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.
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Seattle's Kingdome imploding. (University of Washington)

A town of modest pleasures has become a city of cringe-inducing excess, even in the little things like coffee, booze, and movie tickets.

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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.