Many years ago I read the book “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” by the travel writer Paul Theroux, written n 2008. One passage stood out to me in the book as he toured through Japan. It read, “All travel is time travel. Having just arrived in Japan, I felt I had traveled into the future, to a finished version of all the cities I’d passed through on this trip. In time if they made plans, American big cities would evolve to become the same sort of metropolis,just as big, just as efficient and intimidating: Los Angeles and Seattle and New York already had the same shape and bones and the general shape of Tokyo and would soon be just as soulless”. I cannot speak too much on LA and Tokyo, but Seattle is my hometown and I can speak a lot on it’s soul or lack thereof. Probably of most concern is that as time has passed in Seattle I cannot disagree. We have become a plastic city. Seeking to teardown the old, in search of the new.
The Seattle I grew up and the Seattle of today are much different cities. The Seattle of the seventies was still a smaller city by US standards, locked away in the northwest corner of the continental United States. It seemed a sleepy city with the local economy driven by the airplane giant Boeing. It still had a very blue collar feel to it. My father was a carpenter and would be out of the house before 6am and be home a little after 4 in the afternoon. The downtown area had high rises but still a lot of older building including one that had a Woolworth (a rich legacy from a different era). The restaurants were older (who remembers the Dog House?). The streets were mainly empty at night. It was certainly not New York or LA, but it was comfortable. There were skyscrapers but not too many, you could count them, the tallest being around fifty stories. It was a good place to live as it did not suffer from the illnesses of the larger metropolitan cities. In my youth is seemed the biggest city in the world.
As the seventies came to a close and the eighties began a new era was about to dawn and a major hub of that era would be born across the water in Redmond. The rise of Microsoft sparked a new a era for Seattle and not far behind we had Starbucks, McCaw Cellular, Amazon and a number of high tech companies. We soon had a who’s who of the very wealthy – Gates, Allen, McCaw, Bezos, then divorces created some of the wealthiest woman on the planet (McKenzie and Melinda). Seattle had problems but the economy and money were not a part of the problem. We had transitioned to a new era in Seattle. Growth in the city would accelerate the once sleepy downtown sprung to life. The number of residence in the inner city would explode as we moved into the nineties, making the city itself no longer a 9-5 lifestyle as the days were extended to well into the night.
With the technological boom the city of Seattle began to rapidly change. When you have wealthy people you pretty soon have homes that are estates. Real Estate prices started to sore and they continue to soar. This meant the death of neighborhoods. The Central District which was traditionally Seattle’s black neighborhood quickly succumbed to gentrification, which is a fancy word for capitalism gone wild The idea of traditional inner cities has left Seattle, sure there are still small foot prints but they are shrinking. A house bought for under 100k now fetched close to a million, maybe more. Some say that is great, but then the next question is where do you move and how far out of Seattle must you go to find something you can afford? The city had stated to become too expensive to live in.
The skyline of Seattle had grown into a stale architectural disaster. A bunch of capitalist developers creating a series of rectangle’s that dot the skyline which they call art. We all can draw stick figures, we are just not all vein enough to call ourselves artists. In the end it looks blase. For a city that likes to think itself modern its amazing we cannot think beyond the idea of a rectangle and look to some of the cool buildings being constructed in Europe, Asia or the Middle East. We are capitalists and think in terms of maximizing profits. Looking at the short term, unable to grasp the future. Mistaking dollars spent and dollars made as a way to beautify the skyline, not realizing we have shamed ourselves into ugliness.
When you think of cities that have a soul, you probably do not think of many in the United States. Great cities of the world like Rome, London, Madrid, Cairo Etc…have deep roots, deep histories. Seattle on the other hand seems intent on selling its history for the future. A future that at the surface looks blank and rather sterile. There are still some historical sites and we have Public Market, though developers seem intent in destroying it Underground Seattle still exits and Pioneer Square is alive and well. Areas like the International District (formerly China Town) are shrinking as new development comes in and sterilizes the neighborhood. It probably is a bit unfair to compare Seattle to really old cities like Rome or Paris, as we have nowhere near their history. however at our current pace we seem to change everything, tearing down the old (which by historical standards is not that old), to embrace the new. No matter how anyone tries to depict it the future never looks that great.
Walking around Seattle a few years ago waiting to meet a friend I was struck by all the slick, trendy and swank restaurants. All filled to capacity and even on a Tuesday night. Everything was made for the technology sector. Everything had to be new, modern and trendy. At some point it all looks rather stale. When everything is new and modern, you start to lose focus of who you are and where you have been. Youth however never appreciates the old, always thinking whatever is around the corner must be exciting and fulfilling. Only to lose interest not long after the discovery. Maybe in a thousand years Seattle will have developed some charm, some character, maybe even a sense of soul. In the meantime we race ahead seeking the new and shiny. Looking at shapeless highrises stretching towards the sky. Perhaps looking to heaven to find Seattle’s soul.
Good Night and Good Luck
Sept 20, 2021