WHEN DID it come on, this sense of being under siege? The city is filling in and growing taller so fast that — to some of us, anyway — it feels like a full-scale invasion. And in fact, it is: The city of Seattle alone predicts 70,000 new households sprouting up in the next 20 years, along with 115,000 new jobs. That’s like having Bellingham move in.
And from a distance, the newcomers wearing those identical badges and marching in and out of huge new office towers seem to be overwhelming our neighborhoods — filling apartments and condos as quickly as they pop up. I look at them and imagine what it must have been like for the Native Americans here as they watched hordes of Europeans pour in, stripping the land of its resources and profiting in the process.
My custom when confronted with these latter-day hordes is to retreat to my Fortress of Nostalgia and trade laments with like-minded old-timers about how our beloved city is doomed.
But things took a surprising turn over the past year as I decided to break with custom and actually talk to some newcomers.
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The triggering event: I had unaccountably received an invitation to a monthly gathering of something called the “Gentleman’s Whiskey Night and Book Club.” (They kinda had me at “whiskey.”) On arriving at the appointed Capitol Hill address, I was confronted with a roomful of newcomers, all in their 30s, who gather ostensibly to discuss a book on a contemporary social issue. The book discussion is a mere formality; talk veers onto other topics, like local organic distilleries, Seattle livability, the destruction of Capitol Hill by out-of-control development, corporate ethics, environmental issues, the evils of Amazon.com . . . all of it heated and earnest.
When the topic turns to Amazon, the discussion is like an examination of conscience. “I mean . . . I’ve never gone into a Walmart . . . I wouldn’t be seen going into one, there’s no way . . . ”
“But Amazon sucks you in with the convenience — they make it impossible to resist!”
Who are these people?
They turn out to be representative of a generation of New Seattleites who moved here not to get rich but to pursue the kind of meaningful life and work they believe can be found only here.
The image our city enjoys elsewhere in the country can come as a shock. Look at Seattle through the eyes of book-group member Brennon Staley, and you hardly recognize the place. Seen from Staley’s Massachusetts vantage point back in 2003, when he was looking for a place to go to graduate school in urban planning, Seattle was the world’s only City of the Sustainable Future.
“UC Berkeley is a good school and everything, but San Francisco is a place with so many deep, deep problems,” he says. Over the years, the course citizens chose there “made the place fundamentally unaffordable to the middle class, and sprawling to an entirely different extent than in Seattle. Here there are so many opportunities for local place-making and real mixed-income communities, and greater opportunity for environmental and social sustainability that isn’t possible there.”
After getting his master’s degree from the University of Washington, Staley got a job with the city of Seattle’s urban planning department. He’s now a senior planner working on programs giving developers incentives to build sustainably and provide affordable housing. He thinks the opportunity now is as great as ever. “It’s struck me a lot at conferences, how people from across the country look to us to pioneer a lot of different things.”
His office, he says, is a mix of longtime residents and fellow newcomers. The devotion to environmental issues is consistent among everyone. “But the real difference is that so many people moved here because they wanted to be part of that. So among newcomers, there’s a deeper passion . . . people who’ve committed their life to it to a greater degree than people who’ve been here forever.”
I was to hear a version of Staley’s coming-to-Seattle story everywhere I traveled through the Seattle newcomers’ network. Every story has its Seattle exceptionalism line: “I heard it had more arts organizations per capita than any other city.” “It looked like an easy place to live — the opposite of Washington, D.C.” “People in New York kept telling me the hub of social innovation is in Seattle.” “I wanted to change my life.”
WANDERING THROUGH this invading-horde maze, from Capitol Hill to Ballard, South Lake Union, Belltown, Pioneer Square and on to High Point, I’ve been finding signs large and small of how newcomers are changing the city for the better. At Second Avenue and Washington Street, the old Masins Fine Furnishings & Home Design building, with its good bones, is now inhabited by social-change organizations. In the shadow of the Great Wheel, Wisconsin native Gabriel Scheer, at Re-Vision Labs, is consulting with companies around the globe on how to do business in a reduced-carbon future world. The Capitol Hill home he shares with wife Jill Amsberry and their family, meanwhile, is a showcase of environmental sensitivity.
Gregory Heller works at Resource Media in South Lake Union on communications strategies for environmental and public-health nonprofits. Newcomer Brian ’s Seattle 2030 District in downtown Seattle guides building owners in crafting a model for sustainable design and resource consumption that will make Seattle carbon-neutral by 2030. At High Point’s Neighborhood House, Portland transplant David Moser is laboring to “make Seattle the most awesome city in the world for immigrants from the Third World to move to.”
Along with their enthusiasm for the city, these young people bring a fervent desire for social justice and an inclusive ethic that is a bracing counterpoint to the traditional Seattleite’s pull-up-the-drawbridge-behind-me instinct. “I had a great first few months here,” says New York native Frank Chiachiere of his move to Seattle 15 years ago to start a theater group. “I saw so much live music and theater, went from house party to house party and kept meeting interesting people. Everybody was friendly — we were all newcomers, and the first question you’d ask when meeting someone was, ‘How long have you been here?’ ”
It made for a heady atmosphere. “So many people were here by choice,” he says. “I thought that was interesting; it changes the way you relate to the city you’re in. I grew up in a place where everybody complained and was looking for a way to get out. . . . You chose to be here, so you’re going to concentrate on the positives over the negatives. I wonder if that makes you more optimistic?”
