The Dark Side: Seattle, Capital of the Hipster Boom
Many houses and shops in Seattle display signs, some in Arabic, Spanish or Korean, with welcoming messages: ‘Hate has no home here’; ‘No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbour’; ‘All customers welcome regardless of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.’ The rainbow flag was everywhere when I visited during LGBTQ Pride month, on every street corner, and in the window of the Doc Martens shop, which was selling a higher-priced rainbow-coloured range. It flew over the Starbucks headquarters and on the Space Needle, a tower built for the 1962 Universal Exhibition, topped with a flying saucer. It flew at City Hall, just below the stars and stripes.
Seattle wears its openness, tolerance and diversity like a municipal badge of honour. It voted overwhelmingly (87%) for Hillary Clinton last November and has led the legal challenge to Donald Trump’s migration policies. Besides being imperatives, these are also commercial arguments, levers of growth and competitive advantages.
‘We have a spirit of diversity and encourage talent, regardless of where it’s from,’ said Brian Surratt, head of the city’s Office of Economic Development. ‘We want every talent. Having that melange of people coming together really helps to stimulate a kind of economic vitality. I think it’s critical to our economic success.’ Samuel Assefa, originally from Ethiopia and a town planning graduate from MIT, is Seattle’s director of planning and community development. He said: ‘Historically in the US, you go where the jobs are. Ford builds a plant in Detroit, you go to Detroit. You work there for 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. Now, a 25-year-old creative would go to the place where they want to live. And the things that attract creative young people are quality places like Seattle with nature, creativity, tolerance about culture, outdoors activities, night life.’ Both Surratt and Assefa mentioned the same economist, Richard Florida, in support of their position.
Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, has had a big impact on municipal decision-makers for 15 years. He first set out his theory in 2002 in a bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. It is fairly simple: The old economy (industrial, manufacturing, extractive) will disappear and be replaced by a ‘creative’ economy. Rather than trying to attract businesses by building motorways and conference centres, offering tax breaks and financial incentives, cities should entice talent. That means people who innovate, invent or otherwise use their intellectual capital to create wealth: artists, engineers, journalists, architects, gifted administrators, financiers, lawyers, researchers, IT specialists, medics. People like Surratt and Assefa, who both have degrees from prestigious universities and earn generous salaries ($132,000 and $167,000).
According to Florida, the creative class represents 30% of the US’s economically active population (probably an over-estimate), but accounts for 70% of its spending power. To attract the best, he suggests the straightforward solution of refashioning the city in their image. They are generally young and well paid and don’t want to live in the suburbs like their white-collar predecessors. They value dynamic, European-style city centres — ‘vibrant urban cores’ — where they can cycle to work, find restaurants open at 3amand buy fair trade products. Florida argues that what they particularly value is ‘the vibrancy of street life, cafÃ© culture, arts, music and people engaging in outdoor activities’ and living alongside ‘people of different backgrounds.’ Competitive cities should acknowledge these demands and transform their images by building cycle lanes, concert halls and museums, fighting discrimination and funding top-class universities.
Florida reduced his theory to the '3Ts of economic success’: technology, talent and tolerance. Then, bringing together disparate data sets (percentage of homosexual couples, foreigners and visible minorities; number of patent applications and start-ups; proportion of graduates), he established the Gay, Bohemian and Talent indexes and produces a regularly updated league table so cities can gauge their progress. He later extended his evaluation system to Europe and Canada, gaining new business.
His methodology appealed to members of the creative class, delighted to be presented as the solution to a country’s problems: the media, municipal decision-makers and business leaders feted him and invited him to speak at conferences around the world. Each new book (he publishes one every two years) generates fresh compliments and invitations, so his recommendations have come to represent best practice in the international competition between cities: from Sydney to Paris and from Montreal to Berlin, every metropolis now wants to be dynamic, innovative, intelligent, creative, sustainable and connected.
Dozens of US cities looking for a solution to deindustrialisation have employed Florida and his consultancy, the Creative Class Group. Other cities, already pursuing the creative path, have felt vindicated in their strategy and increased their efforts to attract knowledge workers. Seattle is such a city; its mayor invited Florida to deliver a lecture there in 2003.
From old economy to high tech
The Emerald City, as Seattle is known, and its region long depended on the old economy: lumber, shipbuilding, shipping (it has one of North America’s busiest ports), and especially the aerospace industry. The most successful local company used to be Boeing, which had its boom years after the second world war. Back then, although businesses did not proclaim a love of diversity, they paid decent salaries that enabled the establishment of a black middle class. In 1970, 49% of African-American households in King County, where Seattle is located, owned their own homes, higher than the national average for the whole population (42%).
Today that figure has fallen to 28%. John Fox, founder of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which has been fighting gentrification, said: ‘It’s because of the high-tech boom. In the mid-'70s, with the economic downturn, Boeing fired thousands of workers, machinists and engineers. The population declined, real estate market and land price plummeted. And from 1977 to 1981, we saw an influx of capital into US inner cities, especially Seattle. We saw an explosion of office development and an influx of young professionals and couples.’
