Any frequent reader of The Urbanist knows that we have a long and painstakingly catalogued list of gripes with Seattle. From the completely avoidable pedestrian carnage to the collapsing school district to today’s pivotal light rail vote, it’s hard to watch a city we love do such dumb stuff. Add on top the constant, incessant drum beat of the terrible problems of homelessness (caused by lack of affordable housing), drug addiction (mostly among the working housed), and crime (still historically low). And it’s just been a chilly, kind of gross winter.
It is important to step back on occasion and realize Seattle is still a pretty great place, and one that many of us live by choice. This spring represents my tenth year living in the city. We moved across the continent for then-spouse’s work, sight unseen. It was not a mistake then, and continues to be pretty damn awesome.
First of all, the city is nice. Seattle has distinct, lovely neighborhoods, a cool and growing waterfront, and beautiful parks. (Not you, public golf courses.) Even the touristy things like Pike Place Market are great to visit, and beg you to find your favorite spot in their cacophony. A giant flagship university campus with all the trimmings sits in one corner of town. Suzzallo looks like Hogwarts and that’s not even the best library in town. And on clear days, the mountain comes out. Just no other words. A. Giant. Mountain.
Admittedly, it is hard to see empty windows of downtown businesses. It’s also easy to forget that there’s tons of blocks in downtown that have always been life-draining, drab monster buildings or parking lots. Bon Marche’s mega-parking deck and the central post office have never been pleasant places to stand next to, regardless of what’s happening on 3rd Avenue. It was hard to see Hurricane Cafe close a few years ago, but its blank walls and the neighboring Budget Rent A Car lot have been replaced by a green plaza and towers with a glass blowing studio on the ground floor. The change is that there’s now windows to be empty, and that’s a cool thing.
More over, the region does pretty well too. Sure, there’s all the chamber of commerce stuff about our dozen Fortune 500 companies and suburbs with the best schools. But even at their most sprawling, Seattle’s satellites have a lot going for them. The big towns get to be goofy and put out stuff like drive-in movies at Marymoor Park or Snowflake Lane in Bellevue. The town centers from Carnation to Bremerton are great places to visit. Insert Twin Peaks reference here, then go skiing. Four million people living in the region are onto something.
And yes, there’s the food part. To hell with comparing ourselves to San Francisco. We have apples and fish and good water. Nowhere else has an Ikea sitting in the middle of dim sum and noodle places like are hidden in Renton’s strip malls. The new Rapid Ride H just opened up all the fun restaurants through White Center and Burien, including some of the best Latin American food around. And just try and diminish Ballard’s fantastic breweries and I’ll have strong, loud words for how ever many of you there are, I can’t tell.
Seattle is so close to amazing places. It’s a different kind of proximity than the string of pearls density of the East Coast or the expanding mega regions of the South. Our relationship with Vancouver and Portland is familial, feisty, and familiar, living in the same house but with our own rooms. And in their orbits are everything from The Goonies to the Winter Olympics.
Beyond the cities, it’s a rare jewel where you can look across water and see snow capped mountains. And that scene is amazing whether there’s an orca, an aircraft carrier, or just the breeze moving through. We’ve got three national parks within a day’s trek with massive tracts of preserved lands surrounding them. North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited parks in the country, so we get that all to ourselves.
But most of all, this is a great place to find your fellow weirdos. From pinball tournaments to Irish Wolfhound meetups, Seattle makes it easy to encounter like minds. Forget any reputation for frostiness, there’s a deep readiness for folks in this town to connect over their shared adoration of music or games or coffee or hiking. Possibly all at the same time. It is different than many other places that build their social circles around, say, a country club or church. Instead of having common background then becoming friends with shared interests, Seattle makes you awkwardly put your strange likes and inimitable personality out there first, then see if your weirdo calls get picked up by anyone else.
Surprise, they do. It’s a target rich environment.
In this era where grifters are taking advantage of the narrowminded by demonizing vulnerable groups, the upper left maintains its proud freak flag. Sure, the flag will cost you an arm and a leg because we can’t get our tax system in order, but everyone’s super happy you got one. Even with two decades of towers going up downtown and goofballs like myself transplanting here, there’s still space for the strange. Freaky Seattle changes the most but always has a place.
Perhaps, that’s the highest and best form of life in this town. Though our backgrounds and opinions are not the same, we can find shared interests. Newcomers get a bad rap for trying to make Seattle into the image of wherever it was from which they just washed up. Legacy residents have a reputation for slamming the door behind them after lucking into a house at the right time. There’s truth to both accusations, but the groups maintain a particular shared interest. The best Seattle is the one that accepts us. That’s the one we find ourselves again this spring, and that’s cause for optimism.
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.