What does a transplant owe to Seattle?

I couldn't do everything to become an ethical citizen of my new home, but I could do something.

(Crosscut/Valerie Niemeyer)

What do I owe to Seattle?

That’s a question I should have asked myself a lot sooner. My wife and I were two of the 15,354 people who moved here between 2017 and 2018. I needed to live closer to my family; she was in search of better career opportunities. But however reasonable our reasons to relocate were on an individual level, there was also no escaping that we were going to contribute to a trend bigger than ourselves: We would be part of the wave of newcomers changing a city already in flux, grappling with the technology sector’s growth and the rising housing costs that follow. I knew before we arrived that many longtime locals bemoaned the impact all these transplants were having on their city, but I didn’t know how — or if — I could mitigate my inevitable impact.  I felt a bit like an elephant trying to tiptoe through the Chihuly Garden: How could I possibly keep from breaking things?

During my first year here, I didn’t try very hard at all to be a good local. Now that I’m finally settling in, though, I realized that I was letting the unattainability of the perfect be the enemy of the good. I can’t help but be a transplant, but I can try to respect and preserve the things that make this gloomy place so special. So in late January, I decided to spend one week learning how to be a better newcomer.

I culled my tasks from various sources. The Evergrey’s 2017 video “How can newcomers best respect the city’s character?” was particularly helpful, as were conversations with my editor, Mason Bryan. I proved to be the precise target audience for Seattle Globalist’s 2016 “open letter to white-collar Seattle transplants.” An old Thrillist article about the differences between transplants and locals also tipped me off to habits I had that were dead giveaways that I haven’t lived here long. (For example, I am indeed guilty of calling I-5 “The 5.” How else would someone born in California refer to it?) Within a day, I had a laundry list of things to accomplish — and, to make up for lost time, I wanted to cram as many of them into my first week as possible.

Starting on a Friday afternoon, I set up a small recurring monthly donation to the Chief Seattle Club, the nonprofit organization based in Pioneer Square that provides assistance and daytime space to urban Native people. In a city named after a Suquamish and Duwamish chief, it should be clear that almost anyone living in Seattle is a newcomer, historically speaking. And yet, after moving here, I never stopped to consider how to honor this legacy. The appalling fact that many descendants of Seattle’s original residents are homeless persuaded me to spare a few dollars every 30 days, which is nowhere near enough, but it’s what I can afford now.

That same day, I confronted another longstanding source of shame: I hadn’t yet registered to vote in Seattle. I spent most of last November traveling, so I barely tuned in to the 2019 election results, except to note the top line that the Seattle City Council was firmly in progressive hands. Heading into 2020, I didn’t even know my own council member’s name, which makes me the worst kind of transplant: Someone who moves here and treats the city as a personal playground while learning nothing about local politics. Too many young people come here, do just that and then leave without ever engaging the city on a deeper level. But let my blitheness be a lesson in how easy it can be to rectify it. Registering to vote took all of five minutes online — and researching my council member took only an hour of further reading

I didn’t have to be a local politics junkie, though, to realize that Seattle is rapidly gentrifying, displacing low-income people and people of color in the process. Seattle remains one of the whitest big cities in America — and, as a white newcomer, I am keenly aware that there is a certain incommensurability of my being here: No individual action I take can reverse that systematic change, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something besides vote for candidates who champion affordable housing.

For this first week of homework, I set out to try something small by supporting as many Black-owned restaurants as I could, working off a list from Seattle Met. This was far and away the most delicious homework on my list: On Friday night, I devoured the avocado ceviche at Plum Bistro. Later in the week, my wife and I split Salare’s legendary charcuterie board. And the buffalo chicken tenders we picked up from Ezell’s after a late-night workout were life-altering.

On Sunday morning, at the advice of my editor, I tuned the radio in my car to 90.3 FM to listen to KEXP, the longstanding local radio station that plays an eclectic mix of alternative and indie music. It was immediately apparent that KEXP provided a better soundtrack to Seattle than I could ever curate myself. My little hatchback was filled with the swelling sounds of something the DJ called “ambient neoclassical music,” which proved to be the perfect sonic backdrop for a cloud-covered day. I got lost in the sound as I hurtled up Aurora toward my next assignment: the Green Lake Litter Patrol.

When I arrived at the Bathhouse Theater parking lot, I donned an orange vest, picked up a trash picker and took my place among volunteers who fan out and circle the lake every week. For the next two hours, I scoured the entire circumference of Green Lake’s outer path as the sun briefly broke through the clouds. My haul included dozens of cigarette butts, an extended-reach butane lighter, a mud-soaked outdoor rug, countless pieces of plastic and more. My bag got so heavy that I had to empty it halfway around. By the end, my arms aching, I had developed a bodily appreciation for the labor required to keep one of Seattle’s most-visited parks beautiful. A funny thing happened, too: The same Seattleites who almost never say “hi” when I pass them on trails made it a point to say “thank you” when they saw me at work. Perhaps one key to a local’s heart is to show them you care as much about this city as they do.

But even as I committed myself to improving and maintaining the Seattle of today, it dawned on me that I was largely ignorant about the Seattle of yesteryear. If I had been forced to recount the history of this city in a sentence, I would have said something like, “There was a little gold and a lot of lumber and I think at some point everything burned down, which is why there are supposedly ghosts or something beneath the streets, but then came the planes and the coffee and the computers.” Sure, maybe some of the broad brushstrokes are accurate, but it’s sad that I knew so little about a place that clearly has a much more complicated past.

So near the end of my week of homework, as I rode the ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, I started reading Skid Road, Murray Morgan’s famous history of the city. It paid immediate dividends: Mere minutes after encountering Dexter Horton — “a sawmill hand who became the town’s first banker,” as Morgan describes him — I was disembarking from the ferry onto the Marion Street walkway when I looked to my right and saw “Dexter Horton Building” emblazoned on top of a downtown structure. Already I was gaining a greater understanding of the people who walked these streets long before I did. (Gay Seattle and Native Seattle are already queued up on my bookshelf, waiting for me to finish Skid Road.)

The last assignment I could fit into my week was a trip to Golden Oldies in Wallingford, the famous record shop that opened in 1977. I don’t have a record player, but I did purchase the CD version of Northwest Battle of the Bands: Volume 1, which promised to introduce me to “Jerry Dennon’s magnificent mid-1960s Pacific Northwest garage rock empire”— a description that meant nothing to me when I picked up the CD. My awareness of the Seattle music scene dates back only to ’90s grunge. With an appraising glance at the track list on the back of the CD, the cashier told me, “The Sonics are probably the best band to come out of Seattle.” Then, as if afraid of committing sacrilege, he added conspiratorially, “Don’t tell Nirvana.”

But more rewarding than any individual assignment on my list was their collective impact on me: By week’s end, I felt like I was beginning to see Seattle — not in full, of course, but perhaps a little glimmer of its essence. I wanted to continue contributing to the city not out of a sense of guilt for not having done so sooner, but because my affection for it had genuinely deepened. Seattle is weird, a little removed, astoundingly beautiful and culturally rich. Seattle came from somewhere; it didn’t sprout up around Starbucks in 1971. So I kept going. I set up a monthly donation to KEXP. I watched Almost Live!’s “Guide to Living in Seattle” and laughed at how much of it was still relevant today. I’ll keep going, too, whether I write about it or not. I’ll tell other newcomers that they, too, should get to know their adopted home.

What do I owe to Seattle? I’m not sure I can fully answer that question after only a week. I have only scratched the surface of a city that literally has an underground. But maybe the most important thing is that I’m asking it now.

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