30 Years Later: What Happened to the City of “Sleepless in Seattle”?


This summer marked the 30th anniversary of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan blockbuster romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle.”  The crisp, funny dialogue and the charismatic cast gave the film a timeless quality and made it a classic romance. But the one aspect of the film that doesn’t hold up well is…Seattle.

Seattle in the movie is a clean, bustling city of safe, litter-free streets, surrounded by iconic waterfront beauty.  I remember feeling that it captured the essence of then-Seattle very well. That Seattle magic was one of the reasons my wife, Rhonda, and I moved to the area from Los Angeles in 1989. 

Back then, housing was affordable. Even if we couldn’t buy downtown, our first house cost $173,000.  The LA starting salary for a freshly graduated lawyer like myself was $70,000, while Seattle’s was only $50,000, but Washington state’s lack of an income tax helped close that salary gap, and the Northwest’s beauty, safety, and natural diversity closed the rest.

Both of us worked downtown, she at Nordstrom, and I at a large law firm. Our respective offices were both on Third Avenue, as was the day care facility where our daughter went. We later moved to Virginia, where my wife’s personalized license plate was “SEATLME.” 

Fast forward 30 years. After a 20-year absence, my wife and I have moved back to Seattle and encountered the chaos, vandalism, and dysfunction that seemed abnormal amid the 1999 WTO or the 2001 Mardi Gras riots. Back then, such disturbances were abnormal, but now they are widespread and chronic. Indeed, it wasn’t shocking that the CHOP Zone happened in Seattle.  The Third  Avenue my wife and I once happily and securely walked is now mired with blight, homelessness, and crime.  

Public spaces are often overrun with illegal camping and drug use, and we find ourselves  surprised when a public space is clean (unless something like the MLB All Star Game comes to town). Violent crime in Seattle is at a 15-year high. Drug overdoses are at record highs and going up. Police are demoralized, their value questioned. Thousands of businesses have fled the city. School test scores are down. We’ve seen potholes pepper city streets and one open up that could that could swallow a car

Even so, I believe Seattle can regain its magic. As president and CEO of Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank, I recently observed that Progressive Seattle feels like it can ignore anything right-of-center. However, it was our Center’s research that offered Washingtonians a realistic estimate of the impact of the state’s new cap-and-trade tax on carbon. Last year, we predicted a 46 cent per gallon increase to the price of gasoline. The governor claimed it would be mere pennies, but it’s currently 44.3 cents. 

Our research further shows that state and local laws, permitting and building restrictions and regulations add, on average, $144,000 to the construction costs of a new, median-priced home.  (Do Seattle officials ever review their policies to see how they’re contributing to costs?) I often hear from private construction contractors who complain government rules would keep the private sector from being able to convert properties like old hotels into affordable dwellings. 

Seattle schools’ pandemic closures contributed to heavy learning loss.  Current expenditures top $20,000 per student. For decades, public school programs have launched plans to fix such schools, but these plans have multi-year phases, meaning years of additional children suffering in order to give the system more time. Why not instead fund the student, not the system? Higher levels of school choice are now associated with higher levels of achievement. Seattle should be the national innovator in this effort, not a strong resister of charter schools. 

Seattle can once again become the clean, safe, romantic city immortalized in “Sleepless in Seattle” 30 years ago. I imagine a city attracting businesses back to the office, not taxing them out of town, and enforcing basic laws to help bring retail back and making our streets safe for a night on the town. 

Michael Gallagher
Michael Gallagher
Michael Gallagher is a lawyer and President and CEO of the local think tank, Washington Policy Center


  1. Thank you for taking time to write this piece Michael. There are ways to take action with our informed vote this november and articles like yours shed the light on what has deteriorated our fort and cost so many lives.

    We urge people to join movements like We Heart Seattle where volunteers for now three years have taken action to clean up newly 1M lbs of trash and used private friction free funds to provide intervention forward outreach, housing, and outspoken advocacy urging counci to pass humane laws and move away from the lax no rules playground that attracts criminals from all over the country to come here pop a tent and create chaos for all. Andrea

  2. Bravo, Michael. You have put the feelings of many longtime residents into words. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco… these cities used to be beautiful national jewels. Make no mistake, the jury is in. They have declined into their current awful conditions because of the dysfunctional political ‘leadership’ that has been in place for the past couple of decades. As long as we keep voting folks of same political persuasion into office, nothing will change.

