Seattle’s a city that’s perpetually remaking itself. The swelling growth has always come in waves. So how do we — those new to the city and those who’ve been here a while — make it through together?
The bastards are here — and they’re procreating, inviting their friends and settling in.
For years, we have been defying the cries of late Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, whose decades of tongue-in-cheek plotting to prevent new arrivals to the city (readers were deputized as KBO agents to “Keep the Bastards Out”) became consistent newsprint fodder and a rallying cry for some.
And now — amid the Amazon-fueled tech boom — we bastards are arriving in numbers rivaling the Gold Rush.
Watson’s sentiments take a new form these days: Jokes on Facebook about hiding those gorgeous mountain photos or feigning that it rains every day.
Have you heard the horror story of the Amazombies spreading through Capitol Hill like a virus and infecting it with wealth?
But, those newcomers? We don’t all work in tech. We’re not all filthy rich. And, the reasons many of us ascribe to moving here — to enjoy the beautiful environment, to feel support for our identities, to pursue love, to participate in progressive politics — are the reasons many Seattleites laid roots long ago.
Now, as Seattle’s population swells, old-timers and newcomers alike feel growth’s pressures and reckon with its impacts.
Seattle’s not shrinking anytime soon. Whether Emmett Watson would like it or not, we’re all in this together.
Seattle the boomtown
Seattle is a city perpetually remaking itself.
Now, skyscrapers are sprouting like weeds after a spring rain.
Seattle is an instant city, said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor. “Seattle and San Francisco are very similar. They’re gold-rush cities … they take off in rapid moments of economic growth.”
Our newcomers have arrived in waves, first to log and mine and extract. Later, they riveted war machines, pioneered air travel and then set out on digital frontiers, first with Microsoft and then Amazon.
“Everyone’s an immigrant, right? Unless you’re native Coast Salish people, you’re an immigrant from somewhere else,” O’Mara said.
Seattle’s economic booms have been intense; the busts less so.
“You have economic downturns, but people stick around, and new industries are being born pretty rapidly out of others,” O’Mara said.
Englishman John Gray, 92, never intended to come to Seattle. During World War II, he’d trained as an airplane navigator in Canada and planned to settle there after the war. In 1958, he left England for a job with Canadair.
But the company lost a key contract as he was moving and arranged to send Gray and other workers to Boeing in Seattle a few months after he arrived. Soon, he became a U.S. citizen and worked on top-secret projects.
“It was very exciting. It was the start of the space race,” Gray said. “Boeing was involved in building the lunar orbiter. I got to work on that … and support the mission to photograph the surface of the moon.”
Seattle was a smaller town back then. Parking downtown was plentiful. “If you had a reasonable job, you could save … there was no problem getting a house,” Gray said, wistfully.
Decades later, when Reuel Robertson, 59, fell in love with the region, it was Microsoft leading the region’s growth.
He’d been working at Bell Labs, a respected but “somewhat conservative” company in New Jersey. After visiting, Robertson became determined to live in Seattle, which reminded him of Alaska, his childhood home. His uncles balked when he told them about a little company called Microsoft that had offered him a job.
When Robertson arrived in Redmond in 1990, he was 31, and felt like the old man of Microsoft’s exhilarating culture.
“It was the Wild West,” Robertson said. “Every competitor we wanted to crush.”
At one meeting, he remembers, the leader of a competing company was hung in effigy as employees cheered.
Robertson settled in Woodinville, and over the years, he went from “living out in the country” to “watching the whole area build up around me.”
Life is slower now. He spends his free time boating on Puget Sound. His kids are studying at Washington public colleges. He considers himself a Washingtonian.
“When I hear someone tell me [they were] born here, I think that’s great. It’s a badge of honor,” he said. “But there’s something about choosing your state. I picked Washington out of all 50.”
Why we move
In Robertson’s day, it was Microsoft’s hard-driving culture making headlines. Enter Amazon.
Sociologists will tell you that it’s economic opportunity that draws people here, and certainly Amazon, which has added more than 35,000 jobs since 2010, has offered plenty.
“Economic drivers are the single most important reason some areas grow faster than others,” said Charles Hirschman, sociology professor emeritus at the University of Washington.
Jobs might be a magnet, but their pull is not always obvious.
“It (economic opportunity) is amplified by social networks, cultural preferences, climate, and all sorts of different things,” Hirschman said.
Public-relations firm Quinn Thomas last year polled both newcomers to King County (arrivals within the past five years), and longtime residents (people here for 15 or more years) on what they value about Seattle. It also conducted focus groups.
“When you ask people, ‘What do you like about living here?’ It wasn’t jobs or economic opportunity,” said Zach Knowling, a vice president at the agency. “They choose to live here and the job supports them.”
We come for myriad reasons.
Liz Dodds, a retired librarian, moved to Seattle in 2016 to be near her grandchildren, as their busy parents work demanding jobs.
“We’re helping with dinner at times, or helping them put the kids to bed,” she said.
Moises Himmelfarb, a professional dancer from Mexico who works as a cultural attaché at the country’s Seattle consulate, came here in 2016 to pursue a relationship with a Seattle man. They recently married in Pioneer Square.
“It was kind of a leap of faith,” he said. “It was him at first, but then, the city was wonderful.”
On visits nearly a decade ago, Nastasia Tebeck, 32, a user-experience designer, fell in love with Seattle’s artistic vibe and slower pace.
