Which year in Seattle history was the most pivotal yet? I hereby nominate 1989, the year when Old Seattle became New Seattle — for better or worse.
Several reasons exist to qualify 1989 for that crucial historical distinction. When that year began, the conflict between Greater Seattle and Lesser Seattle had already reached fever pitch, with Microsoft already challenging Boeing’s longtime dominance over the Puget Sound economy, and the emerging technology boom bringing in new residents from across the United States in unprecedented numbers. Yet certain specific local events that year — both political and cultural in character — would ultimately seal the deal.
The most crucial of those events was that year’s set of municipal elections in November, which would make official Seattle’s transformation from a willfully obscure city into one that openly embraced “world-class” ambitions. The results of those elections would also pave the way for the unprecedented economic development — and the resulting gentrification, displacement, and homelessness — that would mark the 1990s as Seattle’s most pivotal decade yet.
During 1989, Seattle’s economy was booming once again, almost 20 years after the Boeing Bust, driven mainly by Microsoft and other local players in the global technology sector. The previous year, in 1988, Washington state had evaded a national economic deficit trend and posted a $7.4 billion trade surplus — and in 1989, that surplus would increase to $12.4 billion. The quality of life in the Puget Sound region had improved so much by 1989 that Money magazine that year declared Seattle the “Best Place to Live” in its annual survey of 300 U.S. cities.
It was a long way from 1975, when, despite Harper’s magazine crowning Seattle “America’s most livable city” that year, the Boeing Bust still cast a long shadow over the local economy, and the emerging recovery was agonizingly slow, hampered by the national recession. After a long period in which Seattle’s perceived livability hinged on environmental splendor rather than economic vitality, the city had once again become a place to move to rather than move away from.
Nevertheless, clouds still loomed on the local horizon. Culturally, there remained a deep civic discontent of the sort that had informed much of the literature, music, and visual art that had come from Seattle and its environs when the local economic picture was bleak enough to drive people away from the Puget Sound region, rather than lure them here. During 1989, that lingering and deeply rooted gloom would manifest itself in the city’s most important cultural movement of that otherwise superficially glittering era.
While Seattle’s economy was on the verge of a major breakthrough in 1989, its underground music scene was on the verge of a parallel cultural breakthrough. It would begin that February, when the British music journalist Everett True was first flown to Seattle. He’d been asked by the influential London-based music weekly Melody Maker to write a feature article on Sub Pop Records and its flagship band Mudhoney. The British music media first began to notice the emerging Seattle music scene when the legendary London DJ John Peel became enamored with Sub Pop 200, the seminal compilation album featuring Seattle music acts released by Sub Pop in December 1988. It was True’s Melody Maker article, published in two parts on March 11 and 18, 1989, that was ultimately credited with breaking grunge to the world outside Seattle. True described Seattle as “the most vibrant, kicking music scene encompassed in one city for at least ten years.”
Although Seattle’s mainstream media largely ignored grunge prior to 1989, it finally became a genre to be reckoned with within Seattle’s cultural life on the evening of June 9, 1989. That was the date of the first Sub Pop Lame Fest, when Sub Pop rented the historic 1,419-seat Moore Theatre downtown to showcase three of its signature bands: Mudhoney, TAD, and Nirvana. With typical Seattle-style snark, the event was advertised as featuring “Seattle’s lamest bands in a one-night orgy of sweat and insanity!”
The Lame Fest marked a major turning point for the Seattle music scene: a bill with all local bands selling out a venue as large as the Moore Theatre was unprecedented at that time. Prior to the Lame Fest, most Seattle bands playing original music were grateful to sell out such small local venues as the Central Tavern, the Vogue, and Squid Row. Expectations were reportedly so low for the Lame Fest that the manager of the Moore sent the security staff home early because he didn’t expect anyone to show up. The manager was mistaken: the sold-out status of the concert took everyone by surprise — including and especially Sub Pop. With no security on hand, the crowd went wild — and the Lame Fest would be the talk of the town for several weeks afterwards.
