Mar 29, 2015

A city of people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well.

Our second longer visit in Seattle, summer 1995, we stayed in Madrona. Or more accurate, exactly on the verge between Madrona and Central District, CD. Madrona, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Seattle and CD, one of the poorest. Also the verge between black and white. To get from Madrona and Madison Park, the also wealthy neighborhood north of Madrona (both facing the shores and beaches of Lake Washington), to Downtown you need to drive through CD, something the Madrona and Madison Park residents preferably did with their car doors locked.
Our first experience of Seattle was two years earlier, staying on the Eastside of Lake Washington, in Juanita, Kirkland. Three months in Suburbia didn’t give us any friends. We watched the sports cars leave early morning, coming back late evening. But we didn’t see any people, even more didn't meet any.  It was like living in a deserted place. It felt safe though. 

At the corner of Columbia and 33rd Avenue on the verge of Central District the police cars were frequent, but in a week we knew all the neighbors and we met our for-life-time friends, the Smitt-Heffron family. It was through them we learned how to not be scared picking up the groceries at the Red Apple Market in the CD valley at nights, where the police cars were even more frequent. From that point, I have never been afraid in Seattle.
Seattle is a part of King County, which includes the areas north and south of the city, as well as Eastside of Lake Washington where cities like Bellevue and Redmond are thriving with Microsifties and those alike. And Seattle neighborhoods as well as King County are going through a crucial change.
I mentioned Madrona and Central District as examples of rich and poor neighborhoods. But of course most neighborhoods are, or should I say have been, somewhere in the middle. Because that’s what’s changing. You can say the Seattle middle class is disappearing. Since 2000 95% of the new Seattle households have been either rich or poor. Only 5% could be considered middle income.
Between 2000 and 2012, King County grew by 85,000 households. More than 40,000 of these households are low-income, earning less than half the King County median income (or about $35,000 in 2012). Roughly the same number are high-income, with earnings at more than 180 percent of the median (or about $125,000 in 2012). That means there was barely any growth in the middle-income group — just 3,500 households earning between $35,000 and $125,000. A note to Swedes, yes, Americans make more money than we do. King County Executive Dow Constantine makes this remark about the change of the county: “It’s people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well.”
The map is stunning. And there is actually a map, cheek it out (although for some reason this won’t turn to a clickable link, see if you can make it work better than I do):  file:///Users/mariaalidastolterman/Desktop/Mapping%20King%20County’s%20disappearing%20middle%20class%20%7C%20The%20Seattle%20Times.webarchive
Large portions of King County have become poorer. Spots have turned into middle class. But the chock is pretty much all of King County has become richer. The map is screaming rich, rich, rich!!! There is one very peculiar thing though.
To get from Seattle to Eastside you need to cross either the highway 520 bridge or the 99. On our first stay, the one in Juanita, Kirkland, we took the 520 route several times a week. On both sides of the bridgehead at the east side of the lake there are extremely wealthy neighborhoods. At the south side Bill Gates dug his way into the rock for five years before his masterpiece of home was completed, an entertaining show for every Seattle-Eastside commuter.
Medina, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point and Yarrow Point, those are neighborhood names where I don’t even know anyone who knows anyone who lives there. Besides Bill Gates the only name I know of is the saxophone player Kenny G.
Anyway, the peculiar thing is: 100 percent of the household growth in these neighborhoods was in the under-$35,000 bracket! How could anyone live there on that income?
There might be a two-word answer, which underscored Constantine’s espresso economy notion: au pair. But there’s another, more likely two-word explanation: capital gains. It turns out that investment returns, which many of the ultrarich live on rather than salaries, are excluded from household-income calculations by the Census Bureau, which made this report.
On top of this there is another map. The household income needed to place in the top 5% of each city’s income earner, grew faster in Seattle than in any other of the U.S 50 largest cities between 2012 and 2013. Seattle is out of control when it comes to making money!
So what about our corner of Columbia and 33rd? Is Central District changing too? Yes it is. I was often surprised it was what it was, located right in the middle of Seattle, between Downtown and the Lake Washington-close wealthy parts of town. But CD has a history too. Once a mostly Jewish neighborhood before Japanese residents began moving in, the neighborhood became largely African American during the 1960s and ’70s. By 1980, some two-thirds of the residents were black. 
And 2015? Now, a majority, about 58 percent, are white; 22 percent are African American and 9 percent Asian. The households with medium income and even high income are growing. Crime at the always troubled corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street is down by 80% since 2008. The crummy housed are sold as tear downs and the lots filled to the rim with shiny new homes. The word is gentrifying and the black population is moving south.
What to think about this? Well I don’t think anything good can come out of a city turning to a place of “people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well.”

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