History

City of Anxiety

As I write these words in the waning days of 2015, Seattle is a city full of holes — both literally and symbolically.

The most symbolic of these literal holes can be found by the shores of Elliott Bay near Pioneer Square, uncannily close to where Henry Yesler’s lumber mill operated during Seattle’s pioneer days. There lies Bertha, the infamous $800 million tunnel-boring machine that still sits idling in a repair pit after more than two long years of comically costly inaction. An apparent promise by the project’s overlords to resume drilling before the approaching new year begins has been met with profound skepticism by much of the local citizenry, given the appalling metastasis of the Bertha boondoggle during the previous few years.

Several other symbolic holes can be found in the burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood, where the city’s most recent technology boom has provoked a staggering amount of new building construction, mostly centered on and around the main campus of Amazon, the global online-commerce corporation that, here circa 2015, has come to dominate Seattle’s economy, politics, and civic life.

Amazon received much critical national attention when The New York Times published a feature-length article on August 15, 2015, titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The article reported on the draconian workplace atmosphere experienced by the company’s employees, both blue-collar and white-collar. Among the infamous pull quotes culled from that article was one attributed to former Amazon employee Bo Olson. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” Olson said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Three days later, on August 18, a blogger named CML published an article at the popular website Gawker titled “How Amazon Swallowed Seattle” that provoked much further critical chatter on social media. The provocative opening sentence: “Seattle is dead and Amazon killed it.”

What followed that sentence was a litany of grievances concerning how Amazon’s economic dominance of Seattle had negatively affected the city’s longtime sociocultural quality — especially on Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that for many years was the city’s countercultural epicenter, yet which recently had been overwhelmed by abrupt wealth acquisition and its attendant gentrification. While Capitol Hill was once a strong regional haven for gay people and gay culture, gay-bashings had recently increased alarmingly there, especially in the Pike-Pine corridor, the neighborhood’s longtime nightlife mecca. Such dangerous change was an obvious consequence of the neighborhood’s new, young “brogrammer” demographic — mostly comprising Amazon employee transplants who had moved into Capitol Hill’s recently built luxury condominiums with apparently no clue about the neighborhood’s unique demographic history.

The difference between Old Seattle and New Seattle that CML lamented in their Gawker article was ultimately qualitative, not quantitative. Yes, Seattle’s economy was buzzing once again circa 2015 — but the boom this time was unfortunately booming at the expense of a unique civic character that once was locally abundant, yet was then apparently being suffocated by rampant economic fundamentalism, an ideological pathology that Amazon both fed upon and fomented during Seattle’s most recent urban growth boom.

As with Seattle’s circa-1995 boom, the circa-2015 boom was yet another “tale of two cities” in which extreme prosperity was accompanied by unprecedented gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. The city’s emerging housing affordability crisis that year was acute enough to become a central issue in the November 3, 2015, Seattle City Council elections — so much so that one day before Election Day, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a civil emergency concerning homelessness, calling for an increase in federal and state funding for human services and emergency shelter.

Among the hot local topics related to that crisis then looming over those elections were linkage fees and inclusionary zoning, local policies which were both intended to make real-estate developers provide affordable housing in Seattle by requiring them to either designate a portion of new units as affordable or contribute to the city’s affordable housing fund. Developers clearly became a magnet for progressive activist ire during the city’s 2015 elections — especially after one developer was caught attempting to intimidate one council candidate by threatening possible political retribution shortly before Election Day.

The candidate in question was Jon Grant, the former executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, who was then running for the citywide Council Position 8 as a grassroots challenger to the establishment incumbent Tim Burgess. Grant was apparently told on October 10 by Brett Allen, an executive of the development firm Triad Capital Partners, that the company would make certain that a $200,000 independent expenditure committee set up especially to attack Grant would “go away” if Grant would contact a certain Tenants Union attorney with whom he had once worked and convince the attorney to settle a lawsuit against Triad sponsored by the union. Triad had been contracted in 2007 by the City of Seattle for a major construction project downtown on city-owned land: namely, the $400 million Civic Square complex across from Seattle City Hall, which had then been delayed for years by the lawsuit.

After Grant refused Allen’s clumsy blackmail attempt and publicly revealed the Scorsesean encounter between himself and Allen, the incident was reported in The Seattle Times on October 12, immediately starting a full-scale Internet wildfire among Seattle’s political cognoscenti. Such was the strength and urgency of that discursive blaze that Mayor Murray announced on October 14 that the City of Seattle would not renew its contract with Triad because of the intimidation tactics they apparently employed against Grant.

Such clandestine political chicanery within Seattle’s municipal machinery was clearly nothing new for those who then remembered similar shenanigans during the city’s circa-1995 boom — such as the $23 million Pacific Place/Nordstrom parking garage corporate welfare giveaway. Recalling that episode now should underscore the uncanny similarities between the two booms — such as the respective ways in which the city dealt with its underclass in the context of extreme economic inequity.

Which inevitably brings us back to Mark Sidran, Seattle’s infamously draconian city attorney circa 1995. Even Sidran, among the city’s most avid municipal boosters during the 1990s, acknowledged the city’s apparently incurable collective anxiety during that decade in a speech delivered to the Rotary Club of Seattle on August 4, 1993, which would later appear in permanent print as a Seattle Times guest editorial column published on August 10, 1993:

“And yet, we Seattleites have this anxiety, this nagging suspicion that despite the mountains and the Sound and smugness about all our advantages, maybe, just maybe we are pretty much like those other big American cities, ‘back East’ as we used to say when I was a kid and before California joined the list of ‘formerly great places to live.'”

Circa 1993, the anxiety Sidran spoke of was the same collective civic insecurity that drove the city’s longtime aspirations towards “world-class” status during the 1990s. Circa 2015, the anxiety felt by many longtime Seattleites was driven by a collective sense that much of what once made Seattle special was disappearing as a consequence of the recent fruition of those very erstwhile global aspirations.

When one considers how Mark Sidran and Kurt Cobain uncannily represented the sociocultural yin and yang of Seattle circa 1993, it should make perfect sense that Nirvana released their final studio album In Utero merely one month after Sidran’s dog-whistle op-ed appeared in The Seattle Times. While Sidran prepared to unleash his draconian civility ordinances upon Seattle’s underclass that same year, Cobain responded to the absurdity of global mega-stardom with a deliberately shrill set of glorious anti-anthems, guaranteed to sell at least one million copies that same autumn, despite its brazen gadfly stance.

When one considers in turn Cobain’s iconic self-destruction the following spring in the context of Sidranism’s local political ascendancy, Seattle’s perpetual collective anxiety should seem inevitably dystopian.

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While Seattle settled uneasily into its erstwhile namesake century, all was not yet lost for the city’s rich and gritty history during the waning days of 2015. Despite the city’s increasingly upscale electorate, that year’s November municipal elections ushered in the most genuinely progressive new city council in several election cycles, led by the decisive re-election of the controversial socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant and the election of Lisa Herbold, the brazenly liberal longtime legislative aide to departing council member Nick Licata.

Seattle has also prospered socioculturally during the twenty-first century by continuing its gradual transformation from an isolated and parochial city into one that is now profoundly cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multiethnic — yet the increasing economic inequity that has accompanied that positive demographic change ironically now threatens to undermine it.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s erstwhile progressive municipal promise remains today uncertain, indeed.

Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.