Geek City: The Tech invasion is changing the vibe in Seattle
But is it really a problem?
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Seattle is awash in techies. And they have altered the face of the Emerald City — socially, culturally, economically — much as those bearded, fortune-seeking Klondike gold rushers in Filson jackets did in 1898.
They are ubiquitous, these new “Masters of the Universe,” the term Tom Wolfe fashioned while skewering Wall Street up-and-comers in his 1988 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s as if they’ve been dropped from the sky.
Boom-to-bust-to-boom Seattle is riding a hot streak again, and the swarm of high-tech newcomers is a big reason why. Young, mostly white and overwhelmingly male, this ambitious code-writing brood earns big bucks while breeding resentment over rising rents and skyrocketing real estate prices. Their onslaught, critics say, has exaggerated economic disparity throughout the region, forged bland and soulless enclaves, and clogged many streets, though, in fairness, the same thing was said of all those home-equity-loaded Californians who moved here in the 1980s.
Seattle author Timothy Egan, who writes a weekly column for The New York Times, recently suggested — in a piece headlined “Dude, Where’s My City?” — that the old Seattle would have welcomed and nurtured a sketchy character like Cosmo Kramer, the lovable doofus from the sitcom Seinfeld. Not so the new Seattle. “Every town needs its Kramers,” Egan wrote. “And in Seattle … I’m afraid we’re losing ours.”
Still, as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray tells us, “We have a problem a lot of cities would love to have.”
The city gradually absorbed past incursions, perpetuating a Seattle culture known for being civic-minded, collaborative and attractive to newcomers. However, the most recent surge, given its sheer scope and its perpetrators’ outsize wealth relative to the existing population, may be more difficult to integrate. In other words, is too much of good thing a bad thing?
Gene Duvernoy, the president of Forterra, a Seattle organization devoted to land conservation and responsibly managing the growth of the urban environment, concedes that the tech boom has been jarring and has caused some unease. But Duvernoy also points out, “It took time for Microsoft to blend into the community, and so I think we’re still seeing a maturation process playing out.”
This time, the dynamic seems different. “We are challenged now by transportation and affordability,” Duvernoy acknowledges. “We know from a study we did that people love the beauty of this region but are afraid they can’t get around to enjoy it, and they are worried that they are going to be priced out.”
The burgeoning high-tech sector has indeed spawned jobs and wealth, while creating new businesses and a robust economy. The Seattle metro area has seen 15.5 percent employment growth since 2010, and sales-tax revenue is up 35 percent during the same period.
So why this gnawing sense that the technology gold rush — led by the hard-charging new colossus, Amazon — is changing the city’s character, affecting its buzz and compromising its working-class roots?
The changes have come in ways not entirely anticipated. For example, the newly arrived tech horde is seldom engaged civically, it is not inclined to vote and often shows little interest in the arts. Seattle Repertory Theatre Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann says he has found it difficult to raise money from the tech community because so few of its members attend the theater. Then again, he admits, “It makes sense. They tend to be young folks working very long hours. When I was in my 20s, I’d probably be going to the bar rather than experiencing high culture.”
The dramatic infusion of tech workers has certainly given the city a different vibe. Take South Lake Union. Once a patchwork of parking lots and low-slung warehouses, the neighborhood now plays host to some 36,000 people — a bustling hive of young Amazonians, for the most part, who dine at upscale restaurants on Terry Avenue and shop at pricey home-goods stores like West Elm, just blocks away from the Tesla showroom.
That vibe is now percolating southward with the opening of the first skyscraper in Amazon’s new three-building corporate mega-campus that will dramatically change the northern edge of Seattle’s downtown core. Eight new food-and-beverage places are already open in the complex, and at lunchtime on weekdays it seems as if Jeff Bezos has put out a casting call for male tech workers.
“Many of them have very little connection to the city,” says Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington political science professor who studies the connection between politics and the high-tech industry. “They’ve come from other places and they create their own immersive worlds.”
Like Duvernoy, O’Mara points out that Microsoft is “all grown up now” and “super involved” in the community. “We haven’t seen that yet with all those new young people who have come here. They love Seattle, but they don’t yet identify with Seattle.”
