I passed through Seattle this December in both directions–with a weeklong layover in Minnesota in between, for the holidays. It was an excuse for a short vacation in a new city. A city that, by all accounts, I ought to like–but didn’t.
I do my best self-analysis via geography–by reflecting on how I fit, or don’t, in my current location, whatever that may be. So I know myself best by landscape. I know I like urban environments near large bodies of water. I’ve grown accustomed to the cultural amenities and mass transit of larger cities, and expect a certain level of quality and access in both arenas. I’m tech-savvy and I appreciate it when my environment is, too. I like the PNW climate, the cool and even the rain. And I’m very much an urban photographer, someone who seeks layers of visual interest in order to stimulate the eye.
By all accounts, Seattle should have been my sort of place. And it’s true that I fit in easily. Transit made sense to me and the street grid wasn’t hard to master. I navigated intuitively and I never got lost. I took some interesting photographs and I got the kind of saturated experiences I was hoping for.
But I think that Seattle is also a great example of what happens when tech capitalism runs unchecked. The amount of money pouring through that city is readily apparent, and the sheer number of cranes that mark new office buildings or new apartments is kind of amazing. But on the ground level, the first thing you see are the “have nots”, and it’s impossible to ignore just how many are being left behind. It’s probably been a decade since I saw anyone shoot up on a city street, but I hadn’t been in Seattle for ten minutes before seeing someone drop a freshly-used syringe in the crosswalk.
The desperation I saw in Seattle wasn’t particularly off-putting to me. It felt organic, a natural consequence of how our economy works. But what’s natural isn’t always what’s good. And the lack of a social safety net on the West Coast worries me. I thought we did too little for the poorest among us when I lived back East, but truth be told, I think they do better than the West, which seems to be clinging to a pioneer libertarianism that was never a good idea to begin with.
To be fair, I did have one of the best experiences in Seattle that I’ve had in ages. I went to see the new Star Wars at the Cinerama–which truly lives up to the name of “Seattle’s most epic movie experience.” With pre-assigned, ultra-comfortable seating, a killer picture and sound, and artisanal snacks with alcohol for purchase, it wound up costing me about $30 to see the film–and I thought it was worth every cent. But even as I reclined in my seat, munching on my chocolate popcorn (a house specialty) and sipping a local hard cider through the previews, I saw my own decadence reflected back at me more than anything else.
Capitalism does that to a person. It’s far easier to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show than it is to try and shout down all the injustices of the world. After all, no one is listening.
I’ll go back to Seattle again, and explore further. It may be that the fairy lights on the trees and the holiday cheer have clouded my judgment. But I don’t think I’m wrong to see a deep inequity reflected in how the city goes about its business. And it left me uneasy.