Seattle's innovations: Why can't we get more satisfaction from our success?

The city is growing, but there are downsides as well.
John Maus at the Capitol Hill Block Party

John Maus at the Capitol Hill Block Party Credit: laviddichterman/Flickr

New apartments like these at 15th and Madison are changing Capitol Hill and the Pike-Pine area.

New apartments like these at 15th and Madison are changing Capitol Hill and the Pike-Pine area. Joe Wolf/Flickr

A Microsoft Connector on a recent run.

A Microsoft Connector on a recent run. SounderBruce

“Innovation” is the buzzword of the moment, at least in business. Seattle is celebrated as a place that fosters innovations that catch on around the world, from Boeing’s jets to Microsoft’s software to Amazon’s online retailing. The Bezos family has funded a shrine to innovation at the Museum of History & Industry that tracks Seattle’s penchant for breakout businesses and inventions, from Starbucks espresso drinks to K2 skis.

We’ve had other kinds of innovators here, too: John Cage and his modern music, Mark Tobey and his modern art, the music of grunge, which, although it made money, did so while eschewing the corporate music industry, popularity and materialism itself. The soundtrack of that collision of art and success was reflected in Kurt Cobain’s suicide just over 20 years ago. The bench in Viretta Park is not just a memorial to someone who died for his art, but someone who may have died, at least in part, because of the problematic nature of his art’s popularity.

There is a palpable tension in Seattle between innovation and art. Innovators, we’re told, like to be in creative places. According to Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who studies high-tech economies, innovation hubs are urban, attractive, stimulating environments where different kinds of minds and ethnicities can rub off on each other. Seattle is booming and growing faster, for the first time in decades, than its growing suburbs. Developers are transforming parts of the city into what they hope will be hubs for innovators; thus the transformations of South Lake Union, SoDo, Capitol Hill, Fremont and soon, the University District, where applied research will meet light rail.

But innovation in the modern sense has an Achilles heel. While it generates prosperity — especially billionaires — it exacerbates income inequality. There are reverberations: gentrification, displacement, the loss of affordable housing and workspaces for artists and other “innovators” who aren’t in it for the money. The current march toward a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the demand for more low-income housing — even microhousing — are part of calls to redress growing burdens for the have-nots in the innovation economy.

You can see the process at work on Capitol Hill, where even urban boosters are being flummoxed by the dizzying growth and change. Business folk in Pike/Pine complain about the invasion of the Amazonians, who are helping to drive out artists as rents rise and low-cost retail and studio spaces are replaced by pricey high-rises. The original appeal of Seattle’s great creative hub is threatened by its success.

In San Francisco, activists have loudly protested the transit system set up for Google employees. Protesters here have also spoken out against Microsoft’s Connector transit system. The concern is that wealthy innovators are opting out of inadequate public transportation systems and that the cities are entrenching a two-tiered system: one for rich techies, one for everyone else. The Connector, some argue, is a disconnector.

The troubles in San Francisco have acted as a warning for Seattle. The growing class divide, and anger, are getting attention, but solutions remain elusive. With a regressive state tax system that puts most of the burden on Washington’s lowest earners, getting at the money issues that produce income inequality is difficult. If you make it more expensive to develop housing, if you raise regressive taxes to pay for parks or transit or education, you make it harder for artists, writers, musicians, educators, social reformers, performers, in short, for innovators who are not first and foremost monetarily motivated.

That, in turn, erodes the environment that supposedly drives profitable innovation: a city where all kinds of creative people can flourish. For much of the 20th century, Seattle had a civic ethic of egalitarianism that eschewed wealth and promoted a bungalow culture of modest, do-it-yourself living. We need innovative thinkers to figure a 21st-century way out of the vicious cycle of income inequality. We need a way to build a fairer city that doesn’t soil its own nest with “success.”

This column was published in the June edition of Seattle Magazine.

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 Tue, Jul 8, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute,

I find it ironic that the top photo of the Capitol Hill Block Party, an event designed to represent Seattle's "vibrant arts scene" is run by a guy who is actively opposing the minimum wage. (David Meinert. See: http://www.supportseattleworkers.com/list.html) I'd love to see some editorials/articles that focus on what is being done to HELP artists live in Seattle, such as Artspace Inc, (http://www.artspace.org/) which has at least 4 artist live/work buildings in the Puget Sound Region and a new one just about to open in Mount Baker next to the Link Station. (http://www.artspace.org/our-places/artspace-mt-baker-lofts) Artist housing and transit-oriented development in one project! Why not expand this program ten-fold and make low income housing actually WORK for neighborhoods rather than being a liability? Of course Seattle is turning into San Francisco. It is the way of capitalism. Edward Abbey — ''Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.''

