Coming home

MY EXTREMELY significant other teaches and therefore has each summer off. So every year we take two or three weeks and hit the road. This year was one of our longest road trips ever: a lovely 9,000-mile cross-continent adventure visiting family and friends.

Coming home is always a joy. Traveling from the east, we encounter the more familiar landscapes by about western Montana, then continue over the crest of the Cascades, descending into the welcoming, fir-soaked arms of home: the sparkling water of lakes Sammamish and Washington, the thrill of the first glimpse of the downtown skyline. It's a ritual. But this year, I had a new reaction: Eww.

About the time we got to the edges of North Bend—which are a lot farther east than they used to be—we knew it would be different. We'd spent weeks outside big cities, and for some reason, this year, we both saw what you never see when you're too close and too familiar to notice: Seattle has grown a lot, and the way that it has grown is not a good thing—or an accidental thing.

Even 10 years ago, the Seattle metropolitan area was masked by its geography: Spread from Tacoma to Everett, with Kitsap and the Eastside separated by water, it didn't feel like a megalopolis. The city itself still had distinct hill-defined neighborhoods. Today, the human scale that made Seattle such a "liveable" city is largely gone. This isn't a gripe about traffic—annoying and costly as gridlock is. Nor is it a complaint about the inevitable immigration to the region that its liveability spurred.

But where those people go is a matter largely of public policy. In King County, it's a question of balancing opposition to sprawl with opposition to greater neighborhood density—more apartments and condos, more high-rises. The answer, in Seattle and in King County in general, has combined the worst of both worlds. Somehow, despite the Growth Management Act (GMA), we have hideous new developments crawling all the way up the western flank of the Cascades (and coming soon to Kittitas County on the eastern slope). The GMA has managed to prevent the needed infrastructure—roads, schools, and so on—without preventing the sprawl itself. Developments are spreading outward rather than filling in the empty spaces among the nearer suburbs, contributing to long commutes and endangered salmon. Meanwhile, the city's pro-big-business leadership—eight years of downtown corporate largesse from Norm Rice, followed by a developer, Paul Schell, all ratified by a succession of supine city council majorities—has leveraged the region's economic prosperity into a city that is increasingly unaffordable for working and middle-class people. The changes in downtown are obvious.


Belltown, which was an artist's colony 10 years ago, has rents that are a good deal—in Manhattan, maybe. Lower-income, largely nonwhite neighborhoods like the CD and Columbia City are transformed, with long-time residents driven to less expensive suburbs by skyrocketing rents and property values. First-time homes cost twice what they do in many cities; we got ours, three years ago, by buying one home and squeezing two couples into it. It's probably worth $50,000 more today, even with the "flattening" market. And very low-income housing is simply gone, while the Seattle Housing Authority, which supposedly exists solely to provide housing to people who can't otherwise afford it, busies itself with more upscale development.

Lower-income folks are therefore forced to move to soulless suburbs, driven out by new developments that result in soulless neighborhoods and rising property taxes. Then, tax-strapped voters pass Eyman-esque measures, suburban public transit gets cut out, and our new suburbanites have no choice but to drive to jobs they might have previously walked or bussed to. The sprawl continues. The rot of soulless homogenization sets in.

Seattle has bulldozed much of its character—the funky local (as opposed to chic chain) businesses, the light industry and warehouses, the artist spaces, even (ick) the bars and strip joints. And then there's the tension: fear, resentment, the segregation of races, a police department that can't be trusted, a mayor whose judgment is consistently so bad it's dangerous, a city attorney whose career is based on high-profile intolerance. Some of this is the inevitable trade-off for the joys of living in a big cosmopolitan city. Seattle is home; I'm not going anywhere yet. But it's discouraging that much of this was avoidable, a result of public policies that marginalize whole classes of people in favor of business interests that create some communities and destroy many more. And, depressingly, Seattle's leading crop of mayoral candidates will make things worse, not better.

Seattle needs urban villages, but not in the sense of gentrifying retro-chic areas or Paul Allen's vast holdings. Seattle needs ways to encourage a mixture of cultures, jobs, races, classes, and local businesses. It needs ways to encourage people to communicate and to put down roots, for Seattle to reclaim what we can of our human scale—while we can.

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