Photo: Tom James
The world has converged on the Eastside in the past 20 years, and as usual, preening Seattle hipsters are the last to know. Many (and I confess I’ve been one) still picture Bellevue and its neighbors as bland, homogenous strip mall and cul-de-sac nowheresville — “a yuppie, upscale, white-bread suburb,” as the marketing director of Cellophane Square called Bellevue in 1994, after his company deigned to open a store there in 1985. In 2011, a Seattle songwriter named Igor Keller updated the stereotype in an album entitled “Greater Seattle”: “Yuck, Bellevue! It’s such a soulless place! Yuck, Bellevue! They’re enemies of the whole human race!”
The cul-de-sacs and strip malls are still there, along with much more opulent malls and enough outsized SUVs to make a Subaru-driving Seattleite feel like a Tonka truck at a big-wheel rally. But the people living, shopping and riding in them hardly match the stereotype. It turns out that many people from Shanghai, Chennai, Moscow, Mogadishu and most points in between want the same things that drew upwardly mobile native-born Americans out from the teeming cities to the greener suburbs in past decades: bigger, newer houses; spacious yards; safety or the perception of it; and, above all, good schools for their kids.
In the white-flight years of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, those amenities were reserved for those with names like Bailey and Roberts, or at most, Bernstein and Rossi. Today, the allure endures, but with a very different complexion.
Conrad Lee was an early adopter of the immigrant suburban ethos. He came to the States from Hong Kong in 1958 – one soul in the mid-century “forgotten wave” of Chinese immigrants – moved to Seattle in 1962 and became an engineer at Boeing. In 1967 he crossed the lake to Bellevue and never left. In 1994, he was elected to Bellevue’s city council. Today, he is its mayor.
Bellevue mayor, Conrad Lee. Photo: City of Bellevue.
Kim Pham was a member of a more sudden and conspicuous immigrant wave: the refugees who poured out of Vietnam in the late 1970s, after surviving the battlefields and reeducation camps. He and his young family landed first in Tacoma, where he found work as a designer at a shipyard. They moved from there to Seattle’s Beacon Hill, where Kim started Northwest Vietnamese News, a Vietnamese-language weekly newspaper based just down the hill on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
He and his children still publish it, but he no longer lives nearby. By the mid-1980s, many doctors and other leading figures in the local Vietnamese community had moved across the lake, and his friends said Bellevue was the place to go. Two of his children were admitted to a program for gifted students at a Bellevue elementary school. After two years of driving back and forth across the lake each day, he and his family made the move.
Thushara and Asanka Wijeratna wasted no time getting to the Eastside. They’d worked a couple years as software engineers, first in their native Sri Lanka and then in the Caribbean, when Thushara landed a job at Microsoft in 1999. Asanka also went to work there, and they settled in Kirkland. Both have since left the company. Thushara joined a startup in Seattle, then another firm there. He says that’s where the entrepreneurial action is now in IT: “On the Eastside, it’s pretty much two big companies – Microsoft and Google. Seattle is more a startup thing.” He and Asanka enjoy visiting Seattle, but he’d rather join the commuter scrum on the Lake Washington bridges then move there.
What draws immigrants to the Eastside and keeps them there, even when, like Tushara, they go to work in Seattle? Lee could be speaking for all of them when he answers, emphatically, with a single word: “School! I needed to raise kids, and Bellevue’s the place to do it.”
It wasn’t just the Bellevue schools’ celebrated instructional quality (its average test scores place it among the top 10 districts statewide in math and science and the top 30 in reading and writing) or their ample tax base, which includes the wealthy lakeshore municipalities of Medina, Clyde Hill and the Points.
It was the counter-intuitively congenial social environment of what was then an upscale, predominately white, monocultural community. In Bellevue and Newport, Pham found, he didn’t have to worry about his three kids being bullied or sticking with their own kind for protection. The friction, suspicion and resentment that can arise when struggling minorities jostle against each were absent. “There’s more tension poor to poor,” he explains. “Eastside people are very friendly and generous.”
“We find common denominators instead of looking for differences,” says Lee. “It’s not like Los Angeles, where you’re all competing. If everyone’s fighting for the same dollar, it’s difficult. But wealth takes the pressure off. Instead of fighting, we continue to look to our success, so we can attract more opportunity, more business growth.”
That’s sales pitch as well as sociology: As Bellevue’s mayor, dedicated to forging overseas — especially Chinese — commercial ties, Lee has made it his mantra. But the trajectory holds. The immigrants of a century and more ago often took decades, even generations, to move from urban tenements and ethnic ghettoes to cottages and bungalows in the streetcar suburbs. Many of today’s immigrants have found an express lane to the American Dream.
Microsoft has been a powerful accelerator on that route. From 2001 to 2012, even as its stock price flattened, Redmond’s Mighty Micro filed 38,000 applications for special H1B visas to import skilled technology workers — more than 8,000 in 2011 and 2012 alone, almost none of them denied. Meanwhile, Microsoft sought green cards, which, unlike visas, grant permanent residency, for more than 13,000 — 7,000 in 2011 and 2012. Both categories of workers receive average starting salaries of about $110,000.
That’s an enormous infusion of both people and wealth in midsized cities such as Redmond and Bellevue, and it’s far from the only infusion; a fact that has contributed to some remarkable demographic shifts. By 2010, 22 percent of the Eastside’s population was foreign-born, a figure that has surely grown since. More than 30 percent of Bellevue and Redmond’s populations were immigrants, up from just 13 percent in 1990 — a larger share than Seattle’s 17 percent, and more than in any other King County municipality save Tukwila and Seatac.
Many immigrants to those two cities (and to Kent, the largest in South King County) come from different countries than those on the Eastside, and under very different circumstances. Relatively inexpensive housing has made them prime resettlement sites for refugees from such countries as Myanmar, Somalia, Bhutan and Burundi, who, in past decades, would have settled in South Seattle. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of Bellevue’s immigrants are from Asia; about a third of those came from China, a quarter from India and 12 percent from Korea. They tend to land with a leg up on the mobility ladder, bringing more education and, in many cases, capital to start businesses. Not to mention job offers from Microsoft.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!