Seattle's dizzying change? Get used to it

Our city's identity has always been an ephemeral one. Nothing has changed.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's skyline: Changing all the time.

Our city's identity has always been an ephemeral one. Nothing has changed.

Lately, I've been struck by how many people have come up to me and said something to this effect: "I moved here six years ago, and man has this city changed!"

The lifecycle of a Mossback has sped up. The rate of change is such that you can be an instant old-timer before you have fully unpacked, let alone learned to navigate the streets. ("Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.")

The people I've talked to aren't nostalgic for old Seattle, whatever that is. For them, that was the town of Paul Schell, the WTO and the Commons. It was a time before food trucks, Twitter and the Great Wheel. Ancients might remember a thing called the Kingdome.

The people I'm talking about are too young to experience nostalgia. It's more like bewilderment, their heads spun by the rate of change. Half a decade of the Great Recession put a gap between the last boom and the current one – just enough of a breather to start to get used to things.

Then, blam! Big mega-projects underway like tunnels, train lines, freeways, bridges and massive redevelopment spilling out of the permit pipeline.

The current boom is such that even dedicated urbanists, who worship at the shrine of density, have said, "Wow."

You can play the game of count-the-cranes. You can see holes in the ground filling up. You can experience the dug-up streets, the shut-down sidewalks, the gridlock, the detours, the cyclone fencing that wraps each new development in netted gift wrap. You watch the cookie-cutter high-rises rise and the Amazonian cheechakos wandering the streets in small support groups as if trying to extend life beyond work and Whole Foods.

As ancient as cities are, they are also ephemeral. And Seattle's sense of itself is even more so because of its youth and its embrace of change from Day One. The Denny Party landed in late 1851, and by 1866 the town had its first historic landmark crisis when Henry Yesler, the man whose steam-powered sawmill brought industry to the city, decided to tear down the mill's modest log cook house.

This structure had become the budding burg's first civic space. It had served as Seattle's hotel, courtroom, church, entertainment venue, restaurant, jail, political gathering spot and coffee house. It was City Hall, Town Hall, the Courthouse, Starbucks and Microsoft rolled into one. In short, everything a frontier village needed, save a brothel. Many settlers lamented its destruction because it embodied the collective memory of Seattle's start-up days.

In its July, 30, 1866 edition the Puget Sound Weekly noted that "There was nothing about this cook house very peculiar, except the interest with which old memories had invested it. It was simply a dingy-looking hewed log building, about twenty-five feet square, a little more than one story high, with a shed addition in the rear, and to strangers and newcomers was rather an eye-sore and nuisance in the place – standing as it did in the business part of town, among the more pretentious buildings of modern construction, like a quaint octogenarian, among a band of dandyish sprigs of Young America."

One might mark that moment as the first expression that budded, a century later, into Seattle's historic preservation movement. That movement boldly insisted that the past was an important part of the future – and obsession with both became a legacy of Century 21-era civic dialog, one acting as a measuring stick for the other.  You cannot have progress without a past.

By the early '70s, activists had rescued Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market from the wrecking ball. The city had grown and sprawled beyond the cookhouse's capacity to serve it, but as time marched on we learned that having a past – and tangible links to it – made us richer. A few old anchors among the "dandyish sprigs" sprouting in downtown, Belltown, First Hill and later South Lake Union were good for civic life and business.

Nostalgia got stronger after the boom years, kicked off by the Klondike gold rush in 1898 and punctuated by our first world's fair in 1909. By the 1920s, the Seattle Times was running columns about antediluvian Seattle "25 years ago."

Now that a couple of generations had lived here for a substantial chunk of post-cookhouse time, they could remember collectively where they'd been. By then, their memories weren’t of a frontier past, but of a morphing, complex city altered by the great fire, immigration, re-grading and growth.

In 1928, a local actor signing himself J.H.D. rhymed nostalgically about lost Seattle:

"Where are the places we all knew so well; where are the faces, can anyone tell? Where's the Queen Chop House, and old Saddle Rock; Toklas and Singerman, and the old New York Block? Where's Warren Burgess and the great Bijou Band, Frye's Opera House, The Seattle and Grand?... Where are the pals I had years ago; where are the landmarks, I'd like to know…"

Feeling overwhelmed, awe and anxiety about change is common. The pace may sometimes be quicker of slower, but you don't have to live here long to walk out the front door and experience WTF moments. For a city that loves comfort – coffee, cupcakes and cottages – we’re also dedicated to shaking our complacency. If you're stunned by the current pace of change, don’t worry. You're just having the classic Seattle experience.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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