A reoccurring story I keep hearing from my friends and acquaintances in Seattle is what I call the “Big Move.”
As Seattle grows and develops, the cost of real state and rents have gone through the roof, leading to the displacement of an entire population of people who have lived here all of their lives.
One example is a friend of mine who lived in a historic brick apartment building on Stewart Street. If my memory is correct, it was called The Virginia.
Originally, the building was a “gentlemen’s hotel,” where male-only guests resided in the early 20th century. The beautiful old brick structure included Murphy beds on large wooden rollers. During the day the bed was pushed back into the wall below a large closet. These were the kinds of apartments and hotels that also featured permanent fold-up ironing boards, huge sinks and ceramic tile counter tops.
My friend was born in Seattle and had lived most of her life in Ballard. She moved to Stewart Street with her son and was a renter at The Virginia for several years. Two years ago, the tenants were evicted to make way for a new glass-covered high rise. She moved to Portland, which is now experiencing its own real estate boom as hoards of people continue to pack up their belongings and head for the Rose City.
There was no attempt by the owner or by local architects or historians to preserve the building on Stewart Street, so it was demolished along with dozens of other classic vintage buildings near downtown and in the Cascade and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.
To be blunt, this lack of historical preservation of the architectural heritage of our city is a shameful display of crass commercialism and corporate greed. Why Seattle architects, politicians and historians have allowed this to happen is a complete mystery to me. In addition, our municipal historic preservation laws are completely inadequate, and only require the preservation of a tiny portion of the original buildings.
Where is our local sense of pride in our own history as a community? Who will preserve it if we do not?
I’m sure that the spirit of Seattle journalist Emmett Watson is now turning in his grave, as his vision of “Lesser Seattle” is erased by large multinational corporations and wealthy real state companies. The skyline has changed so much in the last year alone that it’s hardly recognizable anymore. Construction cranes have multiplied so much across the city that it’s the silhouettes of those structures that have become the new skyline.
I am not a Luddite longing for the “good ol’ days” of Northwest isolationism, nor do I deplore reasonable development. All I’m asking for are some rational and reasonable approaches to the displacement of thousands of people and the massive increase in homelessness in our city. At some point we must ask ourselves if our economic “success” has actually been a detriment to some of our local cultural values and historic traditions.
Seattle has no rent control due to a statewide ban, there is a serious lack of affordable housing, and the cost of living is increasing dramatically. The natural results are increased numbers of working people living in poverty, a surge in homelessness and a mass migration of economic refugees.
The Seattle City Council recently made international news by voting to divest $3 billion of city funds and investments from Wells Fargo. I covered this story, and it struck me just how courageous that move was in the face of so much corporate money pouring into the city. Mayor Ed Murray is proposing a new levy to raise $275 million for programs to address homelessness. Perhaps these are some of the first moves to seriously reevaluate our political and monetary policies in the wake of the recent building boom. I hope there will be more initiatives launched in an attempt to balance the scales for people that have not benefited from the latest tech gold rush.
As we bathe in the glow of international attention, it might be wise to consider what kind of example we are setting for the rest of the world. Are we truly a “human rights city,” as proudly proclaimed by the Seattle City Council in 2013? Can we continue to label ourselves a “sanctuary city” while retired seniors on fixed incomes are being evicted from their homes after 30 years of residency? Are we the forward thinking, innovative and progressive community that we claim to be, or are we just another big city sweeping homeless folks off the street and catering to the ever mighty dollar/euro of the corporate class?
I leave you to decide that question for yourself...