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.