The city may have reached a point where the smile on the side of the Amazon box looks more like a smirk.
You know that scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” when Jimmy Stewart gets his old life back, then joyfully clomps through the snowy center of Bedford Falls, hollering “Merry Christmas!” to everyone in sight? When Pottersville, a place of avarice and avoidance, turned out to be just a bad dream?
That’s how it felt driving into South Lake Union on Christmas Eve morning. The roads were clear. I found a parking space right across the street from Starbucks, where I walked straight up to the counter and had an easy, warm chat with the barista.
It was as if I had traveled back to the Seattle of six or so years ago, before the cranes and the crowds. When even some non-techies could afford a one-bedroom apartment on their own, and some of your favorite old haunts hadn’t been bought or priced out. When Uber and Lyft drivers didn’t stop cold in the middle of the street to pick up or drop off, and people looked up from their phones.
Believe me, I know: We are far from Pottersville.
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But we have become a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation, and have reached a point where the smile on the side of the Amazon box looks more like a smirk. And when those same boxes appeared in Christmas commercials, singing their way through offices and homes asking “Can you feel it?” it just felt like they were rubbing it in.
We can feel it, all right. The same aches and pains being suffered by other cities that have been upended, body and soul, by the tech boom.
Consider this Dec. 26 headline in The New York Times: “Happy New Year! May Your City Never Become San Francisco, New York or Seattle.”
“Seattle does not want to become San Francisco,” the piece began, “a fate that has come to refer exclusively to the city’s worst traits: its $5,000-a-month rents, its homeless encampments and the ever-present dissonance between those two.”
None of this is news, of course, We’ve been wringing our hands over these troubles at City Council meetings and coffee shops for years now. And still, we haven’t figured out a way to keep the middle class that built and greases the gears of this city living in it.
Most alarming is the change in some neighborhoods, such as Seattle’s Central District, where Uncle Ike’s has turned 23rd and Union into a neon-lit Emerald City for those in search of weed. Farther down the road, the Red Apple Market has been demolished, taking with it the fried catfish and stewed greens that were once at the ready.
The other day, my colleague Gene Balk chronicled how, for the first time, Kitsap County is one of the top five destinations for people leaving King County.
The tech boom has also made another sort of mark here: We’re one of the few places in the country where people seeking help for tech addiction can find treatment.
We are living in formidable times; historic times, when people are booking seats for flights into space and I can’t remember how I got around before GPS. Losing your smartphone can feel like a lung has collapsed; and Facebook and Google have connected me with old friends and childhood lunchboxes, movie titles and dulled memories. I am grateful and amazed at what technology has done.
But what price have we paid for those conveniences? What have we lost, or forgotten, or let fall to the wayside, in pursuit of that speed and shine?
I don’t want to be another whiner. I accept and embrace that this is who we are now.
But it’s alarming that other cities look to Seattle as a place they don’t want to be. So as the new year starts, let’s look for possible solutions to some of our shared problems.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has made homeless-camp removals her focus, while adding at least 500 more shelter spaces throughout the city. She also announced a plan to expand the Navigation Team, made up of police officers and outreach workers who connect encampment residents to services — and, ideally, to permanent housing.
That’s a start. But other than moving to Bremerton, what would you like to see happen here? What do you hope for in the New Year?
I hope to have my city no longer be a cautionary tale, but a place where people hold dear what and where they came from, while still looking to the future — and looking each other in the eye.