Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seattle Spring

Sunlight does odd things to Seattle. Brick buildings take on a golden underhue, glass highrises sparkle against the city’s backdrop of water and sky, and tight little buds on neighborhood trees fatten with promise. Trees that have already exploded into blossom, whose colors have faded in the persistent veil of grey, become spangles of pink or soft white. Best of all, the heavy air lightens and becomes buoyant, floating people out of their houses and into the street.

It becomes a city to rediscover, after months of ignoring anything but indoor warmth and light. Yesterday I went exploring, under the guise of grocery shopping, walking down streets I never had been on before, in an old neighborhood that still has the comfortable, working-class homes of a city where many workers can no longer afford to buy a house now.

The houses I saw were solid and modest, built for large families with building materials that were durable and could hold up under one of the area’s frequent earthquakes. There was very little pretension about them, in common with the city where they were built. The money that built them was made by longshoremen or loggers or fishermen. It’s easy to romanticize honest toil, but as the daughter of a man who worked with his hands and his back for most of his life, I’ve seen the pride that comes from making it possible for a family to have a place of their own, after days and months and sometimes years of hard labor. Sentimental I may be, but I believe there's nothing more satisfying than that.

Many of the houses from Seattle’s early years are going away as working-class neighborhoods are being populated by a young demographic, many of whom work with computers, their labor invisible. They live in thin houses that are slivers compared to the bulky counterparts that used to be there, or in one of the condominiums that have taken over Seattle’s landscape so quickly that they seem to have sprouted up in a heavy rainstorm, like toadstools.

Many of the old houses that are still in place have been painted in whimsical, frivolous colors, pumpkin and purple, sun-yellow with a dash of chartreuse, following the example of San Francisco’s Victorian  Painted Ladies. They look out of place  and bizarre, like a group of staid grandfathers who suddenly decided to become drag queens.

It’s difficult to find the working-class neighborhoods that were the backbone of Seattle. It’s becoming difficult to find anyplace where workers can afford to have a meal, a beer, a plain and simple cup of coffee. Buzzwords float through the air that would have a grizzled longshoreman bemused—“artisan bread” “locovore eating” “microbrews” “creative cocktails”—“What the hell?” he would snort, “Bring me a cup of joe and a stack of hotcakes, will you? I’m hungry, damn it.”

It is a matter of class—the jobs that built this city are gone. Well-educated university graduates wait tables and make espresso drinks. The irony of their daily lives pervades their choices of what they wear, where they live. They fill the saloons that used to cater only to men who had just come off shift, their department stores are Value Village and Goodwill. They flock to coffee houses , carrying laptop bags, buy a coffee with an Italian name, and use the free wifi for hours.

They’re perhaps the lucky ones. To me, the ones whose lives are blood-curdling are the people who work in Amazonville.

A Microsoft millionaire took one of Seattle’s diner, tavern, and warehouse neighborhoods and almost overnight turned it into a whole new city. Usually areas go through a transition period—first the artists move in, then the people with a tenuous hold on the middle class, then the affluent, giving layers of different businesses, different demographics, different aesthetics to the place where they live. Not in Amazonville—it is a planned urban village, where the villagers live in new buildings, buy groceries at Whole Foods, buy clothing at tiny boutiques, eat and drink at little “Euro-cafes” or glossy restaurants that strive to create the next food trend. Its one burst of obligatory irony is a Goodwill, which has the size and style to mirror any of the nearby boutiques.  A few brick buildings have survived among the highrise office sites and apartment towers. There is no bookstore.

People crowd the sidewalks at lunchtime, wearing the tell-tale blue badges of employees from The other residents are unseen until much later; the empty streets of Amazonville prove to be hospitable to people who have nowhere else to go, or for entrepreneurs of the illegal kind.

My neighborhood is one of the most layered in Seattle—brick buildings, some with terracotta facades, lie close to the street. Little groceries that are among the few in the city that don’t sell beer and wine, bakeries that serve plain old coffee and elaborately frosted slices of mango or durian layer cake, a corner bar that has probably never made a cocktail that wasn’t a Bloody Mary or a Screwdriver.

It was originally Chinese and Japanese, with a dash of Skid Row denizens in the mix. Then came a large infusion of Vietnamese, followed by people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea. It’s now a neighborhood where African-Americans live near Africans, where pensioners are next-door to an apartment housing rock musicians, where artists have studios near freshly built “luxury” apartments and condominiums. The public library has a token number of books in English; its reading area is colonized every day by old men from the neighborhood, reading. The bank of public-use computers is usually an offshoot of Skid Row, 21st Century-style.

It’s changing fast with the arrival of the light rail and the approach of a streetcar that will connect my neighborhood to downtown. There’s a sweet little boutique whose owner does her best to serve all income levels. There’s a pinball museum and a vegetarian pizza joint with a microbrew on tap. But so far, these only add texture to an existing neighborhood, not transformation. The Microsoft millionaire had tried to transform it; he gave up and moved on, leaving a few ugly glass office buildings in his wake.

I live here because it still holds a community that is living, vibrant, and evolving. With any luck at all, it will continue to be a place where lion dances co-exist with pop-up art installations in empty storefronts, where old men play chess in the park while old ladies sit nearby, gossiping and little children try to catch pigeons, with lots of optimism and absolutely no success. When that’s all gone, I will be too.


shaved monkey said...

There is no bookstore in Amazonville. I will remember that for a long time.

janet brown said...

No joy in Mudville either--