So what is Seattle? Our rich people, our poor people, those in the middle? Is it our sidewalks or our values?
I’d define “Seattle” as: a progressive center of technology, abundant in cultural diversity, which not only talks the talk of compassion but actually puts this value into practice – as evidenced by the behavior of its police force and social service organizations.
By this definition, Seattle is thriving. One hell of a city, in fact. I’d say it beats:
Atlanta, Georgia and Meriden, Connecticut, and all the other cities I’ve lived in across the South and the East and the Midwest.
It whups on Indianapolis, where I was born, except maybe for the Kurt Vonnegut museum there. Oddly enough, Kenosha, Wisconsin gives Seattle a run for its money in terms of music-and-creativity, although that city is just bars and churches otherwise. That’s the one other city I’ve been homeless in, so I can recommend the church basements.
I did spend few weeks exploring New Orleans, though, and I’ve got to say – sorry Seattle – their food is way better.
Other than that, we’re way ahead of the sixty-plus other cities I’ve slept and eaten in over the last few years.
It’s also a great city to be gay in. At least, it’s great according to the gentleman who tried to pick me up at the library last night. He was rather tenacious but polite, so we talked for a good half-hour and he said that relative to other cities, there are lots of opportunities and less dangers here.
Last Tuesday night, I sat at a bus stop and watched the documentary “Seattle is Dying” on my phone. About halfway through, a guy started digging through the trash can next to me and muttering things I didn’t understand. I handed him some food I had in my pocket. I don’t know what he said but he gave me a big smile when he unwrapped the protein bar and saw the chocolatey coating.
I’m pretty sure there’s about 700,000 human beings around here. I expect to see all kinds. If you know how to fix mental illness, please do, but don’t blame one kind of human being for being in your city.
Here is my attempt to blame one kind of human being for the way Seattle is today:
“When I lived in Madison Park, I lived in a house. Coming back to the city after a few years away, I do see changes.
That taco truck that used to be up on 23rd ave with the cheap lengua tortas? Bulldozed. Now it’s a bunch of $2,000/mo apartments full of Tempur-Pedics stacked up in boxy architecture. It looks like a strip-mall turned on its side.
Goddamn rich people laying around on every street corner in those ugly-ass boxes.
Everywhere you go in the city, tech executives are stacking up shiny boxes and sleeping in them. All those condos smell, too. Sometimes when you walk past, the stench of macchiatos is overwhelming.”
I think it is quite ridiculous to consider a specific socioeconomic class as unwelcome.
So Wednesday morning, I picked up newspapers to sell, and the headline was “Seattle is NOT dying.” So what are the root causes of this debate? Let’s say that you’re okay with homeless people and rich people living their lives in whatever wacky ways they see fit. Let’s also say you don’t want to just push their lifestyles elsewhere, or put them on a boat and sink it.
Is there anything really “wrong,” here?
I see a couple things. Both are related to homelessness, but not caused by it. Here are the two things wrong with Seattle, and ideas about what to do about them:
1) There’s way too much garbage laying around. I tend to pick it up as it crosses my path, bit by bit, as I go from Pioneer Square to the Waterfront to Downtown to First Hill to the International District every day. I don’t usually “go out of my way” to pick it up, I just walk in a straight line and instead of stepping over it I bend down and grab it.
Want to help? If half the people in the city grabbed three pieces of trash, a million pieces of garbage would disappear from the sidewalk that day.
2) Lots of people here are high on methamphetamines. That dopamine high that obliterates depression within forty-five seconds of inhaling thick white smoke that tastes like tangy plastic, tends to burn out the same neurons it excites. And unfortunately, beyond even the paranoia and psychosis caused by the attendant sleep deprivation, meth causes overwhelming feelings of persecution and aggressive urges while you come down. Don’t act a fool and hurt people. Smoke something else, please.
If you have an addiction of one kind or another – don’t believe anyone that tells you it’s possible to “just quit.” Think of all the time and energy you put into getting high now. Are you high all morning, or just after lunch? Let’s say you truly want to quit – can you cut those hours out of your day?
Whatever time and energy you put now into finding your drug and enjoying it – will have to be put somewhere. You can’t just “fight addiction” and kill it dead, any more than you can remove those hours from your day. You can, however, take this living thing by the hand and lead it somewhere else. Fill that time. You get a choice: Addiction or Production.
(When I’m not busy being addicted to something, I produce words. If you’d like to try doing the same, there are keyboards at the libraries.)
What about the guy standing in the street yelling? If you want to, you can blame mentally ill people for acting all crazy around you. Some people have problems that might take years or decades to solve, and some, quite unfortunately – might take centuries. Perhaps you’d like to push them off somewhere else, so another city can complain about them?
Is Seattle dying, or allowing people to survive who wouldn’t be embraced elsewhere?
So here’s the thing, though – if you’re a working-class human being and you think your working-class beliefs, customs and institutions are “dying” in Seattle – you’ve got a point. The city is filling up with people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, and people at the bottom. If you’re in the middle – you’re getting squeezed out. So is your culture.
And if your culture is getting squeezed out by others above and below it, I am sorry and I mean that. These changes must be terrifying, or they probably make you angry and defensive. It doesn’t feel fair.
Here are all these people in the city, laying under you in the gutter, or sitting over your head in their glinting offices. They aren’t like you. You get up in the morning, and you punch a timeclock, and then you start doing work. Here are all these people around you, and they don’t do a damn thing worthwhile.
They either sit behind a desk and add zeroes to their bank accounts while taking zeroes out of yours, or they sit on a flap of cardboard and ask you for money. The rich and the homeless don’t have to work to support their lifestyles. You do.
If you’re middle-class or working-class, I do understand that most of Seattle’s changes seem alien and distasteful to you. But they’re the consequences of a city making way more money than most cities do – while also valuing compassion. It’s a cool combination, but it benefits some people more than others and it leads to lots of tents. Free-market economies ensure plenty of housing for people who can afford it – but that’s only some people. Then you get to decide whether you want to put the rest in jail cells or allow them to lay on the street.
If you want the economic system of the nation to change, that’s a different conversation than what happens in this city.
So far, the rich people haven’t asked the rest of us to leave. Not officially. They just ask that we stay out of their boxy condos, and not grab their ankles while they walk by us on the sidewalk. Fair enough.
Travel the nation and you’ll you’ll see Costcos and Starbucks and Amazon boxes laying everywhere, which is why Seattle is economically rocking it – and those cities are not. Everywhere else, baristas are making 5-figures. Here, executives are making their 7-figures. All this symbolic abundance supposedly makes this city better off.
I can say that we’re better off in terms of available resources for the poor – when rich-people food expires it ends up at the food bank. One day I ate lobster bisque, truffle pate and imported cheeses. We’re better off in terms of local law-enforcement-culture. We have “cops who don’t kick people” for the most part, which I am fairly certain does make us better off.
Seattle, a city full of big companies and high ideals, is thriving. Let’s focus on what’s actually going on, what the root causes of the bad stuff are, and what might help us ALL in healing and growth.
That way, we get to find out what it’s like when EVERYBODY in a thriving city gets to thrive.