Binary Seattle, Now Super-Gentrified

Binary Seattle, Now Super-Gentrified
By George Lee

New restaurants line the latest skin layer of super-gentrified Seattle. They are beautifully lit, each themed to a concept geared to a market sector circulating the city. Warm filament light washes over dark woods, fine murals with the catchiest street art influences adorn the walls, and waitstaff with just enough tattoos, leather aprons or just ruffled enough white linen shirts roam the gastronomic oasis. Oh, Seattle is a paradise. The rain, the mountains, the innovation, our liberal values (but with no income tax) and the legal weed. A perfect world where we can dine on exquisite meats while pondering and complaining about issues like legalized corruption, structural racism and televised police brutality. Oh, it is a wonderful liberal world in Cascadia, the beacon of the free world. Cascadia is so ahead of the game, leading the way, if only they would listen to us.

This is what I see as I turn away on the rainy sidewalk cause I’m not interested, and I can’t afford it. This is another street taken over by high priced restaurants, or high priced maker shops, or high priced clothing boutiques. Another rainy sidewalk, with too many cars hogging the city’s real estate, right turn swiping pedestrians and buzzing by homeless encampments in the criss-crossing overpasses by I-5 and I-90. Seattle is a binary super-gentrified city where the rich and the upper middle class roam free, and the rest of us seek out the last bastions where we feel like we belong. The affordable neighborhoods are literally all gone, and the feeling of roaming a neighborhood you don’t feel like is being taken over by foreigners with more money than you is unavoidable. It is a binary city of the rich with their curated spaces, the rest of us clinging to disappearing relics and scraps.

This is because Seattle is now a Super-Gentrified city, that is, 100% gentrified or gentrifying. In nerd urban talk, gentrification is a fairly predictable, observable phenomena. Here is the brash, short version: Poor and low-middle class neighborhoods get colonized and replaced by middle and upper-middle class people fleeing unaffordable post-gentrification neighborhoods. The new folks pick up the cheaper homes and rents, drive them up in the process, and typically are attracted by the artists (who were the pre-gentrifiers), ethnic food, multicultural assets, and less yuppy homogeneity. The colonized and replaced move further out of the city into suburbs, make money off the sale of their home if they owned, or if renters, get displaced and a longer commute. If people are struggling, they might become homeless at this point. There is an interesting sweet spot overlap phase where the two populations mix, learn from one another, and the new more entitled people complain and demand more resources from the city, resulting in better parks, playgrounds and streets. But by the time these are built, the old residents are mostly gone.

Cities are alive, and neighborhoods will inevitably shift. Some of this is totally ok, and makes cities interesting and lively places. For example, if enough people can own, and rent is affordable in many good neighborhoods in a city, then if some gentrification happens people can profit from their home sales and move or rent without distress to other neighborhoods that match their needs. However, in Seattle, there are no more affordable neighborhoods. And we have crap mass transit to suburbs, so commuting is a measurable burden. When I was looking to buy my home 3 years ago, I’d hit the price finder and all the homes were on the edges of the city in the north and south, like a heroine trapped by the villain with a cliff face to her back.

Now, those affordable homes are gone. The heroine bought a house on the cliffside. And the streets we walk everywhere are populated mainly by businesses that cater to their new richer inhabitants. The diversity of us who rent, or are low or middle class making it work in Seattle somehow, those businesses are not tailored to us, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not marketed to us. I wish we had the old mediocre diners with the chicken fried steaks, the basic toast, and the decent coffee and the old stained red leather booths like the old Silver Fork. But most important, my neighbors, a healthy mix of incomes and professions, would be sitting in the booth next to me. We’d all be enjoying the neighborhood, unafraid. But now, it’s a cat and mouse game, a binary city, a city where we have to seek out and hide in our last bastions of everyday glory in the rare uncurated dive bar, the non-displaced to Kent hardware supply store, and the diner that serves standard food that tastes great that doesn’t break the bank. All these standard gems, when I arrive, or discover them off the rainy street, seem like temples emerging out of a gray fog of unaffordable modernist mahogany and filament lamp storefronts of the other city I am not a part of. They welcome me in, and they are where I feel part of a real community.