Optimism worked out well for Chiachiere. Sharing a Green Lake house with six newcomers, he figured out early on that there were already too many theater groups in Seattle, that he’d be better off leveraging his technical skills in setting up “back-office services” for arts groups. He and his friends founded Shunpike, an organization (still-thriving) providing financial management and administrative support to arts organizations. He moved on to Pop, a website-design firm, and helps write and operate the Seattle Transit blog (seattletransitblog.com), a reporting-and-opinion website averaging 30,000 unique readers each month. And he keeps spinning visions for an even better future Seattle. “I can see a day coming when we can ban car ownership in the city, make everybody hail a driverless car to get around. They did a study on this in Singapore . . . they could have a 250,000-car fleet and the maximum wait for anyone would be 30 minutes.”
BY FAR the heaviest concentration of new-Seattle thinkers resides in Pioneer Square’s 220 & Change building — the former Masins store. In 2012, Impact Hub, Social Venture Partners Seattle and Bainbridge Graduate Institute moved into the building with the intent of establishing a nexus for launching progressive nonprofits and “triple-bottom-line” business ventures, the latter defined by Impact Hub managing director and co-founder Lindsey Engh as “companies whose metrics for success include financial results, reduction of impact on the planet and treatment of its people — customers, employees, suppliers.” The hub operates both as a shared workspace with varied levels of membership (Impact Hub has 700 members) and a mentoring and connection space for people building “purpose-driven ventures that create more value than they capture.” Bainbridge Graduate Institute offers MBA programs in “sustainable business” — a curriculum combining business fundamentals with cutting-edge aspects of sustainability as it relates to business practices. To date, it has awarded more than 500 MBAs.
220 & Change is a lively building packed with idealistic young people pursuing no end of triple-bottom-line dreams.
“The Hub is the microcosm of what’s so amazing about Seattle,” says former New Yorker Carrie Schonwald, who has worked on HIV vaccine projects in South Africa, a Save the Children project in Shanghai and for the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle. She thinks Seattle is uniquely community-minded, particularly “if you’re looking at social innovation.”
I was to find an especially interesting example of the latter in a new venture that began as a student project at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Two classmates — Carrie Ferrence, who used to live in Washington, D.C., and Jacqueline Gjurgevich, who grew up in Southern California — teamed up on an experiment that meets a pressing social need, as the institute requires. They decided to try addressing the nation’s “food desert” problem with an innovative grocery business that could supply urban food deserts with healthy foods at affordable prices. “A lot of people don’t consider Seattle a food desert,” says Gjurgevich. “But grocery stores are all clustered in the affluent parts of the city. Less affluent neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with greatly increased residential density, often lack a good grocery store within walking distance.”
The two decided to try putting convenience-store-size outlets supplied with fresh produce and sustainably raised meat and dairy products, along with standard nonperishable fare, in underserved neighborhoods.
Their first “store” — funded with a Kickstarter campaign — was a shipping container temporarily plunked down in the Westhaven Apartments parking lot in Delridge. They next leased a small storefront in South Park and opened their first full-fledged outlet in August 2012. (It closed two years later.) Next to open, in November 2013, was a Stockbox on First Hill, a community that “was brought to our attention by Harborview. A lot of people don’t think of First Hill as anything other than a community you pass through. But it’s tremendously diverse, the most walk-dependent community in Seattle, and one of the last affordable-housing neighborhoods in the city. It hadn’t had a grocery store in a long time.”
Six months after opening, the store was averaging 450 customers each weekday, the mix about half neighborhood residents, half Harborview-connected customers. The results are encouraging enough to have Gjurgevich and Ferrence, undaunted by their South Park experience, planning further expansion. From across the street, the Stockbox is barely noticeable. Yet the difference it’s making to the neighborhood is considerable. It strikes me as a tangible sign of change for the better that people like me, focused on what we think we’re losing, tend not to see.
Our newcomers seem determined — inspired, even, by the Seattle that lured them here — to pursue careers with meaning. “I guess you’d call us ‘social entrepreneurs,’ ” says Gjurgevich.
EVIDENCE OF the benevolence of our newcomers abounds. Blogs such as Chiachiere’s, contributing to political discourse; websites like ’s 2030districts.org/seattle and Justin Carder’s capitolhillseattle.com providing forums for civic action and coverage of local issues; our ahead-of-the-curve minimum-wage debate and election of a socialist to the City Council . . . the sight of all those little Car2Go vehicles . . . our all-Prius taxi fleet . . .
If I’m coming across as unexpectedly excited about all this change, it might be due to the fair number of rebukes that came my way from youngsters. “We have low unemployment and the city’s growing,” Chiachiere says. “We have happy problems, high-quality problems! Detroit would kill for our problems! So that changes the debate: a lot of what we talk about, things like ‘How high can we raise the minimum wage? How do you manage growth? Where do you put all the people who want to come here?’ . . . I don’t feel like the problems are intractable here.”
And outside High Point’s Neighborhood House, looking in on a group of immigrant mothers and children, I’m taken to the woodshed by David Moser. “I’m worried that people like you are turning Seattle into a gated community,” he says.
That whole Lesser Seattle schtick has been enshrined in city land-use policy, he adds, “but it’s dangerous . . . I want to welcome people to our city, provide enough places for them to live, enough infrastructure to make all that work.” That “Keep the Bastards Out” idea “comes from a certain type of love of our city and the way it is, and people don’t want it to change. But I think there’s multiple types of love, and the type that doesn’t want the object to change is not a healthy kind.”
Put another way: “Listen, old man: The people you’re trying to keep out — they’re not the bastards.”
Fred Moody is a freelance writer based on Bainbridge Island. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.