Not long ago, I found myself sitting one sunny Friday afternoon in the Unity Museum in Seattle, notebook in hand, as a group of fresh-faced college undergraduates participated in a debate over whether or not their city is dying. The general conclusion of the affair and the grim message of the students was that it is indeed.
We live in the worst of times and in the worst of all possible places, speaker after speaker told us. Among the Emerald City’s chief problems, according to these young scholars, is inequality. But there was also a lot of talk about personal unhappiness pervasive at all levels of Seattle society. I’d like to tell you that the young men and women in the room offered some sort of unified solution, but instead they ranged between complaints on subjects as diverse as cellphone reception, Ticketmaster fees, on-campus parking, global warming, and something conversely called the “Seattle Freeze,” which I’m told is the apparent disinclination of the city’s residents to befriend strangers. One plump young woman wearing a spectacularly ripped pair of fishnet stockings got up to announce that we were all enslaved by a fascist America, with ever-diminishing rights of self-expression, and that police repression here in Seattle was just the most obvious sign of that. When she finished, there was tremendous applause.
As I listened to the well-fed young people in front of me I gazed out the window, into the dove-blue sea haze of Puget Sound, then beyond to the lush Seattle hills and finally toward the snow-capped majesty of Mount Rainier in the distance. I wondered if it was just me, or is there something in today’s youthful conscience that on some level wants desperately to feel besieged and persecuted?
My neighbor in the debate room was a large, raw-boned man named Pete who, just before we sat down, told me that he had just turned 80 years old and, apart from a touch of cancer, was having the time of his life. Pete was precisely dressed in a tweed jacket, shirt and tie, creased grey flannels, and well-polished shoes. He passed a cup of tea to me, the cup tiny in his hands. Between us we must have raised the average age in the place to about 22. Pete was there because he and his wife run the Unity Museum, which is an agreeable mélange of sepia Old West photographs, Native American carvings, shelves full of 1940s jazz records, and a modernist German art piece composed largely of sawdust and barbed wire. In time there was a lull in the young peoples’ diatribe, and Pete took the opportunity to gently clear his throat, look around him, and then announce in a level voice:
I understand what you’re talking about. I really do. But let me just say that not too long ago I made a tour of several eastern European countries, and last year I was also lucky enough to be invited to Bangladesh and Nepal, and I can tell you two things. First, we have plenty of problems here, sure, but it’s still worth remembering that by and large people all over the world, at every level, are living better and freer than at any time in history. We have not blown ourselves up. Child mortality as a whole is about half what it was 25 years ago. Three hundred thousand more people gain access to electricity every day.* That’s something like the populations of Holland and France, with New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all thrown in, lit up for the first time each year. There’s an economist called Max Rosert who pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline ‘Number of People in Extreme Poverty Fell by 137,000 Since Yesterday’ every day for the past 25 years. But none of them would have done so, because tangible good news about things like better food, sanitation, medicine, literacy, freedom, equality, and the conditions of childhood just isn’t sexy enough.
The young audience members, who had been showing increasing signs of restiveness during Pete’s speech, muttered among themselves. Pete himself paused, taking another sip of tea before coming to the crux of his remarks. “I’ll just add,” he said mildly, “that in my opinion it’s generally best not to dwell too much on one’s own happiness in life.” Another low murmur went round the room. Pete ploughed on, now smiling broadly all around him.
Instead of thinking about our own individual disappointments or shortcomings, isn’t it better to consider ourselves as part of a great stream of humanity that flows on long after we’ve all gone? When you sacrifice something for your children or fight for some struggle you know you can’t possibly win during your lifetime, or even if you write a poem or leave behind a will, you’re acknowledging that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. In my modest opinion, the only truly happy people are the ones who manage to convince themselves that they’re part of a larger plan. Once you start worrying about how many followers you have on social media, or the latest cellphone technology, you’re finished.
“You wanted to talk about Seattle,” Pete concluded, still smiling beatifically, “and as someone who’s lived here all his life I’m here to tell you that for all the problems we see today our city is still one of the best and happiest places on God’s green earth.” The muttering was now clearly audible, and was joined by a few muted jeers and catcalls. Pete had obviously struck the most discordant possible note.