The Placeless Jedi

The Placeless Jedi
George Lee / January 28, 2018

The Last Jedi never developed rich places for us to engage with and this was a major factor in its the lack of character development. Without the screen time, editing, and writing to build places we can relate to, science fiction and fantasy epics fail to achieve greatness. A New Hope on the other hand, achieved place mastery. As a professional place nerd, let me compare 2017's The Last Jedi to 1977's A New Hope in terms of scales of place.

When we meet someone, a primary way we understand them is by locating where they originated from, and what places they inhabit or have inhabited. This is a gravity in human relationship building. As we meet the characters on screen, we cannot ask them questions, but good cinema will answer for us. The greatest place development, and corresponding character building, occurs when A New Hope, “lands,” on the desert planet Tatooine. At the beginning of A New Hope there's a space battle where they introduce Tatooine, an orange desert planet with moons, at a large planetary geologic scale. One could argue they are also creating a connection to space as a place, e.g. starships interiors and exteriors, but it is only a seed.

When characters develop simultaneously with place development, it is character-place development. Ironically, this starts with droids arguing in a desert. Leave it to Star Wars. R2D2 and C-3PO split up right away and this enables us to see the planet through both their eyes. Stormtroopers walk in red sand, the drones appear to be parched as they travel among a rich landscape of canyons slowly. Night falls, and they both get nabbed by Jawas and put in the freaky robot room within the Jawas’ tank city. That robot room is a mess, reminiscent of a household garage, and adds to our relationship with the Jawas, a wiley crew of desert gnome tinker traders. The imperfection is crucial, because deep down, we all know our garages can get messy. The droid exploration, and kidnapping by the Jawas introduces us to a local population, continuing our cinematic field anthropological research at a wilderness or nomadic scale. Layers of the planet sink in, and instead of giving answers, we only multiply our questions about Tatooine and the characters. Literally, when we lose cinematic sight of the droids, it is in the rumbling Jawa tank city, moving somewhere unknown across the planet surface. Our questions and relationships with these new characters moving along with it.

Next, we meet Luke and his uncle and aunt who work on the desert planet as middle class water farmers. They live in small, partially buried earth dwellings that would make sense on a desert planet, and they do tedious work to mine “moisture” with machinery that breaks. This is an everyday life viewers can relate to, reminiscent of farming. Contrast this with the scenes on the Death Star to feel how human and familiar these early scenes feel. They buy the droids, give them a refreshing oil bath, further reinforcing the dryness of the planet. There is the kitchen scene (which is replicated in Rogue One), where normal beverages are prepared by Luke's stepmom in what look like futuristic tupperware. We see the characters interact in the kitchen, even Luke’s uncle and aunt gossipping about Luke’s adolescence. Luke expresses his frustration with farm life, questing for space, “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” and his stepdad Owen responding, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” The kitchen, arguably the most central place in the home, is where we really first see the tension in Luke’s storyline. These scenes at the homestead develop a regional scale, a domestic scale, and an individual scale for Tatooine, now locking in on Luke’s life within Tatooine as a place.

Character-Place development continues, quickly cashing in its earned chips. There are the sand people and their beasts, and the references to their anthropology by Obi One. We see Luke in the speeder that feels like a rusty red corvette a high schooler might fix up. But then, the movie starts cashing in hard. The stormtroopers incinerate Luke’s home and his family. The score song by John Williams, Binary Sunset, blares while Luke stares at a binary sunset with wind blowing in his hair, face closeup, as he processes the obliteration of his connection to his family, his home and Tatooine on all scales. Cinema is at its finest, building up the place and its characters just so it can be burned to the ground.

A New Hope actually spends about 50% of the entire movie on Tatooine with few cutaways. It introduces the planet immediately, at minute 9 the droids land and begin exploring the world, and the valiant crew jumps away for good to Alderon at minute 57. It’s good they leave, it is Star Wars afterall. But A New Hope immediately took focus, and maintained it on Tatooine and the characters that are there for specific, complex reasons. As a result, the strongest character development in the movie occurs with characters that spend the most time on screen within the most developed place, Tatooine, I.e. Luke, Han, Obi One, R2D2 and C-3PO. Darth Vader and Princess Leia are really symbols of good and evil in this movie, only beginning their character development.

Tatooine is cashed in on later in the movie from afar. Luke's final climactic torpedo run, symbolizing his mastery and belief in the force, he compares to shooting wombats in Beggar's Canyon back home on Tatooine. Han’s mercenary personality, a joy only to develop further in the films, begins in the drawn out, incredibly rich bar scene on Tatooine in Mos Eisley Spacestation, or as Obi One says in a succinct line, "Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." But most importantly, we have a deep, indescribably emotional connection to these characters during the action in the second half. And this makes the action sequences achieve true intensity, transcending mere action, because we have tangible relationships built to these characters grown in the richness of Tatooine.

