Editor’s note: This story kicks off Pacific NW magazine’s agenda for 2015: to explore how newcomers are changing our community, and why it matters. Here, we take a look at the big picture; in the next two weeks we’ll hear from Northwest natives with different views of that big picture. Through the year, look for more stories examining the changes we’re experiencing, and let us know what’s on your mind.
THE OLD end up in a foreign country even if they never leave their home, or so an expression goes.
Many Seattleites are feeling that way in just the few years since the Great Recession.
South Lake Union has been transformed from a shabby commercial district into one of the hottest and most visionary real estate ventures in America, its new mid-rise buildings anchoring one of the most important companies in the world.
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Skyscrapers are replacing car dealers in and around the Denny Triangle. Downtown’s face-lift is so dramatic that at one point last year 100 projects were permitted, under construction or recently completed.
Bulldozers are taking down those familiar three-story brick apartment buildings to begin work on apartment towers. Salty, beloved old Ballard has become one of the nation’s most coveted and expensive cool urban neighborhoods.
On the Eastside, millionaires from China are bidding against each other for expensive houses, wanting to live near Bill Gates.
Even as much of America continues to limp back from the Great Recession, Seattle has essentially reached what economists consider full employment. It is among the nation’s big engines of startups. And the icons of the Puget Sound economy, from Starbucks and Amazon to Boeing and Microsoft, are thriving.
No wonder, then, that from 2012 to 2013, Seattle was America’s fastest-growing major city.
With this has come considerable angst, as well as celebration.
It is the best of times, it is the not-so-best of times. Rarely, if ever, in the living memory of Seattle has so much change come so fast to this boom-and-bust place, especially so concentrated inside the city and its core.
You don’t have to be old enough to mourn the Paul Bunyan mural in the cafeteria at Frederick & Nelson to worry.
The disquiet is more than sentimentality. This onetime blue-collar city of factories, railroads and maritime industries has turned into something very different: an elite and expensive technopolis.
In many ways, Seattle is becoming like a European city. Many of the most desirable areas are close in. The working class and the poor increasingly live in suburbs.
Traffic is getting worse, even if you don’t choose to drive. Public transit, almost entirely dependent on buses that get stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, is scandalously inadequate.
And did I mention Bertha?
We probably couldn’t be the seedbed of a cultural moment such as grunge today. Seattle costs too much. We’re not laid-back Portland, described by pundits as “the city where young people go to retire.” Whether entrepreneurs, code writers or baristas juggling two or three jobs, most here are manic with the root words of business — busyness.
As giant construction cranes become the city’s official bird, who is watching out for the architectural diversity that made Seattle so livable? For the once-ubiquitous views of the Space Needle? In many blocks, the look-alike 30- and 40-story sheets of glass are overpowering the city’s human scale and taking away our ability to see the water, sky and mountains all around.
At the same time, as affordable apartments are demolished, many homeowners rebel against “apodments,” the micro-housing that offers options for those who aren’t pulling down six-figure salaries.
We’re still a Boeing town, but only one of several. We’re not Boeing’s Town anymore. A huge segment of the regional economy is dependent on the whims and extortionate demands of executives in Chicago, some of whom seem to dislike Seattle personally.
This is also a city where the Great Recession arrived late but nasty. One question I am asked most often is, “When will this bubble pop?” Considering our increasing dependence on Amazon, this is not merely a query of the superstitious.
And something else is driving the mood: a fear that Seattle is losing its authenticity. This means more than buildings, more even than distinctive local shops. Authenticity is a connection with history and space and civic artistry. It is not encased in amber but evolves. Yet in teardown, chain-store America, it is always at risk.
The social critic James Howard Kunstler captured this when he wrote of central Stockholm, an environment “reassuring and powerfully coherent. You feel civilized. Your neurology is constantly nourished as you walk.” This is Seattle at its best.