“Have you actually been downtown?” someone shouted. “There are men and women there, as good as we are, lying in filth and squalor on the streets.”
“That’s true, and it’s a tragedy,” Pete replied. “But it’s also true that many of those same people are there because they’re enslaved by drink or drugs, and at some stage, however awful their lot in life, they chose that particular road for themselves. It’s a problem, but it’s not a problem we somehow inflicted on our homeless brothers and sisters.” The truly deafening roar of protest that followed Pete’s final remarks concluded the evening’s proceedings.
When I moved to Seattle 25 years ago, I did so with a sense of morbid fascination. In those days it was widely regarded as the epicenter of “grunge” music, whose uncrowned prince, Kurt Cobain, had just committed suicide. Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the availability of heroin in Seattle was “like apples in the orchard.” Amazed by the ease with which the drug could be bought around the city, she complained, “The police won’t do anything about it. I asked them, ‘Don’t you get embarrassed when you hear that Seattle is famous for grunge, cappuccino and heroin?’”
One of the reasons Seattle was known for music and drugs was, of course, Kurt Cobain himself. Seattle cappuccino probably owes something to the fact that Starbucks began life here, and, as I write, the company boasts no fewer than 137 retail outlets within the city limits. But there’s clearly more to the place than just the loudly amplified rock music and its various lifestyle accessories. We’re also headquarters to such small family concerns as Amazon.com and Microsoft, and Boeing turns out some 600 commercial aircraft a year from local plants. There’s also an abundance of forests and lakes nearby. At the time I moved here Seattle was sometimes called America’s Most Livable City, and was widely known for its informality, anonymity, general lack of hidebound tradition, and the almost unnatural niceness of its inhabitants. The globally omnipresent “smiley face” logo is a Seattle creation, and it’s still almost impossible to end even an acrimonious conversation without first being told to “have a nice day.”
There’s also the 54,000-student-strong University of Washington, and here is a sentence plucked from one of its many academic journals, as conveyed by my son who studies there: “Whilst accepting that inbred gender reflexivity is a core aspect of students’ preconditioning, we argue that it enables a culture of repression against the conceptualization of feminism within a transitional indigenous framework.”
Or, by way of variety, this coursework description from the College of Arts and Science: “Offers Feminist analysis of the construction and enforcement of gender prejudices and gender inequalities, with emphasis on the intersection of race, class, sexuality and societal nationalism propagated by government and society in the lives of women.”
If you haven’t already guessed, I would have to hazard the opinion that there aren’t too many natural supporters of President Trump to be found on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, or indeed in Seattle generally.
What we do have, however, is a growing number of homeless citizens. Exact statistics are elusive, but the last annual Point-in-Time Count conducted by the Seattle/King County Count Us In organization in January 2019 found just over 11,000 local men, women, and children living without a fixed roof over their heads. Of this number, the share of women among the homeless grew from 36 percent in 2017 to 40 percent in 2019. There were 5,935 souls listed as residents of emergency short-term shelters, or living in temporary lodgings, hospital annexes, tents, cars, recreational vehicles, church halls, and other establishments, while another 5,264 had no shelter whatsoever. When all the figures are added and a margin for error is calculated, some estimate that there are 20,000-25,000 individuals living without adequate shelter in the greater Seattle area, and that this gives the city the dubious distinction of hosting the third largest homeless community in the country, behind only New York and Los Angeles.
How did it happen? One answer is that the homeless population is just an unfortunate demographic result of Seattle’s growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Seattle Metro Area saw a whopping 18.7 percent population spurt in the years 2011-2018. That’s the fastest rate of growth anywhere among the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. According to the independent news service Patch, the population of King County, which is essentially composed of Seattle and its various inland and island suburbs, rose by nearly 29,000 between July 2017 and July 2018, which is roughly three times as fast as the national annual figures between 1980-2010. Many long-term residents will tell you that even those decades were a case of too much, too fast.
