Seattle, Island of Blue

The next four years will challenge Seattle, says Knute Berger. Are we up to the task?
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On election night 2016, Seattle learned just how much of a national outlier it is. During the past eight years, the uplifting message of hope personified by Barack Obama led us to believe our own PR: that we were a national role model for social justice, the economy, reform and progressive politics in general. Our recent mayors have all embraced this message: Seattle is a national, even global, leader! Our arms never seem to grow tired of the back-patting.

The election of Donald Trump came as shock to the system, delivered not by our neighbors, but by people many Seattleites don’t even know. Seattle found itself needing to reassure itself again. Instead of feeling like the vanguard of a new America, we felt more isolated, even threatened, as we clung to our island in an archipelago of blue. On election night, as Trump won the Electoral College, Seattle went nearly 90 percent for Hillary Clinton and 8 percent for Trump. Even in the single Seattle precinct that went for Mitt Romney in 2012, Broadmoor, it was 75-25 for Clinton. Clinton had a mandate here, but it mattered not.

Except to us. Immediately, protesters hit the streets. Mayor Ed Murray and city politicians held a pep rally at City Hall to declare that Seattle would stay its course as a progressive city and a sanctuary for immigrants. Students left school after school to march in protest. Socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, who lifted not a finger to elect Clinton, called for a national shutdown on Inauguration Day. 

This is not the first time we’ve felt isolated from the American political mainstream. In January 2001, my wife and I stood for many hours in a driving sleet storm in Washington, D.C., to protest the inauguration of Bush and Cheney and to vent our rage at the “stolen” election of 2000. Bush brought eight years of war and economic disaster. Our protests didn’t stop anything, but they did help us draw strength by drawing lines against outlaw politics: torture, undeclared war, Guantanamo.

Progressive Seattleites like to think that the arc of history leads ever upward as we perfect society, and ourselves. My mother turned 100 just days before the November election. She was born into a world where women couldn’t vote, let alone run for president, when progressive Teddy Roosevelt reined in the rich, and Woodrow Wilson hoped to achieve world peace through the League of Nations. The early 20th century offered new hope to many, but delivered two world wars, a Great Depression, narrowing economic and social visions, the revival and then the re-revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

It took half a century to see scientific, economic and social progress begin to hit their stride. Think about the presidential programs and slogans of the latter half of the 20th century: Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society, George H.W. Bush’s Peace Dividend, Bill Clinton’s Bridge to the 21st Century. A century that stumbled into chaos began systematically to right itself.

Then came a war on terror, the Great Recession, the resurgence of white nationalism and a president who believes in torture, building walls and cracking down on the media. Clinton’s Bridge to the 21st Century led us to the reboiling of 1930s politics, yet with Americans playing footsie with fascism.

We can perhaps take heart from the winning philosophy of the Seattle Seahawks: It’s not how you start a game, it’s how you finish. Our new century isn’t what the dreamers of Century 21—those Seattle World’s Fair visionaries who saw our city as a launch pad to a prosperous tech future—hoped for, yet our passion for progress still burns within. Northwesterners are idealists. Our pioneers came here with the explicit purpose of building a better America. The Age of Trump will test us. Our leaders—Democrats all—will have to navigate tricky political waters; they will have to find federal support that we rely on for housing, for transportation, for jobs, all while offering a resistance movement to the leaders of that government. 

And the citizens of Seattle will have to find outlets for their rage, but also find paths forward for self-improvement. We are still a segregated city. We may be an LGBT sanctuary, but we must still deal with our institutional racism and its consequences. We have a long way to go in economic equality, education and producing a thriving city that doesn’t push out whole classes of residents. Trump or no Trump, these challenges exist. 

There is hope: A strong group of leaders steel us for the task. Jay Inslee, a climate warrior, was reelected governor. Murray, a social justice advocate of deep conviction and the first married gay mayor in the country, looks to coast to reelection in 2017. Patty Murray, one of the U.S. Senate’s most powerful Democratic leaders, was reelected. Pramila Jayapal won the 7th Congressional District seat as Seattle’s new, progressive “congresswoman for life.” State House Speaker Frank Chopp still commands a branch of the Legislature in Olympia. Our progressive political bulwark has been strengthened.

But as we look to the days ahead, we know that bulwark will be tested. 

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s
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Berger supervising a photo shoot of Bill Gates and Brian "The Boz" Bosworth in 1988

The news that the University Bookstore is closing its downtown Bellevue location next month is hardly big news. Bookstores have had to close, move and adjust to changes in the book biz. Elliott Bay relocated from Pioneer Square and now thrives on Capitol Hill. Amazon—blamed for driving many small independents out of business—has opened a dead-tree bookshop in University Village and another in Portland. Change happens.

Still, the news spurred memories of the not-so-distant past when the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the early ‘80s was part of a wave of urbanization—you could call it the “Seattleization”—of the Eastside suburbs. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bellevue became of the focus of what became known as “Edge City” city building. Skyscrapers popped up, much to the surprise of Seattleites who looked east and saw high rises. Between them and the Cascades.

There were other signals. Microsoft moved to Bellevue in 1979, before settling in Redmond, and became the vanguard of the Silicon Forest. In 1976, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Bellevue, and today the oldest Starbucks in Bellevue sits in a strip mall across from Bellevue Square on NE 8th and just around the corner from the U-Bookstore. Crossroads shopping center revamped as a kind of suburban mall-meets-Pike Place Market with a newsstand, bookstore, public chessboard, and a catalyst for social services. The demand for “third places” in the suburbs—often criticized as a desert of “no place” cul de sacs—was growing.

That growth was nurtured by other developments. In 1976, Bellevue got its own daily newspaper, the Journal-American, so Starbucks goers had first-rate local news and columns to read over their lattes each morning. In the late ‘80s, the statewide magazine I worked for, Washington, which had launched in Bellevue in the mid-80s, did a cover story on the fact that two major national celebrities were based on the Eastside: Bill Gates and Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. One seemed to reflect a new braininess in the ‘burbs, the other a kind of brazen, bleached Seahawks celebrity whose attitude suggested an in-your-face approach far different from quiet good guys suburban dads like Steve Largent. It seemed like the Eastside was an Edge City gaining some edginess.

In 1990, Seattle Weekly launched a sister paper on the Eastside. I was the editor and publisher and we arrived because we saw the changes of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the spread of cafes, the yearning for arts, the demand for urban amenities and services—increasing. An essential part of that was reflected in moves by chains like University Bookstore were a sign that a new kind “psychographics” was emerging, a population that wanted something more than split-level, bedroom community isolation. A population of readers, for one thing, that didn’t want to have to cross a bridge for culture, or good coffee.

The trend has been a steady, prosperous for Bellevue and the Eastside. Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is now a majority minority city—the largest in the state!

Bellevue used to be Ronald Reagan country, but has been shifting “blue” politically since the early ‘90s. Light rail is coming, the cranes are still building, and the Edge City is now a big city in its own right. The seeds for that vision were planted long before the University Bookstore came to downtown Bellevue to serve hungry minds.

But the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the ‘80s was like an indicator species signaling to Seattleites and Eastsiders that the Puget Sound ecosystem was shifting. And boy, have they.