Will all those newcomers love this place as it deserves to be loved? Or will they treat it as a throwaway community on the way to their next gig in the new mobile aristocracy?
TECHNICALLY, I am part of the problem. I definitely share the apprehension.
Seven years ago, I was a newcomer. But I chose Seattle for more than a fine newspaper. For the first time in my life, I selected a place that seemed to correspond to my city values and offered some of the best set of urban attributes in America.
Mostly, Seattle has not disappointed. In return, I’ve tried to be a good citizen, from maintaining a low-carbon footprint to “voting” with my money at local shops.
As the moss has grown on my back, I’ve watched this frenetic evolution with mixed feelings. The view from my Belltown condo to Capitol Hill and South Lake Union is gone. That’s acceptable in exchange for a vibrant city.
On the other hand, too many bookstores and other local treasures have disappeared. No disrespect to Buffalo wings, but a restaurant is a poor replacement for Sherman Clay pianos on Fourth Avenue. City Kitchens was the kind of place I could gloat about to friends elsewhere. Now it’s gone.
One thing I do know is destructive growth. Although I’ve lived in San Diego; Denver; Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Charlotte, N.C., my hometown is Phoenix.
In 1950, it barely made the nation’s 100 most populous cities — 107,000 in 17 square miles. Today Phoenix is the sixth-largest city, more than 1.5 million in 500 square miles. Little farm towns exploded into “boomburbs” raising the metropolitan population to 4 million.
The place you go for Mariners spring training, all those look-alike faux Spanish-Tuscan tract houses and shopping strips you speed past on freeways or gigantically wide streets — it’s nothing like the Phoenix in which I grew up.
That Phoenix was an oasis, a garden city surrounded by citrus groves, farms and flower fields. With the exception of some historic districts, it’s almost all gone. The newcomers who flocked there for sun and cheap housing don’t even know what was lost. I will carry the heartbreak forever.
So angst about growth and its costs? I get it.
WHAT IS THIS Seattle Moment? Several powerful influences are at work.
One is the decision by Amazon, among the biggest and sexiest of tech companies, to create an urban campus in South Lake Union.
Another is the increasing appeal of quality cities, especially to millennials and empty-nest baby boomers, as well as to companies that want to attract and retain top talent.
Seattle entered the Great Recession with good bones, from a diverse economy to a lively downtown and close-in neighborhoods, from being a magnet for world talent to enjoying a gorgeous natural setting. All this positioned Seattle to come out much stronger than most U.S. cities.
Finally, the recession might have hurt most Americans but it barely slowed the accumulation by the wealthy and the casino of world capital markets. In a slow-growth national economy, much of this money has flowed to the most attractive cities, looking for better returns in anything from apartment towers to tech startups.
But it’s equally important to distinguish what this moment is not.
We’re hardly being overrun. True, Seattle was the fastest-growing among America’s 50 largest cities from July 2012 to July 2013. But this was only in percentage, 2.8 percent. We added 17,770 to reach an estimated population of about 652,000.
Houston grew by 35,202, although only 1.6 percent. And Phoenix added nearly 25,000 at 1.7 percent. This is considered slow growth in the Sun Belt.
Seattle shouldn’t aspire to numbers such as those. Too much population growth brings more costs and disruption than benefits. And, fortunately, Seattle lacks the land to accommodate cheap growth. That relative cost of living and the widely held belief that “it rains all the time” are useful firebreaks against Phoenix-style growth.
This moment is seeing big changes in the built environment, but it is hardly unprecedented for the city that came back quickly from the Great Fire of 1889 and pulled off the Denny Regrade, literally moving a mountain (or a hill, to be precise) a century ago.
Neighborhoods, charming and otherwise, were obliterated and separated to ram Interstate 5 through town in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Speaking of I-5, it did nothing for the city. Like all of its ilk going back to the creations of New York City’s Robert Moses, it was a device to move people out of cities. Among the core areas it badly wounded was South Lake Union, which has now been brought back — perhaps not beautifully, but certainly functionally — thanks to Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos.