She could walk through a crosswalk without hearing snarls from angry drivers. People seemed casual and comfortable in their own skin.
“I’d seen so many women walking around with jeans and hoodies … and practically no makeup,” she said, which felt different from Chicago, which she left in 2015.
Although other Seattle firms were interested, she chose Seattle’s fastest-growing company, Amazon. “They have the relocation-package game down,” Tebeck explained.
She didn’t realize her place of employment would draw an occasional sideways glance from locals channeling Emmett Watson’s spirit.
“Whenever I meet people in Seattle, I never tell them where I work,” until they get to know her, she said.
She knows the stereotype about Amazon is that employees are all “international men cloned” or “23-year-old white dudes who dropped out to write programs in [their] garage.”
She sees a company that attracts talent and lets people be themselves.
“I see the melting pot that is Seattle. I don’t see Silicon Valley.”
More in common than not
Perhaps we’re not so different.
When asked to describe what they appreciated about Seattle for the Quinn Thomas poll, both newcomers and long-term residents highlighted Seattle’s natural beauty, the environment and acceptance.
About three-quarters of both groups — particularly the self-described liberals — agreed that Seattleites shared their values.
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“Their values are aligned. They’re not distinct and alien populations,” Knowling said.
The groups shared concern over traffic and housing prices.
But newcomers didn’t share long-term residents’ sense of loss that accompanied growth, Knowling said. They hadn’t known the Seattle that John Gray misses.
For some old-timers, Seattle’s rise has inspired internal conflict.
“I enjoy the fact that Seattle is a mecca now,” said Anton Gielen, 63, who emigrated from Victoria, British Columbia, in the late 1970s. Gielen met his future wife, then a UW student, here while partying with friends. For three years, the two corresponded by mail, until he moved south to marry her, become a citizen and build a life.
“I don’t want to deny the growth. I don’t want to deny the success. When the town was sleepier it was nice, too. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the two,” he said. “There comes a time as you get older … it’s not your world anymore. There’s another generation now that has to make their life here. I just hope they don’t screw it up, so I can stay living here.”
Longtime Seattleites, who have seen property taxes and prices soar, aren’t the only ones worried about sticking around.
Forty-eight percent of newcomers polled by Quinn Thomas said they were at least somewhat likely to leave Seattle in the next five years. Most of the people looking at leaving reported that they worried about their finances.
That statistic’s interpretation depends on perspective. Either newcomers aren’t committed to Seattle, or they’re still scrambling for a foothold in the place they desperately want to live.
“Blue politics,” dogs and shared values
Newcomers are searching for a city that welcomes them, supports their identities and hears their concerns.
“It made me feel incredibly brave to move across the country on my own,” said Kelly Williams, 37, who moved here in 2013 from Atlanta to live in a city offering a “car-free lifestyle” and “blue politics.”
She doesn’t miss the humidity or the mosquitoes of the South. Seattle’s “breathtaking” views never get old. Williams bought her first pair of hiking boots here and loves dog-friendly Seattle for her pup, Scooter.
But, she has grown to appreciate the “Southern hospitality” she left behind. Williams said she’s had to be “proactive” to make friends in Seattle.
“I really played up the Southern card — ‘Oh my gosh, I moved here from Georgia …’”
Williams, who is black, also found Seattle’s lack of diversity “more jarring” than expected, and felt like Seattle’s progressive politics did not extend to race.
“I feel people here just want to avoid the race topic,” she said. “Seattle people just want to look away from it. Not speaking about it is contributing to the problem.”
When she began taking barre exercise classes at a studio in Lower Queen Anne, her classes were filled almost exclusively with white women, she said. Its marketing reflected the studio’s customers, she said.
Williams talked to the owner and pushed for more inclusive imagery. The owner was receptive.
“The first time I got an email from them and they had a black model, I teared up,” she said. “If you now go to that studio, you see all ages and races … If you use your voice, people will listen.”
Before moving to Seattle from Boston in 2016, Eunice Brady, who is Filipina, compared Seattle neighborhoods’ census demographics, seeking a neighborhood where she could expect to see people who looked like her. She settled on Beacon Hill.
Brady, who had lived in Portland and visited Seattle several times nearly a decade ago, said she was always attracted to cities known for local arts, culture and environmental sustainability.
When she settled here, Seattle surprised her. In the few years since her visits, Seattle had become no more affordable than Boston. Entire neighborhoods, like South Lake Union, had transformed and felt culturally homogeneous.
“My assumption of Seattle has changed,” she said. Some areas seemed to be composed of people “all from the same background, and the same way of thinking and the same level of privilege.”
As a social worker who helps clients facing homelessness, Brady said she worries for people “living on the edge” that have been pushed from their homes and neighborhoods, and the city altogether.
She realizes she’s part of the change, of course.
On one hand, “If I hadn’t found the neighborhood I’m in, I would have regretted moving to Seattle.”
But at the same time, “I do add to gentrification. I have my own privilege. I’m educated,” she said. “What am I doing to make sure I’m investing in my community?”
As this boomtown expands again, newcomers are grappling with their own presence, too. Of the shared values bonding Seattleites new and old — the environment, natural beauty, liberal politics — worry might be the strongest.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Charles Hirschman, sociology professor emeritus at the University of Washington.