The sun also sets on Seattle

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

SEATTLE We may never know why Boeing is moving its marquee out of Seattle. Corporations are run by humans, and the vanities of humans are hard to discern behind bland rationalizations in press releases. Perhaps CEO Phil Condit simply got fed up with being overshadowed by the ever-grinning Bill Gates.

But we know about a bigger change in Seattle. No longer is the Emerald City smugly self-satisfied.

Through much of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, Seattle believed its press clippings. "The most livable" of American cities was not an honor earned, by the way, but a birthright claimed. Seattle was as parochial as Des Moines in believing it was as international as San Francisco. You could feel the future blowing in with the fresh air from the Far East, or so they said.

What made Seattle livable - and I lived there during that era - was the consensus of its citizens that they controlled their destiny.

"We're not going to make the same mistakes as L.A.," I would hear, repetitively.

Of course, Seattle made all of them, and then some: It sprawled out incoherently. It turned its back on mass transit even as traffic reached gridlock. It soaked up cheap hydroelectricity while its storied salmon died off. It forgot to insist on public access to its seashore. In the surrounding countryside, it accepted scenic drives through forests even as everyone knew that the visible trees were only decorative hedgerows to hide the blight of clear-cuts.

No matter. Livability is measured in attitude. If people are content, you can't tell them they aren't.

Seattle was a place where people with dirt under their fingernails drank in the same pubs as those without. Your neighbor might be a machinist or a university professor. You turned your head at the sight of a flashy bicycle, not a stretch limousine. Seattle was down to earth.

On that first Friday of spring when the sun broke out, office buildings emptied as if there had been a fire drill. Seattle was about living life.

Then something unexpected began gnawing at civic foundation.

Who would have guessed that money would shake Seattle's ability to believe in itself?

In short, envy arrived in the Northwest. Microsoft rose up on Seattle's eastern flank.

Millionaires became billionaires and begot more. Suddenly, what you did for a living mattered. Stock options divided people who were alike in all other ways. Condo buildings boomed in the inner city, and working couples in search of a home found themselves bidding against twentysomethings who wanted a crash-pad so they didn't have to bother driving after a performance of the symphony.

Seattle wanted to think it would be different. Local writers tried to insist that the New Rich of Microsoft and its clones were just plain folk in blue jeans, the same as everyone. This, at the very time Gates was reportedly buying entire old factories in the region just to salvage the huge timbers for his lakefront home.

Even Seattle couldn't swallow it after a while.

Now I visit and I hear whoa, not wow. Ordinary neighborhoods have become exclusive. Teachers and nurses and fishmongers are forced into their cars for long commutes to the suburbs to accommodate growing families. The monied ego of a few has eroded a long-standing civic consensus on urban redevelopment. Friends tell me they believe that class envy was at the root of Seattle's nasty newspaper strike a while ago. Although doing well enough, the middle class found itself being left behind.

With the new wealth have come other unpleasant changes. The easygoing pace of Northwest life has gone manic. Another friend who sells yachts said his best customers are wives trying to find some means to lure their husbands out of the office.

Seattle is a cautionary story about the civic destabilization of lopsided wealth.

And never mind the downturn in the new economy, or the momentary gloating of the old guard. The egalitarian covenants have been broken. Nothing else, not an earthquake and not riots, could leave so many feeling that they've lost their grip on the future. Nothing else but money could bring down the livability index.

I don't blame Condit for wanting out. I left myself.

Balzar is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. (c) 2001, Los Angeles Times.

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