The next phase was all about attracting talent. In 1986 Bill Gates moved Microsoft’s headquarters to Redmond, northeast of Seattle. Microsoft’s campus then had just 800 employees in six buildings; today there are 44,000. In 1987 Howard Schultz bought out the Starbucks Coffee Company and founded Starbucks Corporation in Seattle. In 1994 Jeff Bezos created Amazon, the online bookseller that became an e-commerce giant. In the early 2000s, when Florida’s bestseller came out, Seattle was fifth in his overall Creativity Index and already seemed the prototype of the modern city. Its tourist office considered changing its nickname from the Emerald City to ‘See@L’. Florida is fond of citing Seattle as a ‘truly creative place’ that ‘puts all 3Ts together.’ The city repays the compliment, quoting him in defence of its policies.
Over the past 15 years, Seattle has established itself as a formidable competitor in the war for talent among US cities, doing its utmost to fulfil the 3Ts. Its town planning programme has authorised the conversion of former factories into smart offices for cosseted employees. It has created cycle lanes and communal organic vegetable gardens for them. It encourages entrepreneurial spirit through the StartupSeattle programme and the Startup Weekend, an annual event at City Hall. It fights institutional racism through the Race and Social Justice Initiative. Businesses are involved too: In partnership with the Seattle Theatre Group, Starbucks gives young artists ‘a chance to shine’. Amazon promotes diversity in the workplace under the Glamazon (for the LGBTQ community), Women@Amazon, Black Employee Network, Amazon People with Disabilities, and Amazon Warriors (for former members of the armed forces) programmes.
All this paid off: Seattle took fourth place from Austin in the 2012 Creativity Index and in the same year Travel+Leisure magazine awarded it the coveted title of best city for hipsters, beating its west-coast rivals Portland and San Francisco. In 2016 business data and marketing company Infogroup judged Seattle the most hipster US metro area by counting its tattoo parlours, bicycle shops, independent cafÃ©s, micro-breweries, thrift stores and record dealers. According to a local magazine, Seattle is now ‘a place where people come to innovate, be their true selves and, for the most part, be around like-minded people.’.
Affluent, white and male
The city attracts graduates from around the world, and its population growth rate has accelerated in recent years: In the 12 months from July 2015, 21,000 new inhabitants arrived, taking the total to 700,000. Over time, the population of the former Jet City is becoming more highly qualified, affluent, white and male as it attracts engineers, IT workers, marketing and data specialists, advertising professionals at Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks, and employees of Google and Facebook’s engineering centres and many local start-ups. According to a recent survey, Seattle has 118 men aged 25-44 for every 100 women in the same demographic. In some areas, such as the Central District, the percentage of the population who are black has fallen from 73% in 1970 to less than 20%.
Seattle has always defined itself in opposition to the Silicon Valley model, where most of the Internet giants have built self-contained complexes in the suburbs with restaurants, hairdressers, and sports and medical facilities. In Seattle, most companies are in the city centre in former industrial and working-class neighbourhoods. Amazon’s website puts it in terms Florida would approve: ‘We made a conscious choice to invest in Downtown Seattle, even through it was cheaper to move our headquarters to the suburbs ... about 15% [of employees] live in the same zip code as their office and about 20% walk to work.’ The company is so proud of its city campus that it runs twice-weekly visits. There’s a three-month waiting list.
Amazon now owns 33 buildings in Seattle and has other new projects including four 150-metre towers and three huge, conjoined, glass spheres, which the company has announced as the offices of the future, designed around employee wellbeing. These biodomes, havens of green amid the downtown traffic, will be home to 300 species of plant, trees, a living wall, a pond and suspended bridges enabling software engineers to reach meeting rooms perched like birds’ nests.
Some 44,000 people work at Amazon’s Seattle HQ. The company takes on staff at such a rate that it has signs in the street directing recruits. It has spread out in the South Lake Union district with the help of Vulcan Real Estate, which was set up by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Vulcan sold Bezos 11 buildings in 2012 for over $1bn. South Lake Union, once a maze of warehouses, workshops and car dealerships, now looks like an open-air shopping mall, with perfectly trimmed vegetation and new, scrupulously clean, sidewalks. The streets are empty at weekends and in the evenings, but full of blue-badged Amazon employees at lunchtime: young people of every race, in t-shirts and shorts if the weather is good, going to food trucks and restaurants that offer exotic, organic and gluten-free menus.
Inventive developers, and prices
In other former working-class neighbourhoods nearby, cranes and diggers are busy. Lot by lot, developers are demolishing the last working-class homes and building complexes to appeal to a sophisticated clientele. Among the most recent projects is an apartment block with a rooftop vegetable garden, a communal space for pet grooming, and a kitchen where professional chefs give cookery demonstrations. Another offers communal organic chicken rearing, a solarium with hammocks and a poker room. Another has a cat and dog spa, home brewing equipment, and a woodworking workshop for hobbyists. The prices are inventive: The smallest studio apartments in these luxury buildings rent at $1,500 a month.
