The Seattle Times’ Ron Judd set off a ton of conversation with his epic rant a couple of weeks ago about who is, and is not, a native Northwesterner. The most controversial part was his premise that you can’t be one unless you were born here. In other words, there is no path to Northwest “citizenship” for newcomers.
A provocative view in a city full of recent arrivals. “We really couldn’t care less what non-natives think about us,” Judd wrote.
Judd is, of course, a funny writer who was having fun with the subject — and he intended to be provocative. In some ways, his story was making fun of his Northwest, pulling out the cliches and drawing a very narrow picture of what a Northwesterner really is: a mostly white, wet, rain soaked everyman.
We all know the Northwest is more diverse than that — the Native Americans who have been here for thousands of years, multi-generations of Latinos in Central Washington, the Asians and African Americans in and around Seattle. I suspect the children of Somali immigrants might have something to add to the conversation. There are Northwesterners who never eat salmon and never hike. And there are those who live in places like Eastern Washington or Idaho who aren’t wrinkled with moisture or afraid of blue sky.
To me, being a Northwesterner has more to do with affinity for place than birthplace. In fact, some of the most Northwesty people I know were folks who stepped off the plane or out of their microbus and found home here. I think of my good pal, journalist Steve Scher, who came here as a young man and worked cutting timber, fishing in Alaska and picking fruit in Eastern Washington.
I’ve never done any of those things, but since I was born here, I have the more definitive Northwest experience?
Granted that many of us who are born and raised here are steeped in the environment, which for those of us on Puget Sound is wet and green and full of salt air which you can sometimes smell as you drive west on I-90 and hit Snoqualmie summit, as John Steinbeck did as he drove to Seattle in his classic 1962 book, “Travels with Charley.” It’s where the sunbelt ends and the cloud belt begins.
The Seattle he found back then was a city undergoing massive change and urbanization — not unlike what we’re going through now. “Carcinomatous growth,” he called it. But growth, transformation, newcomers: that is a big part of who we are, a place that welcomes those looking to re-start their lives, re-jigger life’s odds, find a place that they can grow in and grow into. I would argue a Northwesterner is a person who sets down roots here, regardless of birthplace, and allows themselves to be shaped by the place. For me that is symbolized by letting some moss grow on your back. (I talk about that with Marcie Sillman here.)
A central element of Judd’s essay is about how longtime inhabitants of Puget Sound feel about the direction of the place, a sense that some shared values have disappeared, chewed up, perhaps, by market forces. He put his finger on the uneasiness some have these days: “[T]he Northwest we’ve all come to love feels like it’s on the brink — of something. We locals are being quickly outnumbered, outpriced and outvoted. The old sense we had that everyone could live the same good life here simply by working hard, staying humble and planting rhodies seems to be slipping away.”
I think that sense of paradise being lost is a feeling that goes way, way back. I have found such ideas expressed here in the 19th century as the pioneers felt displaced by recent arrivals. That feeling is itself part of what defines the Northwest: the idea that we live someplace special, and that our love for it — our embrace of it — is also changing its essence. That essence, hard to define, is something we don’t want to change even as we grow. But the essence is complex, made of subcultures, clashing views, and competing visions
Look at the history books and you’ll find the region full of utopian experiments and disappointments, a sense that the modern world is changing fast and that somehow we’re the last bastion of folks who are trying to get things right. I think that’s especially true for those who came here looking for inspiration, refuge, and renewal.
We’re not the last place — that’s a vanity — but we are someplace special, and part of that is having a low bar for immigrant impact. Our social and political hierarchies are flat. Of Seattle’s 53 mayors, only one — one — was a Seattle native, and only a handful, including the incumbent, born in Washington.
That openness is part of who we are. We embrace, and then trust that place will work its magic on all who come.