The Lame Fest was also the de facto record release party for Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, scheduled for official release the following week on June 15. Their performance that night was also a pleasant surprise for all involved. While most of Nirvana’s previous performances had been reportedly mediocre — they were then still a very young band, after all — their intense Lame Fest performance remains legendary today among Seattle scenesters of that time. TAD and Mudhoney also gave inspiring performances that night, making the 1989 Lame Fest a truly landmark concert in Seattle music history.
One particular national incident in 1989 coincided uncannily with the transformation of Old Seattle into New Seattle that year: namely, the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California on October 17. San Francisco was among the cities hit hardest by that major seismic event, which caused 63 fatalities and severe damage to that city’s historic Embarcadero Freeway. Given the timing, the Loma Prieta earthquake was eerily symbolic of Seattle’s emergence from San Francisco’s shadow after so many decades of psychogeographical reciprocity.
Also severely damaged in that earthquake was the Cypress Street Viaduct in nearby Oakland, where 42 lives were lost. The structural similarity of that viaduct to Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct would remind many of the infamous fragility of the latter. Seattle, after all, is also perilously close to a seismic fault line — and indeed, Seattle’s viaduct would later also be damaged by the Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001, the Puget Sound region’s worst seismic event since the Great Alaskan earthquake on March 27, 1964. While the damage from the Nisqually earthquake was merely cosmetic, it would still compel the city to consider replacing Seattle’s viaduct in order to avoid any possible future disaster.
Among the noteworthy émigrés who would flock to Seattle circa 1989 — and thus demonstrate the city’s ascendancy as a cultural mecca — was the British-born writer Jonathan Raban, who first visited Seattle that year while writing the celebrated travel memoir Hunting Mister Heartbreak. Raban became sufficiently enchanted with Seattle during his visit that, the following year, he would abandon his longtime London residency to move to Queen Anne Hill, where he still resides as of this writing. In Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Raban wrote presciently, “One could tell that Seattle was on a winning streak [in 1989] by the number of men in cranes who were trying to smash the place to bits with wrecking balls.”
Another crucial passage from Hunting Mister Heartbreak would reveal further prescient thinking by Raban, considering Seattle’s demographic metastasis following 1989. Raban observed the demographic similarity between late twentieth-century Seattle and early nineteenth-century London in literary terms, using the contemporary Greater Seattle population figure for his comparison:
“For Seattle [circa 1989] was a perfectly novel-sized city. There was something just right about its 1.7 million population. In 1831, when [Charles] Dickens was nineteen, London had a population of 1.65 million, and there was a relationship . . . between the demography of the city and the plot of the nineteenth-century London novel. A city of less than two million was big — plenty big enough for people to disappear into it without trace for years at a time. It was also small enough to ensure that chance meetings, coincidences, would continually happen in it, unexpectedly and out of context. Twentieth-century critics had sometimes complained of the way in which Dickens’s plots were kept moving by these surprise encounters, with X and Y suddenly bumping into each other around the next corner. Yet that was always happening in the real life of late twentieth-century Seattle, just as it must have happened in the real life of early nineteenth-century London. There was an inherent plottiness about Seattle [then], a plottiness unmatched in Rainbird’s experience of other cities. It was various, sprawling, a place full of secrets and dark corners; and yet it was contained . . . it would fit inside the covers of a book.”
Raban’s decision to move to Seattle was significant because, rather than being a young and unknown talent seeking to establish a name for himself in a prestigious place, he was already, at the age of 47, an accomplished and acclaimed writer with an impressive bibliography. His decision to abandon London was the result of several factors, crucially including a long-gestating disillusionment with the land of his birth. As a 2003 profile in the London-based journal The Guardian would later note: “Around the mid-1970s, a school of London-based writers [including Raban] seemed to realise, all at once, that England was a small place.”
A decade of rule by the notorious Margaret Thatcher would clinch that disillusionment, while a fledgling romance with a woman journalist in Seattle during his 1989 visit would seal the deal. Raban would thus become among the first of many established writers, musicians, and visual artists who would migrate to Seattle in search of a better life — both public and private — during the 1990s.