Property speculation used to be confined to the central districts but it is now spreading outwards as City Hall amends zoning regulations and authorises the construction of apartment blocks in places where there used to be houses. Linda Melvin said: ‘It’s called “ballardisation”.’ She lives in the Ballard district, which gave the phenomenon its name. ‘Developers buy up two or three houses, then put up a building with 15 or 20 apartments which they rent out for a fortune. That means green spaces disappear, there’s nowhere to park, there are jams in the street and the real estate market goes up.’ She referred to the new geometric blocks as Lego boxes. We passed one with such small, square windows that it resembled a prison. ‘Developers call those micro-apartments. They’re for students and singles.’ A single room functions as bedroom, kitchen and shower room. They cost $800-900 a month and are the cheapest accommodation, unless you sleep in a tent in a park or under a motorway bridge, as 10,700 homeless people in King County do — a record figure, up by 8% on 2016.
Since the Amazon boom, Seattle’s real estate prices have been rising 10% a year. John Fox said: ‘Landlords can increase your rent whenever they want. Rents are going sky high. Working-class people can’t afford Seattle any more, so they move to Renton, Tukwila or Orillia. They are being displaced by high-tech workers, [yet] we need waiters, cleaners and cashiers.’
Almost none of the low-skilled workers I met (many of them women from ethnic minorities) lived in the city. They all had to travel many miles to their jobs as supermarket cashiers, Uber drivers, private nannies, fastfood workers and bank security guards. The city council’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 will not keep pace with housing cost inflation. Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative politician who was elected to the city council in 2013 along with seven Democrats, is the first socialist to enter City Hall since 1877. She has a PhD in economics, supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries in 2016, and is an advocate for strict rent controls. She said: ‘Capitalism is so incapable as a system that it cannot even address its own needs. The market forces of capitalism are not structured in such a way they can provide affordable housing to all the workers who are needed [for the economy] to work. It’s a typical example of the contradictions of capitalism.’
Florida’s creative city is among her contradictions of capitalism. Some policies that appear progressive and are motivated by ethical, health or environmental concerns penalise the working class. Encouraging ethnic and sexual diversity, which attracts the young and talented, indirectly produces less socialdiversity. Taxing paper bags and charging tolls on one of the bridges across Lake Washington, intended to alleviate congestion, hurt the working poor most. The appearance of a cycle lane or a ‘green’ apartment block is often a sign that rents are about to go up.
‘Inequalities are huge’
The most grotesque example may be the fight against obesity. Seattle followed the example of other ‘intelligent’ cities such as Berkeley, Chicago and Philadelphia, and introduced a tax on sugary drinks in June 2017. The tax of $1 on a 2-litre bottle is aimed at carbonated drinks, popular with the working class; the city council spared hipster favourites such as lattes and frappuccinos, which are also calorie-laden.
Retired lawyer Toby Thaler said: ‘Social inequalities [in Seattle] are huge. Our taxes are regressive. People all over the world say “Seattle, shining light of liberalism”, but we have one of the very worst tax structures for regressivity. Real estate lobbies get their people into City Hall. The wealthy pay a smaller portion of their income than the poor and the middle class in this state than in any other state.’ Thaler lives in Fremont, a district experiencing ballardisation, and campaigns for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He’s critical of the city’s failure to impose an impact fee on real estate developers, unlike many other cities. Many working-class groups support this demand. Susanna Lin, of the Seattle Fair Growth association, lives in the Wallingford district, recently invaded by developers. She said: ‘You can’t just let the developers build and build and build, and not also build schools, and not also invest in transit, and not also invest in sewers, in roads, in fire protection.’
Elected city officials are banking on the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) — nicknamed the Grand Bargain — as an alternative to taking on the lobbyists for Vulcan Real Estate, R C Hedreen Co and City Investors LLC, who give generously to their electoral campaigns. Under the HALA plan, City Hall has agreed to alter its construction code and authorise further high-density housing in former low-rise zones, satisfying a demand from the developers. In return, developers must include 2-9% affordable housing in plans (depending on the district) or pay a tax.
This will mean ‘50,000 more units of housing over the next 10 years’ said Surratt, ‘and with this increase in supply, house prices will fall.’ Susanna Lin is unconvinced: ‘It’s always the same: more and more growth. Part of our frustration with this idea is we don’t believe it will actually work. It’s going to increase [developers’] profits. That’s one issue. The other issue is that it has been top-down.’ Eighteen of the 28 committee members responsible for the plan represented the developers’ interests and just one represented local associations.
As you go east in Washington State, into Grant and Adams counties, rainbow flags become rare, then non-existent, as do yoga studios and record stores. In these rural and industrial areas, where most of the traffic is transcontinental trucks, voters backed Trump, as they did in 24 of the 25 poorest counties in the state. Here Seattle’s progressivism is an alien concept that promotes diversity within a creative bubble, neglects industry in favour of a graduate economy, and advocates green development when the local economy depends on intensive lumber and mining industries.