Thirtysomethings in neat button-up shirts smack a ping-pong ball around a polished wood gaming table, breaking into laughter when the sphere inevitably escapes. Four people on laptops fill a booth set into the wall, elbow to elbow, all listening to the music pumped into the recessed nook via a speaker shaped like a gramophone. Mid-room, two egg-shaped basket chairs pendulum from the ceiling when a pair of women pry themselves out of the orbs and make for the coffee stand.
This is Seattle, home of the Seattle Freeze? The city where saying “excuse me” to someone in the food truck line counts as social mingling? What is this communal Shangri-La?
Welcome to the Collective, South Lake Union’s new private club. Open since May, it sprawls over 15,000 feet of the ground floor of a glassy Dexter Avenue building like a swanky dorm common room, couches and hangout zones punctuated by a bar and restaurant. The staff acts somewhere between RA and cruise director, scheduling comedy shows, literary salons, even workshops on food photography.
The Collective is the newest, but hardly the only, one-stop shop for a social life in Seattle. Across Dexter, the Modera apartments attract renters with building-wide events like ugly sweater parties and dog happy hours. On Beacon Hill, Seattle Bouldering Project—once simply a climbing gym—added a bar in 2016, hawking coffee and beer in a space that also hosts book release parties and stocks maps so gym members can plan trips together.
Socializing in today’s Seattle, it seems, requires training wheels. “Finding a community is time consuming. It requires a lot of trial and error,” says Jeffrey Shulman, marketing professor at University of Washington and host of The Seattle Growth podcast. “There are thousands of people moving here who have no idea what to do and no community to do things with.”
Make that 17,500 people who moved to Seattle last year alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau around 60 percent were between the ages of 18 and 34 years old; you know, that window where making friends stops being about who shares the same homeroom. The so-called Seattle Freeze—that unique Northwest reserve—leaves a lot of folks lingering alone around the proverbial punch bowl.
Social isolation inflicted by technology doesn’t help, says Tabitha Kirkland, a University of Washington professor of psychology who teaches Psych 222: Connection and Consciousness in the Digital Age. “Our tendency is to be tethered to our devices,” she says. “But research shows that they are interfering with our ability to make meaningful face-to-face connections.”
She points to the work of Andrew Przybylski, an Oxford Internet Institute psychologist who found that when two strangers had a personal conversation with a mobile phone within view, they felt less close than did those without a phone present. “Even the peripheral cue that there are other things out there that could be more exciting is inhibiting us from forming these firsthand connections,” says Kirkland.
In an age where 92 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own a smartphone, hardly anyone hangs without one. And so: the Collective, with its Voltaire book chats and mezcal tastings. Don’t worry, screams the double-decker hammock garden, the in-house bouldering wall, the weekly open mic. You have friends. You’re cool.
In some ways the Collective isn’t such a foreign concept; swap the climbing wall for 18 fairways and you have a classic country club. Like all the blue bloods in Caddyshack, Collective members pay for their prepackaged social calendar; at $120 per month, plus a $200 joining fee, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the dues at Seattle’s high-end Broadmoor Golf Club. Of course, there’s a reason country clubs fell out of favor with the millennial generation—exclusive institutions don’t tend to be hotbeds of diversity.
“It’s so transactional. People might think, ‘Oh, I’ll put in this money and I’ll be guaranteed to get friends,’” says Kirkland, but notes that connection isn’t something that you can get from a mathematical model.
“There’s already a sense that there are two Seattles—the Seattle for the rich and Seattle for the working poor,” adds Shulman, The Seattle Growth host. “When you have to have a certain amount of money to be able to join a community, it further separates groups of people and you risk losing what historically made Seattle great, this mixing of different socioeconomic classes.”
The Collective does host local nonprofits, matches members with volunteer opportunities, and donates event proceeds. “Anything that encourages people who have money and good careers to care about the community around them is positive,” argues Shulman, but he notes there’s no replacement for simply socializing with a diverse array of people.
Back on Dexter, people do truly interact at the Collective. When an errant ping-pong ball escapes under a nearby couch, the people chatting there help fish it from beneath their feet.
It almost looks like natural social behavior, here in the icy heart of techie Seattle. Maybe everyone’s just biding their time until the next Instagram how-to or live podcast taping. Or maybe people are making friends