In 1994, washington state had 96,000 high-tech jobs. In 2013, according to the Washington Technology Industry Association, that figure had climbed to 238,900. It’s easy to stereotype these 20- and 30-something tech workers, many of whom are pulling down annual salaries north of $125,000. The clichéd profile suggests a socially awkward nerd who’s duller than a butter knife, but GeekWire cofounder John Cook begs to differ. “The stereotypes are not accurate,” Cook asserts. “They are a community of transplants and so they don’t fit into the traditional mold or culture of the place. The whole industry gets typecast because of Amazon.”
Speaking of Amazon, Seattle writer Tricia Romano penned a provocative piece titled “Amazon Is Killing My Sex Life” for the online magazine Dame in 2014. Romano, now a reporter at The Seattle Times, described an unmemorable date she had with a tall, bearded, bike-riding software engineer who had burned out at Amazon and joined a startup. She marveled at the young techie’s complete lack of interest in her and how he went on ad nauseam about his job.
“Since I am not in the tech industry,” Romano wrote, “I didn’t understand any of it. It was all job-speak — the type of language ladder-climbers use; it was the kind of talk that shuts vaginas down.”
University of Washington sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz understands Romano’s assessment, to a point. “They are attractive and bright,” Schwartz says of the tech fraternity, “but these are people whose skills lie in mathematics and engineering. It’s not like they are not soulful or creative, but they can be somewhat narrow.”
As for the seemingly wider gender gap, Schwartz playfully observes, “It’s like that old joke about Alaska — that if you’re a woman, go to Alaska: The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
Jeff Reifman, a consultant and writer, insists that the high-tech industry, due largely to Amazon’s exploding growth, has all but ruined Seattle’s straight dating scene. “I never want to date again in this town,” Reifman grouses over coffee. “If I didn’t have a girlfriend, I’d get out of Seattle.”
Reifman’s anti-tech blog posts, directed chiefly at Amazon the past two years, have gained a wide audience. Part of an earlier in-migration of techies — he moved here from Los Angeles more than 20 years ago to work at Microsoft, where he helped launch the MSN website — Reifman believes the bulging gender imbalance is screwing up everything. There just aren’t enough single women in town, he declares.
Take amazon, for instance. In Seattle, the behemoth e-commerce retailer has grown from 5,000 to 25,000 workers since 2010. The company has filled up 10 million square feet of office space in South Lake Union and has inked deals to build or lease an additional 1.4 million square feet in the city, enough to add an additional 15,000 to 20,000 workers in the next several years.
“No one foresaw this,” Reifman goes on. “Seattle is going to get whiter, even more male, wealthier and less diverse.”
And while not everyone in tech is averse to civic engagement, they’re in the minority. Gus Hartmann, a site reliability engineer at Google, where he’s worked for nearly 10 years, ran for the Seattle City Council last year. He lost to incumbent Sally Bagshaw in the August primary but gained widespread attention in the Twitterverse for a nerve-piercing comment that “the little f--kers [in the tech community] don’t vote.”
Christopher Morris-Lent, a 27-year-old Seattle native who teaches music and SAT prep classes, is yet another critic of how much sway the high-tech industry has in the city, suggesting, as others have, that the increasing population of techies is spawning a sterile, homogeneous environment.
Morris-Lent raised eyebrows last summer when he wrote a lengthy story for Gawker that began, “Seattle is dead and Amazon killed it.” The story resonated among residents who worry that the rise of geekdom is washing the city clean of its gritty industrial base, its scruffy artisans and its funky independent businesses. “When a city becomes too expensive,” he claims, “diversity is sacrificed. People are less happy than they used to be.”
Capitol Hill is one of a number of neighborhoods being thus transformed, seemingly overnight, from grungy distinctiveness to upscale hipness, where techies think nothing of dishing out 18 bucks for pad thai at Soi.
In March, the average monthly rent on Capitol Hill was $1,800, well beyond the reach of many longtime residents. Long-standing businesses have shuttered or moved away, and the traffic can sap one’s soul. At the same time, as wealth distortion becomes more pronounced, middle-income jobs are in serious decline here.
Since 2009, the number of high-income jobs in the Seattle metropolitan region has risen by 18,000 (the vast majority of them in the tech sector), and the number of low-income jobs has grown by 20,000. But middle-income jobs have dropped by 7,000, according to a recent global competitive study by Boston Consulting Group.