  3. Speaking of median price homes – in the Seattle area, price went from ca. $410K to $750K between 2010 and 2020.

    Subtracting the $144K amount supposedly stolen by society, does that leave $226,000 margin compared to 2010, which was already presumably profitable? I know you didn’t say that $144K makes any difference to affordability, but just wanted to show the arithmetic there, for readers who grew up in the post Reagan era and might susceptible to its deregulatory myths.

  4. Thank you Michael for remembering the Seattle I once knew:Just out of VIetnam in 1970 volunteering at the College Club for my former boss.
    50 years past will not return but with new elected officials and policies like you advocate at City, County, and State government we have a chance.

  5. Seattle voters must ask themselves: Am I happy with the status quo? If not, why am I reelecting the same City Council members, the same Mayor, the same City Attorney? For example, are you happy with the decision to release a man, without charges, who started a fire in a homeless encampment? Are you okay with the increased rate of homicides, of armed robberies, and lesser charges like shoplifting? If not, vote these non-doers out of office.

    However–I don’t agree with Michael Gallagher that the solution lies in softening new construction rules, or pumping up charter schools that bleed funds away from public education. Washington Policy Center has a distinct right-wing slant to its advocacy. Getting readers riled up by first pointing out everything that’s wrong with the city, then advocating for a lessening of governance is not a solution I can get behind.

    • Charter schools are public-schools. Seattle voters gave SPS funds for technology. When COVID came they were caught. Students had tablets, teachers no training. 20 years ago NW Education Labs told legislators funds earmarked for students with lowest out ones was being used to push over marginal students so would widen the gap. It widened. None had enough money when not used effectively.

    • Well, the left wing slant in the region and state has brought us to where we are today… a nationally recognized crap hole like other Left wing, ‘Progressive’ moronic socialist cities.

  6. This article manages to miss the point entirely. Crime figures were pretty much as high or higher than they are now (though it was certainly less visible at the time), and 3rd Avenue was ground zero for where a lot of the visible homeless were at the time (I remember when LIHI tried to put their first Urban Rest Stop there and got smacked down by Rick Yoder/Wild Ginger for having the temerity to interfere with their precious upscale retail environment).

    What really happened that was of consequence was the City government selling out working class folks by subsidizing the Symphony Hall, SAM, the Convention Center, and selling out what was left of the working waterfront downtown (and in Ballard/Interbay/Elliott Bay) to encourage cruise ships and their upscale patrons – not to mention the sweetheart deal then-Mayor Schell gave to Amazon for the PacMed building that subsidized them when they were still losing money.

    The fact that you are shilling for charter schools in this article tells me everything I need to know about you and the agenda behind this piece.

  7. I am not as pessimistic as the writer of this post. This city is not unique with its issues of open drug use, homeless people living on the streets, high prices for housing, ‘demoralized’ police as well as members of the public who are demoralized ‘about’ the police and other issues. I think it is not at all helpful to wax nostalgic about ‘the good old days,’ when those days also included problems and weren’t good for everyone.

    I am also past tired of hearing and reading ‘Progressives’ (not defined or described) as ignoring anything ‘right of center,’ when it’s not clear what the ‘center’ means, except that it’s pretty clear that in the past 30+ years it’s moved to the right. The writer is disingenuous to blandly call The Washington Policy Center a ‘free market think tank,’ when its policy proposals are usually more than that, trending right and ignoring any dissent. I consider myself a progressive, but not blindly so because that would be foolish. I pay attention to conservatives, as best I can.

    • Charter schools are public-schools. Seattle voters gave SPS funds for technology. When COVID came they were caught. Students had tablets, teachers no training. 20 years ago NW Education Labs told legislators funds earmarked for students with lowest out ones was being used to push over marginal students so would widen the gap. It widened. None had enough money when not used effectively.

    • Meaning that in the Seattle of Cinderella Liberty, First Avenue and Post Alley had another feel that those who grew up here also miss.

