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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The View From 2023: How Seattle Changed

We all remember the dreadful month of April 2020, the nadir of the Coronavirus Crash three years ago. Remarkable changes have occurred since that awful onset. Let’s review the good, bad, and ugly developments.

Leadership

Politically, we have a full array of new leaders. Joe Biden was elected in 2020, and he was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Cuomo, who took over when Biden resigned for health reasons in 2022. Gov. Jay Inslee was easily reelected in 2020, but promptly decamped to a cabinet post in D.C., leaving Lt. Gov. Denny Heck as governor in 2021 (easily reelected in the special election of 2022). A similar shuffle took place when Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also opted for a federal judiciary job, leaving City Council President Lorena Gonzalez as acting mayor (elected in a bruising battle to a full term in November, 2022). And Assessor John Wilson became the new King County Executive, after Dow Constantine declined to seek a new term. So, a whole new team is in place, and familiar left-liberal  policies hold sway, but without the funds to support them.

Institutions

These three years have also forced some overdue changes, mostly caused by those huge deficits in government budgets. Our five struggling transit systems (diminished as people switched back to cars for health reasons) are now united under Sound Transit, which agreed in a Big Bargain to scale back its rail-expansion plans and instead connect outlying stations with express bus service. The Symphony, Youth Symphony, and the Opera have merged, with a heavy emphasis on webcast performances and touring. Also cohabiting are the Seattle and King County library systems. Seattle Repertory Theater has sold off the Bagley Wright Theater (to a hotel developer) and moved back to the old Rep, aka Intiman/Cornish Theater. ACT Theatre’s large complex now has added Seattle Shakespeare Company and Book-It alongside ACT. The NBA told Seattle to postpone hopes for a basketball team.

Community

Large gatherings such as cultural programs and sports and music concerts, are now quite controlled: half the hall may be used, with careful temperature screening at the door. Overflow is handled online, with organizations charging pay-per-view. Admission to night clubs, bars, and restaurants now requires that you produce a health card.

Education

Education is quite different as well. The University of Washington, reeling from the loss of international students, now has a third branch campus, absorbing the former Evergreen State College in Olympia. For a few more years at least, local public schools will continue their split-shift schedules–half the class in the classroom every other day, properly spaced, and the other half alternating between classroom and distance instruction at community centers, former restaurants, and churches. The city’s promise of free community colleges evaporated, due to the city’s severe financial crunch, but online instruction is free.  Amazon has taken over University Bookstore, and downtown Seattle still does not have a single general-purpose bookstore. Online and delivery/pickup retail, given a huge boost in the slump, has flourished; downtown Seattle lost half its retail outlets. (On many streets, once-mandated storefront retail has been converted to housing.)

Local Media

Media consolidation accelerated, with Steve Ballmer the new publisher/part owner of The Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Daily Olympian, Bellingham Herald, and Everett Herald in a Puget Sound Consortium. A public broadcast joint operating agreement (KCTS/Crosscut, KUOW, KNKX, and KING-FM) was created with shared business services. (The idea of a combined newsroom lasted only one year.) Print versions of The Stranger did not revive.

Privacy

The Virus Depression (dubbed VD) has greatly changed the way we live our daily lives. Surveillance mechanisms are now ubiquitous, monitoring temperatures, spacing, coughing, crime, health cards. Grocery stores are well-policed, both to enforce health regulations and to guard against the food riots that broke out in late 2020.

Public Health

The emphasis on public health has swelled health department budgets, trimming many social service agencies. The homeless problem is now seen as a public health issue, shunting homeless camps into public dormitories. The 40 percent drop in rental rates at apartment buildings meant the city and nonprofits could acquire many small apartments at bargain rates, finally scattering the poor into “better” neighborhoods. Another opportunity for developing land for housing came when the Port of Seattle decided to shift more freight operations to Tacoma, selling off more waterfront land (such as the proposed third cruise ship terminal in south Pioneer Square) for housing development and homeless dormitories. A new crop of luxury condominiums line the new central waterfront park.

Business

Amazon continued to grow rapidly especially in Bellevue, partly by expanding into medical services and health insurance. As part of its federal bailout, a downsized Boeing was partly converted into “wartime” manufacture of medical equipment and green technology. This evidence of the new command economy was part of the Biden push for creating jobs by putting the nation on a semi-wartime footing, with strings attached (more labor participation, more state ownership) in exchange for bailouts.

The hopes for a strong bounce after the coronavirus vaccine was made available in late 2021 were dashed by the shift of many sectors to increased automation, and fears of inflation. By and large, the nation was now a government-planned economy, as in a war or the Depression. Coupled with the effective collapse of the Republican Party, the pandemic, like war, proved to be the health of the state.

In sum, a painful retrenchment these past three years. Seattle was clearly knocked off its perch as the It-City of America. However, as cost-of-living prices sank and congestion eased, the city regained some of its magnetism for young job-seekers and some of its capacity to create new, disruptive businesses.

So far, no compelling vision to describe and focus the New Seattle has appeared. Green City, Tech Town, Innovation Lab, Progressive Vanguard, Autonomous City-State of the Northwest — what will we be? It’s a pivotal moment and a civic identity crisis. Much that made the modern Seattle (arts, eds, meds, tech, financial services, retail, progressive politics) is now problematic, dated, demoralized, debt-saddled, and defunded.

Seattle has reinvented itself in previous busts. Can it do so again? Too soon to say, here in early 2023.

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Also worth noting on the higher education front were the closures of Pacific Lutheran University and Seattle University’s law school. The former was a victim of the post-millennium baby bust as well as a paucity of international students.The latter had been a financial drain on SU ever since the 2008 Great Recession, from which law-school enrollments never recovered. One bright spot among independent colleges is Seattle Pacific University, which has benefited from its long-time reputation as a safe refuge for the offspring of conservative Christian families. Having restricted access to and egress from its Queen Anne campus in 2021, SPU is now popular as a refuge not only from big-city temptations but also from infection.

  2. Meanwhile, Seattle innovators and inventors led the way in creating AI alternatives that allow people to be together while leaving their bodies at home.

  3. Interesting and hopefully somewhat prescient. I would be interested in how your forecast changes if we make one minor change in your “Leadership” section: Donald Trump is elected to a second full term as President. At a minimum we presumably see major changes in your forecast of what happens to Insley, Durkan, Durkan and Gonzalez. But what about the other sectors? While I hope you are correct about Biden (at least as far as the election goes), Trump being reelected is NOT a future we can ignore. It remains a real possibility regardless of his handling (should I say bungling) of the coronavirus.

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