Stan Humphries, chief analytics officer at Zillow, notes that the median price of a home purchased by a South Lake Union-based Amazon worker is $509,000, compared to $359,000 in the King County metro area. For a Google worker at the Kirkland campus, it’s $533,000, while a Microsoft employee in Redmond can expect to pay $579,000 on a home.
“There are a lot of people moving in, and they’re all swanky,” says Earl Lancaster of Earl’s Cuts and Styles, a Central District barbershop in business since 1992. When he talks with employees and long-ensconced residents, it is not uncommon to hear words like “they” and “them” pointedly inserted into the conversation. “Lots of IT jobs,” says Lancaster, when asked why the neighboring is changing. “Microsoft, Amazon, all of them.”
Capitol Hill resident John Criscitello, a multimedia visual artist, describes the tech incursion as a ticking clock. “You’re expecting every day to be your last,” he says. “Every day feels like you’re not going to be able to afford this anymore.” Where he used to know everyone in the neighborhood, including all the baristas, bartenders and artists, Criscitello now says, “I walk down the street and don’t know anyone.”
Hannah Hayes and Josh Hansen, who work at Everyday Music on Capitol Hill, say the tech influx and the accompanying high rents have attracted muggers who make the neighborhood less safe. “They come here because they know that’s where all of the tech bros are,” Hayes says.
On a sun-swept afternoon just east of the Amazon campus in South Lake Union, Dan Munro is seated inside Nollie’s Café, a Harrison Street diner he has owned for six years. It is lunch hour and the streets hum with activity. The lines are 10 deep at the Thai-U-Up and Falafel Salam food trucks. At Yumbit, the Chinese tapas sell well.
Munro is a jovial man in his mid-50s with a wispy white mane. He almost always wears a Hawaiian shirt. He watches with amusement as groups of young techies file past his place. He calls them “the human centipede.” He knows a lot of the centipede’s individual components and waves hello as they pass.
“Yes, the tidal wave has crashed down on our beach,” Munro acknowledges. And he’s not complaining. Business is brisk. His Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich — ham, turkey and bacon with three types of cheese on sourdough — is a huge hit.
“We’re booming because of all the growth. The neighborhood is much more alive now,” he says. “Dozens of new restaurants have opened in the past few years. Tom Douglas’ restaurants [Cuoco, Brave Horse Tavern] are the woodwinds and the brass, and we are the triangle in the [South Lake Union] symphony.”
Across the street from Nollie’s, construction workers put final touches on a building that will soon serve as the headquarters for Car Toys. Nearby, Tommy Bahama moved its headquarters to South Lake Union in September.
Munro, who mentions that he’s lately noticed many more Audis, Porsches, BMWs and Teslas on the streets, says tensions have eased somewhat over the past several years among the more rooted residents in the adjoining Cascade neighborhood. “I think the mood is happier overall,” he says.
They don’t call them the “Nerd Herd” or “Am-Holes” as much anymore, but still this new crowd of people has pushed up rents and forced some old-timers out. “My baker, who is in her 60s, told me the other day that Seattle really is set up now to be a city for people under 40,” Munro notes. “She may be right. It’s not a great place to raise kids, so much as it is to send the kids after they graduate [from college].”
It’s only natural to be uncomfortable with change, but GeekWire’s Cook advises the members of the change-fearing horde to get over themselves. “I’ve lived in Seattle the last 20 years,” he says, “and I know there is an element of the city that doesn’t embrace this change. But I think we should be proud and respect the growth we’ve had. I’m from the Rust Belt in Akron, Ohio, where, I can tell you, they’d love to be going through everything we are.”
Mayor Murray and other leaders pledge to maintain Seattle’s diversity by encouraging the development of affordable housing, raising the minimum wage and supporting arts organizations. After all, the last thing they want to see is the social fabric strained to the point that Seattle becomes less attractive to people who might consider moving here.
But the days of someone moving here expressly because it’s Seattle — and of cobbling together an existence until the right job comes along — are likely gone forever. And with the tech sector continuing to attract so much talent, it’s hard to imagine the city will ever be able to stall the winds of change enough to silence the critics.