YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Seattle


SEATTLE — "Denver ain't your kind of town

There ain't no rain

And there ain't no Puget Sound

We're the No. 1 fans of the planes

That made this town . . . "

Spoof of Dave Loggins' "Please

Come to Boston," heard recently

on Seattle radio station KUOW.


In the wake of Boeing's announcement that it will move its corporate headquarters from Seattle, the Emerald City is feeling a little blue. Like the prettiest girl in school who's summarily dumped by the hunky BMOC, she's stunned with self-doubt. While her friends huddle around making sympathetic noises, a small world tilts precariously on its axis.

Well, boohoo. Weren't you always glad when Miss Popular got taken down a notch or two? It was hard not to laugh when the spurned-lover mood pervaded seven full pages devoted to the morning-after Boeing story in the Seattle Times. One headline posed the question: "Why Didn't You Call? Mayor Asks." Another had politicians wondering aloud: "Was It Something We Said?"

Now we are enduring the predictable recriminations and accusations--the kind of finger-pointing that follows the departure of, say, a major league baseball hunk like Alex Rodriguez for greener pastures. Almost everyone sees the move as the first step in Boeing's long-threatened retreat from the Seattle area--a fear confirmed when the company revealed it will start building fuselages for its 747 jets in Kansas, eliminating another 500 local jobs. But it's not the loss of jobs that has people so upset. It's the impending loss of a big chunk of the city's identity, as if Mt. Rainier were melting down.

Meanwhile, the litany of recent bad publicity is endlessly recounted: the ugly World Trade Organization demonstrations last year; the tanking of the dot-com economy; the near-simultaneous occurrence of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake and the shocking Mardi Gras debacle--a sort of Rodney King incident in reverse, in which cameras caught gangs of young men and women, many of them black, assaulting celebrants in historic Pioneer Square. All these events rattled the underpinnings of Seattle's carefully tended image of itself as the luckiest city in America: a safe harbor where stunning views, prosperity, civility and freedom from unpleasant racial conflict are enjoyed by all.

This is only partly and intermittently true, just as it is partly true in a hundred other places. What blinds Seattle to unpleasant reality, however, is its congenital smugness. Born in a physically beautiful setting, blessed with a benign climate and a cornucopia of natural resources--the most important in the West being water--Seattle never had to struggle for love. It accepts worship of its largely God-given attributes as a God-given right, instilling a certain self-satisfaction in its citizenry. Its geographic isolation has helped breed a psychological one as well, a comforting feeling of remove from the nastiness of other, lesser places.

Most other cities are painfully aware of their shortcomings; Seattle is near-delusional in its belief that it has so few. Hence the reaction to Boeing Chairman Phil Condit's purported desire to move its headquarters to a city that is, among other things, "culturally diverse." What's that supposed to mean? people wonder, genuinely puzzled by any suggestion that they might not live on the cutting edge of the multiracial, multicultural rainbow.

An odd conceit, given that Seattle's largest ethnic group has historically been Scandinavian. Now it's Asians, who constitute 13% of the population. Though new census figures confirm that minority presence has increased substantially in the last decade, most suburbs (home to twice as many people as Seattle) are still mostly white, secure in a 220-mile corridor of Anglo homogeneity that stretches to the Canadian border. So "diversity" doesn't mean what it does in Los Angeles, or Philadelphia or even Dallas or Denver.

But that's not why Boeing is pulling up stakes. And Seattle is on the edge of something, all right. The new millennium may be remembered as the time when a crisis in confidence spurred the city to get real about itself. "Its fundamental story has to be reassembled," says California State Librarian Kevin Starr, who frequently comments on the ways in which cities, like people, are products of the tales they tell themselves about their own history.

Like others on the brink of an identity crisis--notably San Francisco and Los Angeles (where the story has always been that it is still looking for the story)--Seattle is no longer so sure what it's all about. Ask people why they love Seattle and you get two answers: "The mountains," they say dreamily. "The water." But great cities have more going for them than landscape.

Los Angeles Times Articles