- Historic Sites
The strange saga of a town that bragged, burned, and bullied itself into existence—and then became one of the most civilized places on earth
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
Now and then I can almost convince myself that I have found a second New England where people are friendly within reason but also crotchety and observant of certain mutually protective proprieties. But colliding with the local pessimism is a dotty New Age credulity. I keep finding myself at gatherings where men in lumberjack beards and flannel shirts will suddenly talk about their feelings while massaging each other’s shoulders, where women flourish crystals, prescribe therapeutic touch, or draw snippets of inspirational verse from their handbags. People talk so much about sharing, bonding, and their own energy, are so apt to tell you where they’re coming from and what they think they hear you saying that I can’t figure out why Seattleites so fear and loathe the Californian.
A newcomer’s wonder at the beauty of Seattle is quickly followed by a panicky recognition of its precariousness. At first the region’s splendors seem imperishable, but every time Seattle tops a most-livable list or draws the covetous attention of some out-of-state master planner, we are filled with dread. The rest of the country may envy us our prosperity, but all we think to do with it is fret over its consequences: higher taxes, overdevelopment, and congestion.
The longer I live here, the more I suspect that the great American scythe that began its westward cut three hundred and fifty years ago is finally reaching the end of its swing in the Great Northwest. Grandparents whose children fled east to make their fortunes now see their grandchildren fleeing back to the Northwest. But Americans who could once reasonably expect to find a refuge here from the nation’s challenges—density, scarcity, diversity—are confronting and in some cases compounding the same problems from which they fled.
Seattleites have therefore become psychologically dependent on their own cycle of boom and bust. Seattle continues to lure the young and well-to-do, but the long-timers haven’t given up all hope of recapturing the gritty, intimate haven they once knew. Huddling under the camouflage of clouds and rain, the long-timers pray that the next bust, or maybe just the next good run of lousy weather, will save them from the creeping preciousness of the nation’s attention and give them back their city, by and by.