The year 1989 in Seattle concluded politically with a significant set of municipal elections, bringing in Seattle’s first black mayor and its most notorious and polarizing city attorney. On November 7, Norman B. Rice, an 11-year member of the Seattle City Council, defeated Seattle City Attorney Doug Jewett in a crowded contest for mayor, while Mark Sidran was elected as Jewett’s successor.
Born on May 4, 1943, in Denver, Colorado, Rice was first elected to the Seattle City Council in 1978 in a special election to fill a vacancy. He was re-elected in 1979, 1983, and 1987, serving eleven years in all on council. He first ran for mayor in 1985, but lost that year to incumbent Charles Royer. When Rice ran again in 1989 in a crowded primary field, he won the general election by 99,699 votes to Jewett’s 75,446. He would be re-elected as mayor in 1993.
During the technology boom of the 1990s, Rice would lead the economic rejuvenation of downtown Seattle, seeking to make it his ultimate legacy. While Seattle’s politically powerful downtown business community adored Rice, the local social justice activist community gradually became disillusioned with him as he eventually became more a champion of economic development and gentrification than of genuine social justice. His tenure would ultimately demonstrate the folly of identity politics. Anyone who thought that the election of a person of color to the mayor’s office would make Seattle a more socially just city was profoundly mistaken by the time Rice left office on January 1, 1998.
Rice notably angered advocates for the homeless, who strongly opposed an anti-loitering ordinance he wrote and signed into law during his first year in office. Ostensibly aimed at reining in drug traffic in downtown Seattle, Rice’s legislation was viewed by many activists as a carte blanche for Seattle police to harass homeless people and other apparent undesirables whose existence challenged Seattle’s emerging “world-class” self-image. Those same activists also felt that, during his eight-year tenure, Rice didn’t do enough to provide low-income housing and other amenities for Seattle’s underclass.
“He sort of capitulated to the [downtown] business interests,” lamented Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, when interviewed for a 2010 Seattle Times article recalling Rice’s accomplishments in public office.
As an example, Lee cited a three-year-long political battle from 1993 to 1996 to locate a hygiene center for homeless people — which would provide restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities — in downtown Seattle. The proposed location, the Glen Hotel, was one block north from the site of Seattle’s planned new symphony hall, to which philanthropist and former real-estate developer Jack Benaroya (1921-2012) was donating $15 million. The hygiene center was temporarily defeated by a late-night phone call from Benaroya to Rice, threatening to withhold financial support from the mayor’s prospective 1996 candidacy for Washington state governor unless he prevented the hygiene center’s location near the symphony hall. Rice finally agreed to a compromise location on the outskirts of downtown. The symphony hall, opened in September 1998, now bears Benaroya’s name.
Even more important to Seattle’s future political direction than Norm Rice’s election as mayor was the election of Mark Sidran as city attorney. During his three terms in office from 1990 to 2002, Sidran would become infamous among the city’s progressive activist community for championing “civility laws” that effectively criminalized poverty within the Seattle city limits. Mark Sidran’s political ascendancy would signal Seattle’s transformation from a humble, compassionate city into one with global ambitions — and one that would wage war on its own underclass as a means to become “world-class.”
Sidran’s biography prior to his election gives little indication of how divisive a public figure he would become during his tenure. Born in Seattle on July 7, 1951, and raised in the Seward Park neighborhood, Sidran attended Franklin High School and performed well enough academically there to gain admission on a scholarship to Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in government in 1973. He then returned to Seattle to attend the University of Washington School of Law, earning his Juris Doctor in 1976. Between graduation and election, Sidran spent ten years (1975-1985) as a deputy prosecuting attorney in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Then, from 1986 to 1989, he was a partner at the law firm McKay & Gaitan. During that time he was also a special counsel to Washington state governor Booth Gardner.
Sidran’s legacy would ultimately be symbolic, as he ultimately came to represent how Seattle, once a proudly working-class city, would become defined by extreme class stratification by the end of his tenure. He was not a catalyst for that stratification, but rather an enabler, as he applied the lessons he learned as a young prosecutor to support Seattle’s emerging upper class against the city’s underclass in the legal sphere.
When Rice and Sidran took office on January 1, 1990, the emergence of New Seattle would begin in earnest.
Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.