This surprisingly simple question doesn’t get asked enough, or at all, even as Seattle is being remade at startling speed.
Sometimes I think this newspaper has written only one story recently, the same story again and again. It’s that one about how Seattle is losing its soul, its middle class, its past, its very identity.
A reader brought this up to me the other day, after I wrote about a new Seattle apartment renting for an obscene $19,265 per month. He argued that in all this obsessive chronicling of the city’s gentrification and change, we’re missing the best story.
“You’re becoming a curmudgeon,” wrote Sandor Wallace, a 47-year-old Seattle native. “One of those ‘Ballard used to be great but now it sucks’ people.
“Seattle has never been better. It’s great! It’s still our city, it just got better. More restaurants, bars, nicer places to live. If you feel left behind … maybe you should rethink where you live.
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“I hear Montana’s nice.”
Guilty on the curmudgeon charge (although it’s a lifelong, not recent, affliction). But he hints at what I think is the big question of the moment for this city, one that hasn’t been posed directly by anyone in civic life or down at City Hall:
Is Seattle getting better, or worse?
I ripped off the idea to ask this question from the best newspaper columnist in America, Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, who right now is running a series on people’s attitudes about that city. In true columnist spirit, he ripped it off from The New Yorker, which this summer asked “Are things getting better or worse? Why assessing the state of the world is harder than it sounds.”
The gist was that in almost all measurable ways — poverty, crime, quality of life, health, war and so on — the world is vastly better off than it was in previous generations. But people are pessimistic anyway, seemingly immune to progress and good news.
So what about Seattle? This city is changing at warp velocity not approached since the Gold Rush. Is it getting better, as reader Wallace suggests, and many of us are just irrationally and nostalgically grumpy about it?
By many measures, Wallace is exactly right that Seattle has never been better. The schools for example have improved markedly. Or take crime: Despite the daily drumbeat on talk radio that the city is a dangerous hellhole, it’s actually as safe as it’s been in decades. Seattle’s violent-crime rate was two-and-a-half times higher in 1990 than it is today (15 incidents per 1,000 residents then, 6 per 1,000 now). The property-crime rate was twice as high. Imagine if we’d had Nextdoor back then — it would have crashed from all the fevered postings.
Street prostitution used to be so rampant around Pike Place Market that they made a national documentary about it, “Streetwise,” in 1984.
A few weeks back when the smoke rolled in, it reminded me a bit of the 1980s, when you could see that same sepia-toned haze around Mount Rainier almost every summer afternoon, due to the cloaking smog from cars.
Somehow the air is cleaner now even as the economy’s on fire. As I write this, one company, Amazon, incredibly lists 6,752 more job openings in the city. That’s even after announcing its second headquarters is going elsewhere.
Or take one slice of life, the food scene. You could spend a year of high variety only eating out of trucks. Recently we ran a story about how 52 restaurants were opening, a figure so unbelievable we had to add “yes, really” in the headline.
But I hear daily from people pushed aside by the go-go city.
“I now write to you from Olympia, driven here by the Seattle rent increases that my retirement income couldn’t keep up with,” writes former Seattleite George Hickey.
“World class traffic, world class cost of living, world class stress,” writes Seattle native Dick Schwartz. “What was so wrong with being provincial?”
In the 1980s, the city was having a fight between Greater and Lesser Seattle. There’s no doubt who won because what’s left today is “Vanishing Seattle” (a website), “Lost Seattle” (a book) and “Ghosts of Seattle Past” (“an atlas of Seattle memories”).
This isn’t just about landmarks. The rise of socialism in local politics is because people can see that capitalism, as currently practiced, might generate great wealth but it is not working well for everybody.
So who’s right — Sandor Wallace, who says Seattle has never been better? Or these curmudgeons?
I suspect they both are — or that your answer depends on where you sit. What’s odd is that nobody ever asks the question. Cities are built to change, but in Seattle we seem mostly to hurtle along as if powerless over the scope, rate or types of change.
We aren’t, though. We can build on what works and fix, or at least complain about, what doesn’t. So I’d love to hear — at email@example.com — specific ways Seattle has gotten better, or worse, during this great gold rush of the 21st century.