Jen Swanson left Seattle in 2006, looking for excitement. After living in New York City, Mumbai and Shanghai, she returned to find a city that is very different.
FOR MOST SEATTLEITES, the coffee shop is a hallowed place, a quiet spot to recharge and gather one’s thoughts, a ritual as sacred as church. At least, that’s what I used to think before revisiting Caffe Ladro in West Seattle, an old haunt whose quiet vibe once seemed perfectly aligned with its host neighborhood when I was last there, more than 10 years ago. On the surface, everything here looked familiar, from the sunny gold walls to the silver-haired patrons to the tattooed barista serving artisanal roast behind a long bar. One odd detail — obviously no fault of the cafe itself — was the hotter-than-usual late-summer weather, which left everybody inside glistening with sweat.
I took my coffee to the slim sidewalk patio, which seemed more comfortable than baking inside. Unfortunately, the patio was equally jarring, particularly as workers in hard hats gleefully jackhammered a tree-lined street adjacent to California Avenue, itself newly shaded by high-rise apartments and condos.
The surreal nature of the scene — this is West Seattle, after all, once a perennially quiet suburb far removed from downtown’s urban sprawl — was underscored by the offer from a petite, middle-aged lady, who happened to be passing by en route to her parked car.
“Do you want some earplugs?” she asked, opening her driver’s-side door to reveal a Costco-sized pack. “Um; no thanks,” I murmured, slightly taken aback, although she politely insisted: “How can you possibly think with all of that noise?”
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MY ENTIRE FAMILY comes from West Seattle, which is where I was born and raised, until my dad moved us to Alaska for his work. Eventually, I made my way back here for college, leading my father — who had graduated from West Seattle High School, as had my mother and my grandfather — to solemnly warn me that one day I’d grow sick of the rain. This eventually happened, but not for another decade, during which I studied at Seattle Pacific University, worked odd jobs all over town and finally graduated into a pair of entry-level roles. One of these was as a copywriter for an e-commerce company downtown, although not for that company. This was 2004, before Amazon was synonymous with Seattle. The city was affordable, and South Lake Union was primarily known for an abundance of parking.
Two years later, in 2006, I moved to New York City, which felt then like the center of the universe. This excitement was short-lived, and when the magazine I worked for teetered, I eventually followed up on an editor’s assignment in an even-larger, more-thrilling metro: Mumbai. For nearly three years, beginning early in 2011, I used this city of 21 million people as a base to report around the Indian subcontinent, covering everything from tigers to tourism and an intentional community inspired by an Indian freedom-fighter-turned-guru. Shortly after moving to Mumbai, I met my husband, Tom Mountford, a member of Britain’s diplomatic corps who had been outsourced from Manchester. In September 2013, after Tom had been reposted to Shanghai, I packed my bags and followed, upsizing again, to a city of 24 million people.
I enjoyed the novelty of living in China, but in other ways, it underscored everything I’d taken for granted about the Pacific Northwest. Now I craved a morning commute that didn’t require jostling for space, just as I longed for gray skies that only hinted at rain. Countless reminders of Seattle didn’t help matters, either, from the ubiquitous Starbucks to my growing use of Amazon Kindle, one of the best ways to get books past China’s censorship machine.
By the time Tom and I finally landed at Sea-Tac last August, after more than six years as expats in Asia, the Cascades were completely obscured by wildfire smoke, so much so that I initially feared China’s “Smogpocolypse” had followed us over the Pacific. Those smoggy curtains eventually parted, revealing a beautiful city encased by mountains and water, just like I had remembered. It’s just everything else that is different.
THE BIGGEST CHANGE, of course, is the city’s new look: far bigger, bolder and more futuristic. (I’m not just thinking of South Lake Union, though I did a double-take the first time I passed the Amazon Spheres.) I’m still trying to identify new towers crowding into an improved skyline and — more than once — have been flustered by changes to places I used to know. This happened when I stopped by my old office downtown, then spent 10 extra minutes trying to navigate all the scaffolding to get back outside, a maze so convoluted I finally exited though an emergency side door.
Weeks later, I was wandering through the newly expanded Pike Place Market, which was heaving with tourists, even on a weekday. Everything was fine as I snapped pictures from the new platform extension, then followed the staircase past studios and a brewery to the street level. For whatever reason, I decided to find the old gum wall, and managed to get completely lost trying to doing so. Unfortunately, it was right at this moment — as I circled in laps of growing disorientation — that a tourist asked me for directions to the original Starbucks. “Um … that way,” I said, instinctively pointing, only to belatedly realize I’d probably sent him the wrong way. I don’t know why I didn’t just say that I was a tourist, too. That’s frequently how I feel upon returning to a place that’s changed so much in the years I was away.
That’s not to say Seattle’s evolving landscape is all bad, even if some personal landmarks, including The Old Spaghetti Factory — a place my grandparents had loved, and where I worked in college — have been swept up by the tide of change.
In West Seattle, where I live — alongside a couple thousand new neighbors — a once-familial place is experiencing a fascinating reinvention. Once upon a time, it felt like pulling teeth to get non-West Seattle friends to visit. Now, heritage buildings host trendy bars and younger, hipper patrons, while even older landmarks — namely the old second-run theater upgraded with better A/V, new releases and craft beer — channel the rejuvenated vibe.
Nowadays, everybody crosses the bridge of their own accord — so willingly, I’ve found myself waiting for tables in the Alaska Junction.