In comparison, The Last Jedi never fully committed to a place, and it paid the price in character development. In addition to providing rich character soil, Tatooine grounded A New Hope, forcing a relative focusing in on characters and places. The Last Jedi whipped back and forth throughout the Universe, never holding focus anywhere long enough to develop place connection, or its associated character development. Every scene appeared rushed, keeping us on our toes to the point of never feeling the soil beneath our feet.

It begins with the rebels leaving a place, D'Qar, we never got to know. Then it gets blown up. There's a fairly good space battle. Then we switch to Luke's island, Ahch-To. There are inklings right away we might get to sink into place here: Dry-laid stone huts, a rusty metal scrap door, breezy winds, ocean, and low grasses. All these elements appear to make place-sense, similar to conditions on Earth. But as soon as hopes are raised, there is the Luke shows off his island montage. Oh man, that was bad. Luke is a Jedi, a wise person in touch with the interconnection of the Universe. It would be interesting to see how such a person lives in hermitage off the grid. The milk from the alien walrus made sense, dairy is an effective food source on such a remote island. The use of the pole to cross a chasm made sense as well for an agile Jedi. But then the use of the pole to spear a monster fish that would take Luke months to eat was cartoonish. It killed the sense of place. You don’t spearfish for one person with a 70', likely 500 lb wooden pole. The chicken aliens were cool, but did not get enough screen time to be more than cartoons. Then add on the random, totally undeveloped lizard maids wearing bonnets to the toon list. The Jedi tree, and the evil seaweed hole helped, bringing some sense of place to Ahch-To, but it was too little too late. It all felt flat, not exploring the multiple rich scales at Tatooine, or even Hoth.

And this would be ok, but Ahch-To was the primary place in The Last Jedi. And they didn’t get it right, thus losing the richness of place layers we saw in planetary, geologic, wilderness, nomadic, regional, domestic and individual scales in the The Last Hope on Tatooine. Luke didn’t like the island, he wanted to burn down the tree, his domestic connection to the island felt like a cartoon from the montage, and there was no regional sense to the planet. Thus, when Rey and Luke have important scenes: Training, talking about the end of the Jedi religion, and Rey facing her darkness, the place is more a painted background than a living context the viewer can project on and connect to.

No other place in The Last Jedi rose above this painted background status. The Casino planet Cantonica was a rushed, cartoon planet of poorly edited sequences that felt like a carnival ride. Instead of showing us the ultra-rich enslavement planet, the movie told us in forced, emotional music filled drawn out dialogue as Rose and Finn zoom in from space. Wealth inequity has major potential to draw connection to viewers today, and they squandered it with rushed edits, constant cutaways, crappy CGI, and desperate attempts to build place quickly with magical horses and cute poor children getting whipped by monsters.

The final scene in Crait, the salt mine planet, tried its best, but never had the oxygen it needed to burn before the action sequences set in: A soldier noticing the salt on the ground, the red clay sand getting puffed up by the speeder anchors, the old base computers, and the ice animals. But it was all action, and Crait’s history was pretty shallow and absent. Also, the battle and Crait seemed remarkably similar to Hoth: Buried base, white landscape, soldiers in trenches, a superior empire force incoming. Crait needed the room to breath, even the quick breath, Hoth was given. Hoth was introduced slowly, with Luke and Han on everyday patrols, freezing their asses off riding local beasts of burden. Their clothing matched the landscape, and time passed in the movie for the cold winds and landscape to soak in and connect to our own memories. Luke gets mauled by a space polar bear and dragged into its ice cave full of bones. Han is worried, but night is falling and the temperature is falling, an amazingly normal problem. Han takes a risk and goes out into a cold night, “Braving the weather.” He finds Luke and they survive by sleeping inside a warm dead animal. It's smelly and gross, but that's life, and that's how anyone would survive on a cold hell hole. No fancy gadgets. The minutes pass, the relationship builds with Hoth and our characters within it, and by the time the Empire's forces arrive we feel we are defending a place with the Rebels that we care about.

