The New Meth

How the 'irresistible' market is changing addicted-to-growth Seattle.

You used to see more logging trucks rumbling through downtown on Interstate 5. In recent years, the few you see carry telephone pole–sized second-growth timber destined for pulping. But occasionally, you'll see a blast from the past: a truck laden with a couple of massive old-growth cedars the size of sperm whales, trees so impressive you might have thought they'd been smuggled out of some national park. More likely, though, they came from private land where such beauties can still be "harvested."

My first thought when seeing such a load is, "Is it still legal to cut those trees?" To me, it's amazing that we are still tossing such rare commodities into buzz saws and turning them into mundane things like shingles and lumber.

I feel similarly when I contemplate the proposed razing of an edifice like Seattle First United Methodist Church, which in Seattle counts as architectural old growth, being a century old. The wonderful sanctuary's fate will be decided shortly. Preservationists are working behind the scenes to find a way the church can be saved, and the congregation relocated to Belltown to continue good works, especially social services.

Thus far, the church has favored a plan in which developer Martin Selig would raze the sanctuary, reasoning that being out from under the burden of maintaining such a white elephant will help them with their Christian mission. A competing plan from developer Nitze-Stagen could accomplish the same thing but also offers a chance to save the church. Preservationists see that as a win-win. The Methodists are thinking it over. God, as they say, is in the details, and the bottom line: What will serve the church's financial interests and those of its developer partner?

That the church is in the position of getting in bed with commercial interests bothers activists like Michael Godfried, who is working with a group called Save Our Sanctuary to save the old church. He sent me a quote from the late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch that put what troubles Godfried in a larger, though admittedly rather extreme, context. It's from Lasch's 1995 collection of essays, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

 . . . Individuals cannot learn to speak for themselves at all, much less come to an intelligent understanding of their happiness and wellbeing, in a world in which there are no values except those of the market. . . . The market tends to universalize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles that are antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.

It would be unfair to suggest that the Methodists are selling out for filthy lucre, but there is no question that they are making a tough decision in the face of a rapidly developing, increasingly upscale downtown that is exploding in commercial terms, aided by government that has adopted growth as a good in itself. The disparities being exacerbated between rich and poor are taxing the church's ability to render aid. The value of the land offers a way out but also contributes to a downtown that is more commercial and losing its history.

And we are all facing hard choices as we become prisoners of prosperity. It's a citywide issue that challenges us to redefine what Seattle is. Is it strictly a commercial zone where everything is for sale to the highest bidder? Or are there other community values that need to be asserted? Are we going to let "the market" define us?

A story that slams this home appeared in the Sunday, July 16, issue of The Seattle Times that documented how middle-income families are being run out of Seattle and King County. As property values soar and incomes stagnate, fewer and fewer middle-income families can afford single-family homes. The Times determined that in 2003 there were only seven neighborhoods in Seattle where someone making the median household income (nearly $58,000) could afford to buy a median-priced home. Today there is, appallingly, only one area in the city left where that is true: the industrial zone that includes Georgetown and South Park. As we contemplate a future in which our kids live in shoe boxes, experts interviewed by the Times tell us this is a long-term trend fueled in part by wealthy newcomers, from California and elsewhere, who are equity rich and driving up home prices.

We can't say we weren't warned. Back in the 1990s, we didn't want to believe creepy Seahawks owner and California developer Ken Behring when he predicted a "tsunami" of growth was headed our way. Well, Behring is gone, but his tsunami arrived, and we're all swimming for our lives, trying to stay afloat as Lasch's "irresistible" market forces wash over us.

This is part of the price we pay for our "world-class" hype; this is part of the price we pay for our politicians junketing around the world promoting growth—as if economic boosterism was job one. It's like growth is the new meth. Somehow, we've got to break the addiction and focus on the kind of city we want to live in, not the city we're left with.

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