Splabman

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

thanks for the Edward Abbey quote!

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's some more.

http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2009/10/edward-abbey-on-immigration.html

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Slabman--There is nothing inappropriate about referencing David Meinert (even obliquely) in this article. By opposing the minimum wage superhike, Meinert is also opposing a very regressive means of furthering the goals of political progressivism. I'm already seeing price hikes at some Seattle venues I go to--just recently made--which could very well be in anticipation of the law that will start going into effect a year from now. If you think that billionaires like Howards Schultz are going to pay for this superhike out of their own pockets rather than passing the increased costs onto their customers (who come from all economic backgrounds, including low-income), then you're living on a different planet from the rest of us. The transfers of dollars to make this superhike possible will be every bit as regressive as a sales tax.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh my God; will the bleeding hearts ever be healed? Private companies that cannot rely on city and county transportation services do what any brilliant company does: do it themselves.

Your conclusion that a company providing their own transportation is somehow eating away at the success of city and county transportation is ludicrous. Why not tell the truth: you want "rich people" to suffer with the same terrible service that "poor" people receive. (If we all can't be equal financially, at least we will all suffer equally).

Battering the success. That is the problem with Seattle. "If I/We/Us-all cannot have our cut of your success, then off with your head!"

Stop complaining about "big business" ruining the place, or Californians, or "our own success"; put the blame where it belongs: our own overly Utopian fantasy of how we all should receive what is due.

Art finds a way, a space, a patron.

Logic inequality is what you need to focus on.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Every "good" factor Mr. Berger identifies is another step toward unsustainability or temporary indulgences provided by an industrialization enabled by rapidly depleting resources which also degrades all forms of life-supporting ecology. But he is right about the bad. He needs to dig a little harder to understand the cause and effect of it though.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate


It's true -- the rich ARE assholes:

http://truth-out.org/news/item/24813-7-weird-things-money-does-to-your-brain

The tag line there is awesome: tax 'em.

Of course the democrats here won't do that. They suck up to the rich and big corporations.

------------------

“I am a democrat, of the 'Tax the Poor' party.

“I always will strive for more sales taxes and car tab taxes, as those taxes target most heavily minorities, young households of modest means, the underemployed, and the disabled. My party in Washington won the race to the bottom of the states on that score ( http://www.itep.org/whopays/ ). Now we must put space between us and the rest of the states.”

– Dow Constantine and Ed Murray

crossrip

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

What we need is some spirit of the potlach, the chiefs of the local economy giving gifts just for the sake of it. I am not talking about "measurable results" social investment philanthropy, though that has a place. Rather than only "giving away" their money to their foundations which they still control, investing the endowments in the stock market and distributing the investment earnings, people who got it should just open their moneybags and start to hand it out freely. In the spirit of the native chiefs.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

If we raise taxes to pay for education, we make it harder for educators.
Well ain't that a bitch!
Sorry, Knute, not buying your convenient canonizations.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

What we need is for each person to create as much value for Seattle as he/she takes out of it. This is where Berger and most left-wingers go off the rails. Collective action only works if each person contributes as much as he/she receives. For those not capable, allowances are made. This is just human nature. But why do those not "monetarily-motivated" feel entitled to monetary subsidies? One does not need to be "monetarily-motivated" to cope, simply competent and perhaps a bit entrepreneurial. A good artist, writer, musician, performer, educator, or social reformer can make a decent living because they are creating something of value for which people are willing to pay. Bad ones cannot, and therefore need to do something else in order to pursue their avocation. That is life.

Many call Washington state's tax system regressive. I say that it is based on the notion that people should pay for the services they consume, which preserves the greatest amount of freedom and choice for everyone.

Spend more time agitating for public services to be more efficient and consumer-friendly, rather than decrying private competition, and we will all be better off.

kevin22

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 5:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I realize Knute probably did not write the lead but "satisfaction" is a hard thing to measure even if you have the resources of the US Census (as I recall they do ask a question like that). We are growing too fast, that is almost indisputable and that is directly or indirectly contributing to the complaints above. Our City can only try to accommodate growth and City Hall is trying…. people would be no less outraged if they tried to somehow stop it.

kieth

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 6:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Hard to be satisfied with massive Californication that is driving most with less than a median income to Lynnwood, Federal Way, Renton, etc., unless they're willing to downsize their life to an apodment.

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