The Last Jedi, without letting its places breath, suffocated. It reverted to keeping us on our toes constantly with cutaways across the universe, cool action sequences, and homages to the old movie characters. Perhaps to show its desperation for drama and intensity, there are multiple attempted or successful suicides throughout the movie. Without the rich soil of place, characters were anemic.

In closing, A New Hope is a true gem of character-place development in cinema while The Last Jedi is a troubling failure. Simultaneously developing characters in the context of multiple rich scales of place, A New Hope was better able to achieve true cinematic excellence.

Hate Analysis Paralysis is Lame

Hate Analysis Paralysis is Lame

Hate Analysis Paralysis is very prevalent today, and it makes sense amidst our upsetting times. However, this will only lead us to loneliness, meaninglessness, and powerlessness. The forces who plant seeds and tend to them will grow food to sustain them.

November 26, 2017
By George Lee

People love to talk about the different ways they hate (Insert hated politican, institution or corporation here.) This is exercising, “Hate Analysis”, instead of delving into the complexity of real solutions to problems. “Nothing brings people together like a common enemy,” can be witnessed around politically aligned dinner tables across the country. If hate brings people together to then begin action, hate is perhaps an ok catalyst, but it seems we live in a time where more often hate brings people together to just feel better than the hated parties. One can hate something and feel fulfilled in the short-term, while doing absolutely nothing to improve any situation. This creates a non-productive, hate analysis paralysis trap. Analyze why you hate with others, feel like you belong with the superior group through the hate, do nothing to improve anything, hate and analyze some more.

When I first feel hate about an issue, and it seems important, I allow myself to inhale the hate deeply into every orifice and every cell and let it ride. I feel it. But then, after this initial, essentially bodily drug induced experience, hate is useless except as a reference point, a fact about one's psyche. “Seattle's response to homelessness is cruel, I hate the politicians in Seattle.” But then what do we do? If we wake up the next morning, open our phone to read another ridiculous terrible thing a politician is doing, share it on facebook, and feel hateful again, where are we going? The answer is down a pre-existing American path to habitat destruction, natural resource mismanagement, income inequality, institutional violence in many forms, dangerous car cities, etc.

Solutions are challenging, but without challenge there is no reward. In the short term, it may be more fun to drink a craft cocktail or beer and talk about how (Insert hated politician name here) is so terrible and dumb. But eventually we can feel hollowed out by the hate, the helplessness, and cope more and more in counterproductive ways. To feel whole, we need to cope and take on challenging solutions. Big societal solutions are a combination of tough, revolutionary, individual choices, and long processes built from open, critically thinking coalitions of people that support one another to form a stronger unified being.

If it is an individual challenge, like advocating for density, it can disrupt one's entire belief system about success and be upsetting. All of sudden your advocating for a smaller home, to be closer to your neighbors? If it is a solution for a town or a city, one goes nowhere without power from money and/or large activated groups of people and both those things require working, and listening to, other people. So we get overwhelmed, fearful or protective of what is comfortable and often instead of acting, revert to Hate Analysis Paralysis.

Ideas, theories, political platforms are relatively easy to talk about (analyze) because they are like garden seeds in a package, all with a beautiful picture of a perfectly grown specimen. We can spend all spring and summer deciding what seeds to plant at our kitchen table, but then we miss the growing season and grow nothing. Also, even if one does decide which seeds, they need to prepare the garden's soil, and then work for 3-4 months stewarding sun, rain, soil, insects, labor, food preservation and crop rotation. Analysis, e.g. choosing a seed to grow, is a safe, comfortable and in the long-term, depressing place to be stuck. You can do it alone or with others, while not changing any of your “comfortable” life pleasures or worldviews, and you can feel totally self-righteous because you have not actually tested any of your theories.

The Hate Analysis Paralysis is very prevalent today, and it makes sense amidst our upsetting times. However, this will only lead us to loneliness, meaninglessness, and powerlessness. The forces who plant seeds and tend to them will grow food to sustain them. The corrupt rich are planting seeds for their own domination of everything, as they always have done. The rest of us (there are many, many more of us than the corrupt rich) are still are too distracted by hate and divisiveness to realize we're not planting any seeds for food to eat next winter. We need to prep the hell out of the soil, plant some damn good seeds, and share all our knowledge to grow some award winning crops.

Am I a Person of Color

Am I a Person of Color

A Samoan-American construction worker assumed we were in the, “Us,” of us being minorities while we were sweating over moving a log.