The rise of suburbia was another drastic change, here as well as elsewhere. In 1960, Bellevue had fewer than 13,000 people. Last year, the population was nearly 134,000.
So, while today’s remake is big, fast-moving and being felt in many parts of the area, it has forebears.
Nor is Seattle the only city in America undergoing such a transformation. San Francisco has become so gentrified that it has ignited protests, but they have caused no real change in its trajectory. Oakland is catching fire, too. Once again, the “back-to-the-city” movement is at work.
Los Angeles is seeing construction of an 1,100-foot-tall skyscraper in its booming (yes) downtown, while also continuing an ambitious public-transportation plan that includes extending its “subway to the sea.” The city synonymous with concrete spaghetti is gradually rebuilding the huge rail transit system it once enjoyed.
On the other side of the country, once-affordable Brooklyn has become the “it” place. Thousands of words are spilled across the Internet lamenting the change, but it doesn’t stop.
THIS SEATTLE Moment comes up quickly in cocktail conversations. There is the “bubble” question. And the lamentations of people horrified about a wildly out-of-scale building being thrown up in their neighborhood. Rising inequality is always a backbeat.
On the other hand, a woman in her 70s told me how she couldn’t wait to escape this “hick town” when she was young. “Now it’s wonderful!”
More than one has told me to quit sweating Amazon, that Seattle has reached an escape velocity, as it were, to becoming a mini-Silicon Valley. “From a software engineer point of view, there’s lots more in town than Amazon and Microsoft,” a reader wrote. One thing going for us is relatively affordable housing and living costs compared with the Bay Area.
Seattle continues to be blessed by civic stewards who love it. In Phoenix, they all died off. Check the class war at the door with such people as Gates and Allen, because they make a huge difference in sustaining Seattle’s appeal. The austere Bezos gave a great gift to the city by putting the headquarters here rather than in a suburban office park.
Still, Amazon is more than an 800-pound gorilla. How about, the elephant in the living room. In other words, Seattle has hitched much of its economic future to a company that destroys the kinds of local retailers we treasure. What is a civic-minded consumer to do?
More concrete dilemmas await if this boom is to mint quality, not mere quantity. Growth doesn’t have solutions if we maintain one of the best economies in the nation. It does demand intelligent responses.
Take, for example, the Lesser Seattle conceit that, if we turn down a rail-transit system 90 percent funded by the federal government, then people won’t move here. It’s a fiction.
That didn’t work in the late 1960s. Atlanta got our system. People kept coming here. We have today’s traffic nightmare, and a transit system behind not merely Boston and San Francisco but Denver, Portland, San Diego, Dallas and Salt Lake City.
So, yes, we do need a big-city transit system. We also need to keep growing a big-city attitude, in a healthy way. That includes embracing density where appropriate while preserving neighborhoods with single-family homes. It’s not either/or but both. It requires a willingness to embrace the best in urban practices from world cities — and pay for it.
People will continue moving here. The trend will gain momentum as climate change disrupts other places and climate refugees look to the Puget Sound region. This time we’d better be ready — but for growth on our terms, not a set of destructive real estate hustles.
Newcomers may actually help. Many come from big cities and have expectations.
Still, custom is a difficult headwind. This is true not only with the inadequate and even toxic “Seattle process” and undeserved hostility from much of the state. Many Seattleites, whatever their professed liberalism, are deeply conservative.
I mean the term classically, not in terms of contemporary politics.
Many here distrust change and even novelty outside of cultural arenas. They want to preserve the best of the old, including what they remember as a West Coast town where everybody lived in a detached house and drove.
But that town is gone. In its place is the metropolis of Seattle’s ambitious dreams, pulsing with anxiety, yes, but potent with possibilities.
Jon Talton is The Seattle Times economics columnist. Tom Reese is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.