      • I was a little kid in 70’s Seattle and a young adult in 80/90’s Seattle, and I liked 1st Avenue a lot better when it was all music stores/pawn shops, porno houses, gun stores, dive bars, street dealers who would rip you off for a dime bag of weed, and delis with cheap fried chicken. That being said, it was every bit as sketchy then as conservatives like to paint it as now and then some…..

  8. With all due respect, this is a load of garbage.

    According to the FBI’s stats, rates of property crimes, violent crimes, and homicides were all higher in 1993 than they are today. https://cde.ucr.cjis.gov/LATEST/webapp/#/pages/explorer/crime/crime-trend And those are just the raw numbers; per-capita the drop is even more dramatic given the growth of the city population over the past thirty years.

    I was living here in 1993 as well. There was plenty of crime; while 3rd Avenue may have been safe in the financial core, SODO, Pioneer Square, and Belltown were not safe places to be after dark. Not to mention South Lake Union, Lake City, Aurora, the Central Area and South Seattle. SPD’s East Precinct was established in 1986, specifically because there were areas of the city where the police simply didn’t respond to calls for help. It may have been a “clean, safe, romantic city” in the corners where you lived and worked, but we should all remember that Sleepless in Seattle was very much a work of fiction: chaos, vandalism and dysfunction were easy to find here back then as well.

    Yes, drug overdoses are up. They are up everywhere: every city, every state. Rural areas have also been hit hard, in some cases harder than urban areas. You can’t blame this on Seattle policies. Fentanyl is a national and international crisis. Seattle isn’t doing better than other places, but it’s not doing worse either. The most salient policy difference is that we’re spending less time and money trying to hide the problems from public view (except with the All-star Game comes to town).

    I read the study that your organization cites for the assertion that increased school choice (or “education freedom” as they like to spin it) leads to higher student performance. First, it was funded by an organization with a clear bias and published in a “journal” with a clear bias. Second, the numbers say that the improvement is modest at best, just slightly more than student/teacher ratio. And by far the most significant correlation with higher student performance is household income — an order of magnitude more impactful than school choice. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/15582159.2023.2183450?needAccess=true&role=button That suggests confounding variables: it’s very likely that areas with higher household incomes are more likely to lobby for school choice and thus give that policy a halo effect.

    Potholes are a perennial problem in a city where it rains a lot and then freezes in the winter, cracking the pavement. The one you linked to is somewhat different: it was a crack in the paving of a bridge offramp, and SDOT was out fixing it the same day (unlike the rest of the potholes in the city). The problems with Seattle’s road infrastructure are decades in the making, as the city has pretty much always underfunded maintenance. That’s neither new nor a progressive policy.

    Yes, the city does, in fact, look at the costs of regulations on construction. Like this: https://council.seattle.gov/2023/06/20/councilmember-dan-strauss-celebrates-passage-of-legislation-streamlining-development-project-review-in-downtown-seattle/ and this https://council.seattle.gov/2023/07/05/seattle-city-council-passes-legislative-package-easing-design-review-restrictions-to-increase-citys-stock-of-affordable-housing/ and this https://council.seattle.gov/2023/07/28/councilmember-morales-and-opcd-launch-phase-ii-of-equitable-development-zoning-the-connected-communities-development-pilot/

    Seattle has its share of problems today, no doubt. Some are of its own making, and some are widespread problems that the city is not immune to. And there are plenty of good reasons to criticize our local elected officials for some stupid policy choices. But let’s dispense with the mythology that the city was the quintessential Emerald City thirty years ago; it was a mess then, and it’s a mess today. Some of the problems have persisted (or returned), and some are brand-new.

