challenge worth enduring.”
What’s not to like?
“One thing I am consistently disappointed by is how dirty many parts of downtown Seattle and Interstate 520 are,” Ahmed says. “It seems like an easy fix, but the resources being put in to give the city a clean look are failing or are just being managed horribly.”
Elon Gersh came from Melbourne, Australia, and is a postdoctoral research fellow at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “My experience in Seattle has been an excellent one,” he says. “I love the city’s food, relaxed vibe, cultural events like music and theater. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the surrounding region, getting out on hikes and on the water.”
Considering that Melbourne consistently ranks as one of the world’s most-livable cities, this is no small praise.
FOR SUCH A fortunate place, the city overflows with new crises: the housing affordability crisis, inequality crisis, drug-abuse crisis, police-brutality crisis and homeless crisis.
All these are concerns, but the overuse of “crisis” makes it difficult to evaluate the severity of each, the national context, its particular effect in Seattle and constructive measures available. Or even to get our bearings.
The overheated environment is a direct result of a revolution in city politics. We’ve come a long way from stolid Mayor Greg Nickels, a center-liberal council and the famously slow “Seattle process.”
The decade saw a hard-left swing on City Council, backed by protests and large contingents of activists attending municipal meetings. A Socialist Alternative candidate, Kshama Sawant, was elected in 2013. Outrage became a dominant theme.
How this came about should intrigue historians and political scientists for decades.
Nationally, traditional liberalism declined despite the achievements of President Barack Obama. Progressive anger rose in response to extremism on the right, rising inequality, and Wall Street and the big banks getting away with causing the crash. America’s ongoing culture wars energized an aggressive left. The move of the Republican Party far to the right left cities such as Seattle without a sane, organized center-right opposition.
In one case — the $15 minimum wage — the council produced a good outcome with minimum unintended consequences (so far). To be sure, this was made possible by the overall strength of the economy.
Yet in other instances, the activist agenda was less constructive. For example, landlords were targeted with new restrictions, despite the effect this had on making housing available. A head-tax was proposed on large employers. Neighborhoods that questioned new zoning or low-income housing far from services or transit were tarred as NIMBYs with weaponized words such as “privilege.”
The complex set of social conditions lumped under the term “homeless” grew substantially in Seattle, even as chronic homelessness was declining nationwide. Local spending on the problem rose substantially, but the unsheltered population continued growing, too.
In a tolerant city with legal pot, generous handouts (“Freeattle”) and a backed-off police force, some people quietly wondered whether throwing money at the problem, often without enough accountability, was making it worse. Also, that the city was turning into a magnet for those choosing to live an oppositional lifestyle.
Such criticisms rarely made it into the constricted public square. Rather, one found them in such places as Nextdoor, neighborhood blogs, social media and the comments section of this newspaper.
And yet, the left’s implication that business was to blame for the city’s ills began to see pushback when Amazon last year announced it would build a second “fully equal” headquarters elsewhere. In reality, correlation doesn’t equal causation — cities without major headquarters, well-paying jobs and abundant tax revenue are doing far worse than Seattle.
DECADES ARE ARBITRARY measurements. Yet the 10 years from 2008 to 2018 transformed Seattle and the nation. One question is how much they set a trajectory for the future, too.
Professor Shulman says, “We are in a time of incredible transition. The decisions made by residents, businesses and city government will have a long-lasting and profound impact on Seattle’s future.
“Collectively, we are shaping what the skyline will look like, who will live here and what it means to be Seattle. That said, Seattle has wrestled with change for decades and likely will continue to do so in the coming decades.”
If past performance is a guarantee of future results, Seattle will continue to prosper from Big Tech, a diverse economy, a vibrant urban core and its position as a world talent magnet and gateway to Asia. It will continue to show its enviable capacity for reinvention.
But dangers abound beyond the natural ebb and flow of a city’s life cycle.
High-tech has provided a huge boost. But it’s also vulnerable to everything from a stock collapse to running out of ideas, particularly those that provide jobs. Seattle won’t be immune from the coming disruption caused by advanced automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. This has the potential to cause a political explosion in an already-polarized America.
While the city was turning further left in 2016, enough votes nationally gave the presidency to the uniquely unqualified Donald Trump, and total federal control to Republicans. At the least, this puts the Other Washington in the hands of those who hold cities in contempt.
Worse possibilities loom, from wrecking the American-led trade order from which the Puget Sound region has so benefited, to stumbling into a nuclear war with North Korea — with Seattle as a prime target.
Even if Democrats gain the gerrymandered Congress this year and Trump loses the White House in 2020, precious time has been lost in combating human-caused climate change. Seattle weather is already turned screwy. Valuable fisheries are at risk. Climate refugees from the Southwest could make the population growth of the past decade look like a trickle.
Do the changes seen over this past turbulent decade give us a preview of what’s to come?
Some are undoubtedly turning points here to stay — a larger, denser city; the primacy of the knowledge economy; and more conflict in politics, among them.
But time is fluid, and surprises abound. Think about asking most people in 2007 whether they imagined the period to come. Few could have predicted the good and bad and amazing that were headed our way.