Friday, April 1, 2016

Dude, Where’s My City?

[ed. See also: Welcome to the Future: Middle Class Housing Projects]

I tend to ignore the usual measurements of what makes a city robust and healthy, the urban bragging points. Along the West Coast, these superlatives roll out with regularity. Seattle, two years ago, was proclaimed the fastest growing city in the United States. San Francisco usually tops the list of most expensive places to live. And Portland, Ore., just posted the highest percentage rise in home prices among major cities.

This is great, for realtors and tax collectors. Hooray — we’re shiny, new and less affordable than most cities of the world! Try the kale smoothie.

I look for something else: Could Kramer still live in my city? Yeah, Kramer, the “Seinfeld” character who never held a real job, but had a fairly cool apartment. His source of income was suspect. His schemes were sitcom-absurd. His ambition was, I don’t know, to publish a coffee-table book about coffee tables.

Every town needs its Kramers. And in Seattle, where I was born and still live, where my grandmother spent her last days in subsidized housing with a view of Puget Sound, I’m afraid we’re losing ours.

Job growth is steroidal. The big urban carnivore is, with its global headquarters now gobbling up enough office space in the formerly funky South Lake Union district to fill almost two skyscrapers the size of the city’s tallest building, the 76-story Columbia Center. Twice that amount is in the pipeline, as Amazon seeks to become the world’s largest retailer. Google just announced grand plans for the same neighborhood. A metro area of 3.5 million is adding 60,000 people a year.

Growth, even the metastatic kind, is usually trumpeted with a lot of rah-rah. The opposite — the sad decline of a Detroit, a Cleveland or a Baltimore — is much worse. So who wouldn’t want the fresh money and talent flowing into the vibrant urban centers of the West Coast? Well, this city. And Portland. And San Francisco as well.

Rising rents threaten to push out the quirky and creative types who make these places eternally young and resilient. You saw the pattern in Brooklyn — that urban tipping point. An average wage earner living in Brooklyn would somehow have to spend 120 percent of his or her monthly income to make rent.

In the Bay Area, there’s a desperate effort to keep the last un-gentrified neighborhoods from being taken over by techies, a quixotic mission. In Portland, where young people go to retire, that Krameresque option is fading. What’s next: homeless hipsters in “Portlandia”? It’s already happening. And here in Seattle, it can seem like Amazon is a large foreign presence growing inside of us — a transplant that has yet to take.

by Timothy Egan, NY Times |  Read more:
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