    • I am not a conservative I am a moderate. I was the Dem who sponsored the first Charter Bill and said I would not be tokenized and support pouring our childrens futures down funded dep dark gimmick ride ratvhokes. I was punished by the WEA and gave them my “safe” seat. I later stepped in as Board President and closed the first charter school, it was out of compliance. Later we had transferred to a community charter school a charter governed by out of state organization. Changes for the sake of children is unheard of in traditional publics. A poor child of a dysfunctional family can be taught to read in a classroom with an economically privileged student if adult’ s job depend on children learning. As to Seattle yes, there was crime and violence 1980s brought us Weed and Seed and the introduction of drugs and guns to Southern reaches of Seattle that destroyed family neighborhood culture with sweet terms like urban villages, market rate housing, that lined pockets of developers and funded corruption which in Seattle goes back to early 1900s when the police chief was jailed. Now we have people believing it all started during Covid. But contrary to how the data reads it is worse in many ways. More random and and I’mpersonal. Meaning when drugs and guns were placed by organized crime in Central and RV and students suspended it had purpose. Make families sell homes to whoever and move. violence was relational not random and crack cocaine was a reason to arrest not to kill and a culture built around it that contained. Danny Weatneat struck fear and loathing into the hearts of Seattle readers of his Little Saigon article by ommission. Viet Wah will be purchased by developers just as the I-90 Rainier properties were first turned over to homeless squalor then sold to developers. Half the property that was Yesler Terrace housing for poor families was sold to wealthy Paul Allen family(Vulcan) What City allows that without outrage? A city is not just those elected, after the vote we must pay attention, participate not just wait for the next protest then put slogan signs back in the window.

  9. Mr Gallagher and his organization have an agenda, that’s fine, but his arguments are predicated on an implied return to another time. That’s not how a city or anything else I know of works. Begin with a simple fact. Mr. Gallagher’s 1989 $173,000 home would cost $440,000 today based on inflation alone, much less the rise in value of housing beyond inflation.
    Seattle’s unemployment rate in 1989 was 6%, not attractive if you weren’t a lawyer in a downtown firm.
    The Third Avenue that Mr. Gallagher describes was true some months ago, but has seen considerable cleanup since. In time, the closed businesses will return as they have elsewhere downtown and elsewhere.
    The Seattle of 1989 was a small town compared to what it has become today. Much of what Mr. Gallagher’s views, the increase in crime, homelessness, his claim of increases in violent crime (while other crimes have gone down), the high price of gas for cars, these are big city ills that have befallen cities around the country.
    Mr. Gallagher suggests that Seattle can regain its magic. Really, was Seattle all that magic 25 years ago? The suggested solutions of lowering taxes on businesses, not fighting charter schools (which are not necessarily the implied solution to education ills that are also characterstic of cities around the country) and recreating the “magic” of Seattle “immortalized in Sleepless in Seattle” are more wishful thinking. than realistic solutions to far more complex problems.. Lest we forget, Sleepless in Seattle was a delightful movie, not a documentary, and even less an accurate portrayal of life in Seattle at the time. Seattle has big city problems that it is beginning to come to grips with, but it never was the dreamy place in this description, nor is it likely to be.

  10. Mr. Gallagher, I appreciate your depth of knowledge on the cost of government regulation. It would be very helpful to know what portion of the $144,000 figure you cite is due specifically to the permitting process? I doubt, given the wave of massive and unsightly buildings that are filling formerly cohesive and human-scale neighborhoods that many Seattleites want to do away with all regulations, much as the Washington Policy Center might prefer that. But nobody can see the sense in paying interest on a loan for a year of waiting.

    What is your prognosis for fixing that — ?

    Is it a dysfunction of management, or a simple lack of enough staff?

    On your hypothetical house how much time and money is specifically lost on permits?

    I ask because the density advocates claim that affordability can only be fixed by more density. What if the bureaucratic costs of building (waiting, permit fees and accused interest on a loan) were lowered by $50-$100k? Would it be passed on to buyers or simply kept as profit by builders?

    Regarding the idea expressed by many here that the past was just as terrible as the present and Seattle was never a paradise 30 years ago, I’d argue in many ways it was in fact far better then. If you were in the lower or middle class or a creative person or entrepreneur you had the freedom to grow a business and have a creative life–and you could live as part of the middle class. You could rent a fine downtown office for $500 per month. You could buy a lovely 1000 square foot co-op apartment or co-op for between $110k and $200k. You could rent a Capitol Hill apartment of the same square footage for between $500 and $1000 per month. I know: I did all of that. The same apartment is now $550k, the apartment rent (if you can even find a 1,000 sq ft apartment) is $4k and up. Wages in the past 30 years, at least for the creative class and the non-tech folk have not gone up to keep up.

    The intangible marvel: it was beautiful. You could live in charm and grace, in fine buildings with history and unique character. Now much of the city looks like any-suburb-USA, a forest of hardiplank uniformity with no sense of scale, style or grace.