SEATTLE’S SKYLINE MIGHT be in constant flux, but there’s just as much happening on — even under — the ground. I traveled by car the last time I lived here, before leaving in 2006, which I’d park on the street as I made my way around town. This wasn’t always easy or cheap, especially given the number of tickets I’d find tucked under my windshield wipers, but it was still doable. Even downtown, I generally could find a spot underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Now that overpass is going away,along with easy parking, and one friend recently likened Denny at rush hour to the “ninth circle of hell.” This makes me rather relieved that I don’t own a car, particularly given the city’s impressive gains in public transport. Now RapidRide buses run every 10 to 15 minutes — even in West Seattle, which always seems to draw the short straw in terms of public investment; even regular routes offer improved service and extended hours. We still won’t see light rail out here until 2030, but I have ridden the train from the airport to downtown, then hopped on a West Seattle-bound bus, which works if you don’t have a lot of luggage. In the meantime, there’s Uber — naturally, not an option in 2006 — and all those flashy neon share bikes, artfully placed around the city, just waiting for the next nice day.
ONE RAINY EVENING last October, I met up with an old friend who was passing through town. We decided to meet at a Thai restaurant at the top of Queen Anne Hill, which was basically my backyard in college, and near where she was staying. Unfortunately, neither of us actually had visited this area for years, nor could we remember the venue’s name, which made it difficult to confirm its existence. Now more than a month back in Seattle, I was getting used to showing up only to find old favorites deserted or closed, so I hedged my bets by arriving with backup options in mind.
Fortunately, the restaurant was not only open, but thriving, which felt like a nice change. At some point over pad thai, we reminisced about a city neither of us had seen in a while.
“I don’t remember Seattle being so techy,” she said, frowning as I recounted my job search so far: sifting through a daily blizzard of postings demanding innate technical savvy.
“Me, neither,” I said, shaking my head sadly, confiding my fears of stunted marketability. As an Xennial — part of the slim shoulder-generation sandwiched between the Millennials and Generation X — I’ve used computers my whole working life, but I also remember the days of dial-up internet, floppy disks and cassette tapes.
Job-hunting aside, I generally think of Seattle’s growing tech status as a mixed bag. Amazon Prime and Alexa certainly have helped streamline the day-to-day, but in other ways, technology has replaced regular human interactions. Now my single friends all use some combination of apps to meet new people, even though everybody describes a process marred by old photos and disappointment — in turn breeding nostalgia for the good ol’ days.
I was at dinner recently with my sister and her friend as he recalled his adventures in speed dating. “Speed dating’s still around?” I asked, recalling a circa-2003 trend that had fallen out of fashion. Sure, he said: At least it offered people the chance to meet potential dates in person. Another friend reported sending two breakup messages over the course of one week, and then meeting a great guy the old-fashioned way — in a bar.
AROUND THIS TIME last year, I was getting ready to move back to Seattle, where Tom and I had eagerly planned to start our post-expat lives. Just a few months before, Donald Trump had been elected president, despite my efforts to cast an absentee ballot from Beijing. This initially made us wonder whether we wanted to resettle in the United States at all; eventually, we moved ahead — but only because we were going to Seattle.
The reassuring tipping point, for me, was Jan. 21, 2017, when my Facebook feed lit up with pictures of old friends and neighbors bearing pink hats and angry placards in protest of the new administration. I’d thought of Seattle as a liberal city since WTO protests ripped through town my junior year in college, but this collective show of defiance — estimated as Seattle’s largest protest — assured Tom and me that the city remained more committed than ever to its progressive credentials.
I’ve had a great time catching up with old friends. It’s nice to have a built-in network, considering Seattle’s cold shoulder (which people were talking about in 2006, but actually seems to have grown worse). Such a thing is hard to quantify, but I’m pretty sure locals used to be more polite. I tried to test this theory by walking the 2½-mile length of the waterfront promenade at Alki Beach, from the sands over to Salty’s on Harbor Avenue. I smiled at everybody I passed, a collection of about 40 souls ranging in age from high school to retirement, dressed in a very Northwest assortment of hoodies, raincoats and Seahawks gear. (Side note: I’ve seen Russell Wilson jerseys all the way from here to Myanmar).
On this misty fall day, however, most of my fellow pedestrians ignored me completely. Even the handful of exceptions was telling, including four or five walkers who managed pained grins, and one heavily bearded 40-something who stared back in alarm. Maybe the attitude stems from Seattle’s increasing big-city credentials — people don’t go tipping their hats in New York City — but it’s hard to see how growing tech culture doesn’t play a role.
ONE RECENT TUESDAY, I met a friend for happy hour at the Bookstore Bar, which — like everything else in Seattle — was more costly and crowded than I remembered. Alex and I first met in 2010 in New York City, where we’d struck up a conversation after his recent move to Seattle.
At our recent meeting, we talked about growing traffic, gentrification and a general demographic shift. He called his neighborhood, Ballard, the “Brooklyn of Seattle.”
We briefly mourned the loss of old landmarks — in this case, the old Ballard Denny’s, People’s Pub and Sunset Bowl — while Alex mentioned that even newer residents lament Seattle’s rapid change.
“Everyone’s moving here,” he said.
Another Seattle gold rush has wrought a palpable sense of energy and excitement: rather ironic, considering I’d spent a decade away in search of such things.