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Conspicuous Seattle

A town of modest pleasures has become a city of cringe-inducing excess, even in the little things like coffee, booze, and movie tickets.
Seattle's Kingdome imploding. (University of Washington)

Seattle's Kingdome imploding. (University of Washington) None

Danny Westneat had a good column on March 30 about Seattle's descent into Manhattanization, epitomized for him by such things as a $15 cup of coffee at Trabant in Pioneer Square, or a $480 cocktail at El Gaucho. It's enough to make one root for the recession. Unfortunately, recessions rarely hurt the folks that have money to waste.

But Seattle has been sliding toward new levels of cringe-inducing conspicuous consumption. I remember, back in the 1980s, a couple built a mega-mansion on a point in Bellevue's Meydenbauer Bay. The thing was so big, it raised a ruckus on the Gold Coast because it violated the local ethic of "inconspicuous consumption." Who built it? People proffered theories. A racist speculation was that it had to be Arab oil money (not true, by the way).

The other day I was looking at Mercer Island from the Seattle side of the lake through a pair of field glasses (no, I wasn't stalking Paul Allen) and was stunned at how many huge, new mansions have been built along the lake shore. The hideous architectural and socio-economic rash that caused acute discomfort in Bellevue in the mid-1980s has spread. We now take construction cranes in pricey residential neighborhoods as more or less normal (remember the Medina boom of the '90s?) and the new villas and compounds make us forget the now quaint-seeming innocence of the money-mad Reagan era.

The Seattle Times also ran a recent story that underscored local excesses. An Australian theater chain is moving into Redmond Town Center and building a luxury "Gold Class" movie theater where you can watch the latest films with a minimum number of other viewers and order and eat gourmet food instead of popcorn. The price tag: $35 per ticket, not including dinner and drinks. What kind of bozo pays $70 bucks for a pair of movie tickets? An overpaid Microsoft geek, perhaps. That must be what the Aussies are counting on.

It wouldn't bug me so much if it wasn't taking the place of a nice suburban mall theater for regular folk. Seattle's cheaper entertainments are going by the wayside: the low-priced ferry ticket, the Fun Forest, Denny's and Dairy Queens, getting your camping gear at Chubby and Tubby. The Safeco Field center field bleacher seats are only $8, but our pro sports franchises have come to rely on luxury for their survival. As the M's opened their 2008 season, I noticed season tickets to the Diamond Club behind home plate are $17,000-$28,000 per. A pair of single game Diamond Club tickets can be had on Craigslist for $750. That would cover a month of health insurance for my family! At least the peanuts are free.

I've noticed that one of the prices of Safeco Field is a crowd that seems to compete with the players on the wealth scale — you see guys in the stands with tassel loafers, for God's sake. In the Kingdome days, a fan in loafers would get his feet wet slogging through the rivers of King Beers spilling down the aisles. One of the Kingdome's virtues: I never felt the place was too good for the likes of me.

I do sometimes get that feeling in Seattle now, though. It's becoming Safeco-ized as well as Manhattanized. I miss the times when Seattle had less money and tended to hide what it had as a hat tip to egalitarianism. The old social clubs used to keep their locations discrete and unmarked. At the same time, the non-rich people weren't forced to overpay for the basics (like housing), and it was easier to have fun on a budget — partly because everyone else was on a budget, too.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

then there is survival: I hope the motivation for developement, developement, developement goes
deeper that cash. there is no way to avoid experiencing the housing inequitites that we have
found ourselves in - surely our "planners" can do better that this - the elite
have favored empire, but there has been a strong voice of sanity thru the
years. my concern is more for kids with chronic conditions whose parents
can't afford the right food ( there's not an oatmeat and white bread diet as
far as I know.) the medications for all of us that keep us at our jobs and out of the hospitals. our history books are full of revolutions over matters like
these - is that what the greedy want? it would keep our troops occupied and
the munitions budget growing. we can do better - we need more sane, thinking future oriented people in our government.
Jeanp246

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Hit the nail on the head: My wife and I grew up in Seattle and we both have talked about this. Even things like bowling and shooting pool have been taken over by people who seem to have more cash than they know what to do with. With the closure of the 211, Leilani Lanes, and soon the Sunset, it's getting harder to find affordable enjoyments. My 10 year old loves to bowl, but she can't at the Garage. Aren't there enough regular people to make businesses that cater to us successful?

I recommend taking in a movie at the Crest in Shoreline if anyone wants to remember a bit of old Seattle.
Jordan

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Even Mossier-: Born in Seattle, raised in Wallingford, living for many years on Mercer Island, as an architect, I have even more to lament than Mossback. It used to be possible to create one's own reasonably priced home on a easily-found vacant lot without undue regulation. Pretty hard to do these days. Jerry Gropp

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Why I endure a long commute: Living on the Peninsula and working on the northern "east side", I get a lot of people asking me why I put up with the commute. Why not just move to the Seattle area? Some of the reasons are in this article. I wouldn't want to live in King County with all its urban abuses of the mind and soul. Now, life on the Peninsula isn't all goodness and light; we have to put up with the town of Gig Harbor, after all, and it has attitude problems that rival Seattle's in all but geographic scale. But the Peninsula is where I've lived all my life, it's where most of my friends still live, and it's a lot more real than Seattle despite the pestilence of Smug Harbor.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Buddy can you spare $5,000?: When they came for the homeless, we did nothing. When they came for Edith Macefield's home, and called her a crazy old thing and built a monstrosity around her, we did nothing. Because that's what Seattle does: Nothing. We don't hold onto beautiful buildings, or great spaces, or traditions, or anything. We don't fight the city council or the mayor or real estate tycoons or anybody with money and an idea. We just lie down and point to the body parts we want them to walk on.