    I also took the bus anywhere in the city and walked home at night. Except for a few sieges when a particular rapist or murderer was threatening the neighborhood in Capitol Hill I did not worry about my safety until 10 years ago. It never occurred to me that standing on Third Avenue put me at risk of being beaten to death by a random stranger, as happened in broad daylight this year, or that I could be caught in gang crossfire on the same street (see 2020’s horrific shooting.) Random violence was rare: now I move through the city very cautiously, knowing anyone I pass could be crazy or violent, and choose me to take it out on. I’ve lost track of the Go-Fund Me’s I’ve contributed to for victims of these random attacks.

    A trip to Bainbridge Island requires intense strategy: can I spend the night and avoid coming back at night and passing through downtown to catch the bus or walk to a parking lot? If I have to return at night do I have to spend $45-$50 on a Lyft back to North Seattle? Could I save money by parking on Capitol Hill and catching a Lyft for far less back to my car? Yeah: Money is very different now. It costs $95 to get from far North Seattle to downtown and back by Lyft. There is no room for the middle or lower class or those on a fixed income for the luxury of a 10-mile trip.

    The combination of crushing expense and unease about safety is not something I ever experienced 20-30 years ago, even at what was supposedly the height of Seattle’s crime rate in the late 80’s. We just didn’t expect then to open the news, daily, to see that another store/bank/minimart has been destroyed by a stolen car driving through its windows.

    Boarded up windows at the bank, the Walgreens, the Starbucks, Triple AAA, the CID, all of Third Avenue–is the new normal, and that’s not normal!! In 1995 jacking cars to then destroy buildings or go on a crime spree was something out of the movies. Now, smashing the True Valley on Phinney to steal a forklift and driving it down the street to pull the bank machine out of the Ken’s Market is just another day in the life. Cafes and restaurants refuse to accept cash due to the amount of robbery. Businesses discover insurance rates have quadrupled or insurance may no longer be available because of the neighborhood location: Seattle itself. Now, as I consider buying a new car to replace my ’88 Toyota I have to rule out the top five practical choices because of their high theft rates and matching insurance rates.

    The pretense that crime is no big deal and Seattle is no worse than anywhere else is one of the reasons why it isn’t getting better. Wake up. To live like this is unacceptable.

  11. I have family in New York and Manila. However bad Third Avenue is, I can tell you from first-hand visits to those places that there is no way it can touch Times Square of the ’70s; or shantytowns of scrap wood and metal and no plumbing, or the eight-lane roads filled with kids selling cartons of cigarettes to drivers stuck in traffic. And it’s not like Seattle in the past was low on urban ills; I remember walking past many homeless during my college years in the ’80s.

    On the lighter note of movies, “Singles”, definitely not “Sleepless”, captured perfectly the zeitgeist of the ’90s, when Seattle shaped industry and pop culture for the world. Coffeehouses, grunge, the Sonics, Campbell Scott pitching light rail to Mayor Tom Skerritt; and that was before “Frasier” and Amazon’s rise. “Sleepless”? I know nobody here who lives on a houseboat, and Meg Ryan’s actions were borderline stalking.

  12. I live happily on 3rd Avenue. I’ve lived here since 2009. What Michael Gallagher’s either/or “analysis” misses is the gradual real progress the city has made with Mayor Harrell’s thoughtful leadership. Granted, we could benefit from a more alert, responsive City Council. That’s why I’m vigorously supporting Bob Kettle to represent District 7 which includes 3rd Avenue. Nita Rinehart

  13. Yes! Please bring WPC’s specific flavor of Fascism to Seattle. We need it severely. Clean up downtown! Make it the white and safe place it was in a movie filmed in the 1990s!

  14. Interesting that you brought up 1989 as what Seattle “should be”, then mentioned crime at a 15 year high, but somehow missed that violent crime levels are still less than half of what they were in 1989.

    This article is the epitome of irresponsible fear mongering.

  15. Clearly you are a white republican that only cares about privilege. I recommend you read Robert Riech and learn about what has really happened to our economy and the policy failures that leave human beings on the street. I’m just getting started…
    White demoralized police vs dead black men and women. Really? Learn the science or stop lying. 🤥


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