A reporter stumbled across a letter from 2000 in which a young woman decried the city’s changes: “We’re no longer a city of people.” Nearly two decades later, he’s connected with the letter writer — and others — to ask the same question she and this city have wrestled with for years.
The woman across from me, smiling in her Patagonia jacket, knows why I’m here. I’m here to embarrass her.
As a freshman at Seattle University, Meg Matthews sensed something wrong with her city. After reading a series in The Times asking whether the city was losing its soul, Matthews put words to those feelings. “We’re no longer a city of people,” began her letter to the paper, explaining with teenage indignity that Seattleites cared only about cars and paychecks. “Seattle is losing its soul, and it is gaining one that I don’t want to be a part of anymore. I’m leaving this city as soon as I get my degree.”
That was in 2000.
In the long corridor between then and now, Matthews got married, moved to England and Chicago, and returned to Seattle in 2013, just in time to buy a house before she could no longer afford one. So much has changed. And yet here I am, asking the same question Matthews and this city have wrestled with for years.
Is Seattle losing its soul?
Matthews, a communications manager at the University of Washington, meets me on a brutally windy day at Caffé Vita on Capitol Hill, a spot she picked because she wrote college papers here. “It was one of the places where I started to create my own identity and feel more connected to the city,” she says.
I slide the letter across the table.
“Aw, sweetie,” she says, shaking her head.
She wrote it because … well, she’s not sure. The best she can come up with is her favorite club, RKCNDY, had closed a few months earlier. When I found Matthews’ letter, I couldn’t believe how flat time is in Seattle. The questions that drove Matthews to consider leaving at 18 are the same ones she’s considering at 36.
What’s the future?
Can she afford this place?
What concerns Matthews now isn’t the loss of restaurants or clubs, meaningful as those may be, but the loss of entire classes of people who can’t afford the city anymore.
“I certainly feel that there are fundamental differences now,” Matthews says. “Maybe I’m wrong.”
Her husband, Bryan Howie, nods.
“Is the answer that Seattleites are always complaining?” he says. “Or is it that the same process has been happening and people have just been saying the same things about it?”
What’s at stake?
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure. Seattle cares very much about its “soul,” a know-it-when-you-see-it combination of vibe, history, livability and attitude that distinguishes Seattle from New York or New Orleans. And yet Seattle is always changing, a paradox that pits old against new, this city’s Hundred Years’ War.
Seattleites know the facts of this current boom. Seattle had the country’s hottest housing market in 2017, and the median home sells for more than $770,000. The trafficalypse is coming. The skyline is denser and taller than five years ago, and 1,000 people are moving here every week.
This feels like a defining moment, but that’s for history to sort out. Like me, Seattle is full of questions.
Is this staggering growth a good idea? Is the change of today different from the change of yesterday? What’s at stake?
Protecting his family’s history
Inye Wokoma, a local filmmaker and visual artist, meets me in the Central District. Wokoma uses art to talk about the gentrification of his neighborhood, and soon he begins talking about the letters.
They arrive at his home in bursts. Once, someone offered to buy his house and, as a good-faith gesture, included a $1 bill with the letter. Other letters include contracts with offers of $1 million.
Wokoma never responds, but neither does he throw the letters out. They’re a reminder of what’s happening to his neighborhood and city. So he keeps them in folders, along with his grandfather’s papers relating to the purchase of the house in 1947 and his current mortgage.
To him, the house is an important character in his family’s story. To everyone else it’s a commodity.
“I get it,” he says.
His grandfather bought the house when the Central District was one of the few neighborhoods where a black person could own a house because of racist lending practices and whites-only covenants. Family members died there. Wokoma wants his children to inherit it, history they can see and touch. But lately the house has felt like an island.
“The Central District as I knew it is gone,” he says.
The change consuming Seattle isn’t fundamentally new, he says. What’s happening in the CD happened to the Duwamish Tribe. But when I ask about meaningful change in his neighborhood, he cackles.
“Um. Well. Every-(bleeping)-thing.”
Young and ambitious
The Eastlake office of Jake Director, one of two 27-year-old founders of Strideline socks, looks as if he just moved in or is about to move out: a computer, a mostly empty desk, nothing on the walls but a big TV.
“I swear I’m not a total weirdo,” Director says. “We view this company as we’re either going to fail or we’re going to build this multi-, multi-billion-dollar brand.”