October 28, 2017
By George Lee

I am going to use the term white men. I’ll let you identify and expand that definition where it needs to go. I identity as half white and half Italian-American. I am exploring considering myself mixed race. Until now, I have always identified as a white man, but many indicators have forced me to question if this is a true statement, or a statement my parents and my community growing up wanted me to take on. Growing up in a rich, mostly white community with a white dad and an Italian mom from the Brooklyn projects I’ve realized now, at the age of 34, that no one ever encouraged me to decide what identification I wanted to attach to my light brown skin and my distinctively different Italian relatives.

My skin was olive. I remember thinking that, and telling people that when they asked. But in the summer, especially one summer after I had been working on a sailboat and the sun had been reflecting off the water onto my skin, my skin was distinctly brown. Not olive, brown like coffee with milk. I remember seeing my face in a photo with all my friends and liking how I looked. I also remember how I saw all my friends were not brown, they were white, pink, cream and freckled white.

At these points in my life, no one came to me and said, “George, do you know what a person of color is?” “Do you know Italians once were oppressed for their heritage and color of their skin?” or, “George, how do you feel about your skin color? How does that make you feel about your relationship with minorities (as people of color were called then in my community)” I bet adults all around me were thinking these things throughout my 18 years in the same school system, but no one ever talked with me about it, and now, at 34, I’m noticing this and looking back wondering is that why this or that happened?

I had a leading role in two high school musicals and was in a couple other plays. When you do theater, everyone puts on makeup. When you put on foundation, essentially a base coat of paint all over your face, I was told to match it to my skin tone. I was Frederic in the Pirates of Penzance, and Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and my best friend’s dad videotaped the shows. I remember watching one of those videos and realizing, in the words of my 18-19 year old self, “That I looked like a black person or something.”

Fast forward to 2016, a Samoan-American construction worker assumed we were in the, “Us,” of us being minorities while we were sweating over moving a log; I realize during interviews I might have been considered Asian-American; If I’m doing landscape work people think I’m Mexican-American till I start talking; I go to a party, think a cool writer guy is black, and it turns out he’s Italian; I go to my cousin’s wedding, an Italian woman and an Irish man in a catholic church, and I realize two of my dark skinned female cousins (not their brothers) are wearing skin lightening makeup; And then, in an art show about a public housing project, a mixed race friend of mine says, “George, you’re a person of color I think,” after I’ve been spilling my guts about it for a while.

So, what the hell am I? And what the hell are you?

Realism is a Dead End

Realism is a Dead End

Alone, used as a tool to improve the world, 
realism is a dead end without integrating visionary goals.

October 15, 2017
By George Lee

We live in a real world where we have to do things like maintain shelter and our mental and physical health to survive. We want to at least have friends, a sense of belonging, see some hope that the world has meaning. These basic needs can typically overwhelm us on their own, sending us into unconscious behavioral patterns, coping mechanisms, and attempts to numb out.

Enter world problems like institutional racism, class inequity, climate change and perpetual war endlessly streamed to you in a mix of journalism and opinion. And today, it is increasingly available with new media, and increasingly demanding to edit between fact and opinion.

Result? Getting more overwhelmed. This leads us to increasingly cope, to edit, and to simplify as humans do. The draw of being, “a realist,” is a strong, popular coping mechanism in these moments. I use it, we all use it every day. However, alone, used as a tool to improve the world, realism is a dead end without integrating visionary goals.

A realist may say things like, “well, what do we do today?” in response to someone asking for something visionary, something a few steps ahead of what is possible in the present moment. The realist way of making decisions is a crucial part of improving the world. Realism is the skill of making sense of things and acting on them as they stand in the present moment. However, if one acts only within the rules set in the present moment, the conditions of the present moment (be they institutional racism or class disparity) will absolutely never improve. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Visionary realism is a better option for those attracted to being realists. Realists can layer on and integrate tangible actions and tactics of their visionary world, and thus work to actually improve things rather than spin their wheels. Without integrating visionary genetics, realism is a paralyzing and comfortable straight jacket one wears voluntarily.

When those basic or imagined needs like shelter and health rear their heads, realism will offer its comfortable straight jacket. Realism will say, “You are being practical, you are working with the way things actually are, others are being unrealistic, there is no other option.” However, there is, you can be a Visionary Realist. Now, the next step is defining what you are visionary about and then acting on it.