The other explanation for the plight of Seattle’s dispossessed could loosely be called the Marxist theory of events. Much favored by the current members of the city council, this argues that the homelessness crisis is the inevitable consequence of having companies like Amazon and Microsoft erecting skyscrapers in the downtown core, with the result that the price of rent and housing—and just about everything else—has shot upwards in the ensuing property boom. This dysfunctional-capitalism version of events perhaps reached its apogee in May 2018, when the council unanimously passed into law a “head tax” to be levied on large local employers. There was a certain amount of give-and-take involved, but when the dust settled the city announced it would charge businesses an annual fee of $250 per employee, and that this would generate $40 million in revenue that would be used to build 2,000 units of low-income housing and to provide other social services. After several of the city’s largest employers organized an appeal under the slogan “No Tax on Jobs,” the measure was repealed just a month later amid some acrimony.
Meanwhile, the more pristine suburbs in America’s Most Livable City now end in an abrupt encounter with downtown misery and squalor. Every Seattle resident, male and female, of whatever political stripe, has a unique horror story to tell. If you drive along the road linking my own neighborhood to the city center, as I do each evening, it’s as if you leave a Norman Rockwell painting and enter one by Hieronymus Bosch. The final stretch of the journey brings Dunkirk to mind as one passes by bedraggled-looking campers hunched together around braziers or stretched out on Army surplus cots. If you go up the nearby hill you can see below what looks like the remnants of a defeated army. Downtrodden people gather around tents and spirit stoves, while men and women in the city’s bright-red “Volunteer” T-shirts dart to and fro in the murk like a shoal of tropical fish. It’s a dreadful prospect on a number of levels, and I do no more than quote the statistics agreed upon by the city council that roughly 80 percent of our homeless population suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction; that 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness; and that theft, assault, arson, rape, and murder are commonplace.
It’s an obviously wretched existence. But what can we do about it? On one side of the debate, there’s a small but stubborn minority of those who insist that as a society we’re suffering not so much from a compassion crisis as a crisis of our core value system. What’s needed is not more taxes but a longer-term commitment to rebuild the familial, social, and religious bonds that once tied communities together. “[Homelessness] is not a resource issue in this city,” former transient Richard McAdams, now an outreach worker for Union Gospel Mission, told Seattle’s City Journal, “it’s a relational issue. The biggest problem is broken relationships.”
Of course these problems are not likely to be fixed overnight. Given the current tenor of the Seattle city council, which appears to be edging ever closer to replicating the Soviet Union of the 1930s, a solution may not happen in my teenaged son’s lifetime, either.
The other side of the homeless debate might best be expressed by the 46-year-old, Indian-born city councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who believes that her adopted city is a “playground for the rich”—rich who need to be punitively taxed. Not every liberal Seattleite, which is to say the vast majority of the city’s electorate, necessarily endorses each individual item in Sawant’s redistributionist manifesto. Among other initiatives, she’s joined with her fellow activists in physically obstructing local home foreclosures where these are considered to target minorities, called for the nationalization of local corporations such as Boeing and Microsoft, expressed a desire to see private properties in the bourgeois-left Capitol Hill neighborhood turned into public housing complexes, found herself sued for allegedly defaming two Seattle police officers (the case continues), and denounced tributes to the late Barbara Bush as “giving cover to the ruling class, & ultimately undermining struggles against oppression.”
That last one, from an intemperate Sawant tweet, may be too strong even for the latte-sippers on Capitol Hill, but there’s no doubt that she speaks for the public-compassion zealots. These are the ones who display an increasingly common Seattle yard sign that reads: “In this house, we believe Black Lives matter, Women’s Rights are human rights, no human is illegal,” etc. Their solution to Seattle’s homeless epidemic is for all of us to continue to spend much, much more on affordable housing, subsidize club and gym memberships, support heroin-on-wheels vans (where one can shoot up, free of charge, under a nurse’s supervision) and other such community outreach services.
Meanwhile, I just note for the record that the construction continues in downtown Seattle of a building called “Mary’s Place Family Center in The Regrade.” Scheduled to open in May 2020, it’s designed to provide a free-of-charge home for 300 men, women, and children, who in addition to clean beds and warm baths will also have access to a fully equipped kitchen, a health clinic, and a prayer chapel. It will be the largest such permanent family shelter in the state of Washington, and two more like it are planned to open in 2021. The entire cost for the project is being met not by Sawant or her virtue-signaling constituents, but by that unacceptable face of capitalism, Amazon.