Personally, since I've worked in theater a little bit, one of my favorite inventions is the elitist and ageist "The Crew" at Seattle Rep. It's a social network for young people who like theater--and sex. It probably started as the Rep's desperate bid to bring in subscribers who are not going to die in the next five years. But like all things in the Emerald City, it went too far in addressing the problem. Over 40? You can't get in! Ha ha ha ha!

This is what Seattle gets for being so desperate to become a "first class" city. It shot right on past "first class" and ended up at "snotty."

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Two Americas: John Edwards, the media ingored advocate of a true progressive liberalism, used the phrase 'two Americas' to describe the bifurcation that 30 years of the Reagon revolution had caused to America. A small group of people have done spectacularly and most of the middle class has slipped and fallen.

I think the new energy coming into Seattle has had it's benefits but the City has become not only more expensive, bust faster paced and a lot more stressed out. It's not a middle class City that it was 10 years ago and it certainly is not a City of Families. 10 years ago, one could go into Belltown to get a whif of a laid-back feeling - a city not in a big rush, but I think the change of feel for Belltown really epitomizes how the feeling for the overall City has changed. There used to be a little bit of healthy provincialism to counter Seattle's inflated global ambitions - the counter-balance has largely been lost.

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Buddy can you spare $5,000?: SP -
So true, so true. The high-priced ways of Seattle (the town that never met a problem it couldn't further discuss - or - the little engine that wouldn't) certainly showed this native the door...

Posted Wed, Apr 2, 9:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Get aquainted with your future Seattle!: Pardon me Sir, I am from the Mayor's office on retail Eco-enforcement, You have violated the retail plastic bag surcharge act of 2009 by not charging me the 20 cent a bag fee. The fine is 1,000 Carbon Credits, 500 Euros and the possibility of 2 weeks confinement in Fife.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

on the other hand...: Yes, overconsumption is bad, but half the complaining about Seattle's growth is that people can't overconsume as easily anymore. So what if you can't afford a 2,000 square foot house on a quarter acre for your family of four. How is your insistence on huge square footage any better than rich people spending too much on movie tickets?

Let me clarify. I do wish life was cheap, as we all do. But I see higher gas prices, higher housing prices, and jammed roads as having silver linings -- forcing people to be more efficient in their consumption.
mhays

Posted Sat, Apr 5, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

We don't need no stinkin' tassels: Back in the previous millennium, our family went to a New York Knicks game in the Big Apple. Somebody gave us tickets to see the roundballers play at Madison Square Garden. I don't recall who the other team was, or who won, I just remember two things: It smelled really bad (turns out Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus had just been to town) and the men in women were dressed to the nines in pearls and suits. I excused them. It was New York after all, and they just got off work. But tassels in Safeco Field? Uff da!
Sue Frause, Langley

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

And yet, some things never change: Looking through the comments I'm glad to see that despite all of the change, the time-honored Seattle tradition of complaining about everything is still alive and well.

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Get aquainted with your future Seattle!: At least in Fife you can get a decent cup of coffee for less than five bucks.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

We are sounding more like our parents as we grow...: I find myself having to qualify my youth growing up in Bellevue with the asterik of, "before they outlawed middle class folks". In my youth, Bellevue Square was open to traffic and air, had an A & P and a Newberrys... and Clark's Crabapple was among the best there was on the eastside for a big night out...

I pinpoint the begining of change to around 1973 or so, when I started seeing more Datsun 240Z's than Toyota Carollas and Honda's (which back then were the size of a Nile Clown Car)... Prior to that it was hand me down jeans, and used Chevy's, and darn near everyone's dad worked at Boeing. Then the bowling alley became a Barnes and Noble, the old Market Basket and Mobil station were torn down and up went the Hyatt... Bellevue Square said No to Gottshocks like a young set of DINKS (double income no kids) turning away their parents because of the lack of man made fiber clothing...

I recall my grandfather amazed at Allied Stores building Southcenter. "Who the heck is going to shop way out there?".

I miss the Seattle well to do of old who did not wear it on their sleve. They wore goretex and jeans, and would not be caught dead in a Hummer or Jag (except maybe to drive to opening night of the Opera).

It seemed like the trend came slightly later to Seattle. When condos became the rage in Ballard, we knew the winds of change had struck.

Last Thursday, we took our kid on school break to SAM and to the Museum of Flight... First Thursday is Free at both... and I did the quick math and realized that we could not afford to do this had we had to pay admission.

I don't know who can afford a $15 dollar cup of coffee. I struggle to afford the occasional cup at my local coffee shop. But we are losing the Dags, the Last Exit on Brooklyn, the Twin TeePees and Doghouse's of old where one COULD afford to go. At least the locks remain free of fee's... for now.

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Population Growth & Loss of Connection to the Environment Drive Greed: Since home lots are pretty much staying the same size as 40 years ago, an increase from a 1300 sq. feet home to a much larger home of 4,000 or more square feet means less yard.

It also means less contact with the outdoors, or possibly with growing a garden, and a more critical need for open space (parks) or soccer fields. Less yard might drive the need for a club/athletic membership. We also have less access to the open sky (redevelopment to high rises) than a generation ago.

Maybe it means you don't have room to keep a big dog, or raise chickens or rabbits for your kids. We are losing a connection to nature, and that loss drives our emotional greed for things. Maybe we don't need the $3,000 handbag at Nordstrom's or the extra 3 rooms we don't use to feel good.

A smaller home might mean you have some great opportunities.

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