It’s not news that bad news is what sizzles. And in the past year, nobody has gotten scorched like Seattle.
From being pandemic ground zero and then riot central and then homelessness cautionary tale, the city’s image has been roughed up and made into the butt of jokes nationally — especially by the conservative press.
For a while, Fox News’ Sean Hannity labeled any report on his show about Seattle with one all-caps signifier: CRAZYTOWN.
Other headlines on the network have described the formerly emerald city as “on life support,” “circling the drain,” or as a place with a “once-booming economy soon to be demolished” (by tax hikes, naturally).
Sure we had a rough year, but Seattle boosters now are learning that hyperbole like this is tough to shed. When the Downtown Seattle Association posted a video a year ago showing boarded up buildings with the theme of “the heart of our city is quiet,” it got 496,000 views on YouTube. When it tried to reverse that with upbeat video last month called ‘the heart of Seattle is open,” nobody cared. The new one has been seen only 4,300 times — less than one one-hundredth as much as the bad news.
I flock to bad news, too. But it is worth pointing out an underreported aspect of pandemic-era Seattle — which is all the people out there who have completely ignored the negative narrative.
People like Navjit Singh.
Singh is 29, and last year, when he was confronted with all the above dour PR about the city, he didn’t freak out, or hunker down or flee to Bellevue. Instead he was driving on Seattle’s Capitol Hill one day, right next to the tattered CHOP/CHAZ zone that got Fox News’ ire up so much, when he saw a plywood-covered, graffiti-marred little shop.
“They had given up and moved out,” Singh says of the previous tenants. “We said ‘that’s it! That’s the place.’”
So Singh is now the co-founder of Spice Box, a restaurant specializing in northern Indian cuisine. His father Makhan does most of the cooking. They got a deal on the lease because, well, because they were insane enough to want to open a restaurant next to the old CHOP in the middle of a global pandemic.
But business has been booming, Singh says. Even now the Walgreens across the street is covered in fresh plywood, anticipating more vandalism. But Singh says Spice Box has no intention of locking down or boarding up.
“The pandemic, all the problems in the city, it’s been an opportunity for us,” he said. “People say we took a chance opening here, but it was our dream, so we knew it was going to work out, 100%.”
We’ve probably written a hundred stories about all the Seattle businesses closing, and they were all true stories. But what hasn’t been stressed is that, at the same time, new business applications have soared.
In Washington state, for example, (sorry, there’s no data broken out by city), the U.S. Census Bureau reports that applications to start new businesses are up 41% in the first three months of 2021, compared to a year ago.
Meanwhile the Urban Institute reports that Seattle’s existing small businesses were the hardiest of any big city studied, with the pandemic closures causing small business delinquencies here below the national average.
The result is that “the broader doomsday predictions about urban neighborhoods never came to pass,” reported Bloomberg Businessweek this week. Their story highlighted a slew of other new businesses that opened on Seattle’s Capitol Hill despite the pandemic and riots, including restaurants, a Mexican chocolatier and a throwback newsstand that also sells beer.
Seattle’s allegedly dying downtown also is showing unexpected signs of life. This month it was announced that the half-abandoned Macy’s building was bought for nearly $600 million (about triple what the previous owner had paid for it in the past decade.)
Last week came news that some businesses, including a law firm and a wealth-management company, had leased out a bunch of floors in the new Rainier Square tower downtown. That’s the same building Amazon had made into a symbol of its opposition to Seattle’s proposed business taxes a few years back.
Amazon’s relationship with Seattle remains in a state of flux. But if the taxes are really that egregious, what sense would it make that a wealth management firm, of all things, is the one signing a big lease to stay?
This all seems like a lot of action for a place that’s circling the drain. Are these people just not watching Fox News?
Seriously the pandemic has tested Seattle in countless ways. It exacerbated some of our worst preexisting conditions, and now the city’s got a ton of urban repair to do.
But I also can’t help but think Seattle will come out fine. One of the lesser-told stories of the gloomy plague year is that so many people here really are crazy hopeful dreamers. Enough to not buy in to the hype. To go ahead and rip off the plywood anyway, warnings about being on life support be damned.
I guess we are CRAZYTOWN, after all.