He and his childhood friend Riley Goodman started selling socks with the Seattle skyline in 2009, when they were students at Issaquah High School. Now they have 134 employees and own a factory in the Philippines. Their goal is to build the next Nike.
Whatever new Seattle is, I am pretty sure Director and Goodman are it.
“This is just this temporary office that we really love,” Director says, looking around. “But I have no attachment to this because I know it’s just a steppingstone.”
Director and Goodman both watched Anthony Bourdain’s CNN “Parts Unknown” episode about Seattle. The show acted as a Rorschach test within the city. Did Bourdain rely too much on stereotypes? Was he too easy on Amazon or too hard?
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“The impression was very much that Seattle is losing its spirit,” Goodman says.
“So negative,” Director says.
“I personally feel so much more energy in the city. The buzz, the economy, the cranes, the building.”
It’s the end of a workday. Music bumps. Dogs roam the office.
“Maybe if we were a little bit older and had spent years in Seattle and it had come to be what we knew and loved and now we were looking back and seeing the city change,” Goodman says, “maybe we’d have a different perspective.”
Something old, something new
Right here, at the corner of First and Madison, a man named John E. Back started Seattle’s cycle of change by destroying the city. Says so on a plaque.
It takes me a minute to find and less time to read: “Start of Seattle Fire Site.”
Back was described as a simple man — in a display of pioneer tenderness, the Post-Intelligencer described him as a “thick-set blonde of mediocre intelligence.” On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, he boiled a pot of glue, and it all went to hell.
Back turned his, well, back on the pot, and next thing he knew it was on fire, so naturally he tossed water on the flames, which only made it worse. By sunrise, pretty much the whole business district was gone, some 25 blocks turned to rubble — “a horrible black smudge,” wrote Rudyard Kipling.
“I know now what being wiped out means,” Kipling wrote, and it was true. The core of Seattle, the physical history, was gone.
City leaders met and decided to build again. But they wouldn’t just rebuild. They would build something new, something that would last, so they replaced the old wooden structures with modern buildings of brick and stone. In that context, the buildings still standing in Pioneer Square aren’t just beautiful and ornate, though they are.
They are monuments to change.
They are progress.
I ask Tom Heuser, a co-founder of the Capitol Hill Historical Society, about that idea. What if today’s buildings — the ones he describes as “modular monstrosities” and “sheds” — what if those same buildings become cherished representations of Seattle?
In his scarf and professorial glasses, Heuser nods as I ramble.
“And eventually all of these new buildings will have the same connection to the place as the ones we’re currently nostalgic about?” he says, pausing. “No, I don’t think that’s total BS.”
Heuser, 34, loves the old buildings on Capitol Hill. It’s one reason he created the historical society, so people would know what to protect. To him, the city’s old buildings seem personal, as if someone put their time and effort into getting it right, even though he knows many were also built during booms.
He walks down Broadway to his apartment, a brick building from 1924. He knows the name of the architect and that it used to have a rooftop garden and library.
Sometimes he imagines what those must have been like.
“Yeah, sure, soon enough people are going to develop their own stories with these places,” he says.
What could be lost?
But change and progress are messy, which is why I meet Quynh Pham in Little Saigon one morning. Pham, 30, works for Friends of Little Saigon, an organization dedicated to protecting the neighborhood. New developments are coming around 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, and with them, increased rents.
Can Little Saigon survive?
“The biggest challenge is we can see all of our businesses disappearing, easily,” Pham says.
I don’t know what it says about Seattle that people are concerned about the city’s soul, but it’s real. A fear that Seattle once was but isn’t anymore. Anxiety about that change plays out every day in Little Saigon.
The neighborhood’s roots date to the Vietnam War, a place for refugees to start over. For some, that’s reason enough to stay and fight. “We’ve been pushed out of our homes a lot,” Pham says.
Others can’t see the neighborhood surviving, she says, and besides, many in the Vietnamese community are moving south anyway.
As I think about Pham, I also think about Inye Wokoma and the Central District. A culturally significant neighborhood near downtown, a wave of development, a gradual loss of the community that made the neighborhood significant in the first place. The cycle churning again.
Pham worries about what will be lost, but she has a hard time explaining what that something is.
Then I mention the egg rolls.
While Pham described Little Saigon’s challenges, the owner of the restaurant had set down two egg rolls. Neither Pham nor I had ordered food, but Pham didn’t look surprised.
She rarely has a meeting here without this happening: a simple act of kindness, a small display of soul. The thing she’s worried about losing.