One of my most “Seattle” friends—arts patron, progressive voter, NPR listener—shook her head the other day, laughing. “How long do you have to live here before you can be from Seattle?”
Raised in the Midwest and educated back east, my friend arrived here just out of college in the late 1980s. In Seattle she worked as an artist, met and married her husband, raised three children, volunteered around town, launched a business—built a life. Her roots are as local and easily as deep as the ones fixing the towering cedar tree to her backyard.
And with all that pinning her to the city? “Still not a Seattleite,” she marvels, referring to a Seattle native who recently introduced her as a midwesterner.
Few cities maintain such a fierce demarcation between its citizens who arrived and its citizens who belong. No doubt that’s partially thanks to Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson’s “Keep the Bastards Out” campaign of the ’80s and ’90s, when Californians poured in for the tech boom, then later the attendant Seattle Freeze—the phenomenon pegging Seattleites as pleasant but uninterested in friendship. Both reveal a regional chauvinism that’s about as welcoming as a pie in the face. Now, Seattle’s cost-of-housing impenetrability and tortured ambivalence about growth unwittingly provide the final, hostile, cherry on top.
“Sure, we’ll be friendly enough with the encroachers—even the dreaded Californians—at barbecues and dog parks and the like,” wrote Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd in January. “But you’ll never be one of us. Yes, some of you have blended in by learning to properly string up a big blue tarp and smoke up a coho. You could pass for a native. But you’re not. Got it?”
All righty then.
The truth is, I know that deep in the hard pit of my dark little heart lurks a seed of that smug superiority. I’m a Seattle native—only second generation (there is a hierarchy), but still—and in many ways I personify the parochial, complacent, dysfunctionally mild caricature of a northwesterner. My husband, a Portlander by birth raised partially in Seattle—I guess that makes him a native, kind of—often stares at the hill rising behind our backyard and marks the alarming growth of the English ivy seemingly sprinting toward our house. It freaks him out, this invasive species coming at us so aggressively, and I ask myself: Do I look at Seattle newcomers that way?
If I do, the joke’s on me.
From the moment in 1851 when the Denny Party landed at Alki Point and were met by its indigenous inhabitants—and the female arrivals promptly burst into tears—Seattle’s story has been one tale after another of newcomers displacing natives. (One wonders if the natives cried too; God knows they were the ones with reason to.) Seattle grew in cycles of boom and bust, with each boom of Gold Rushers or forest harvesters or aerospace pioneers or postwar city builders or technology entrepreneurs or culture creators bringing with them the waves of humanity needed to realize their visions.
So Seattle became populated with imports. “A truthful Seattle novel would have to be about the newcomers,” wrote import Jonathan Raban in Hunting Mr. Heartbreak, and indeed, in the last three decades alone, the city’s percentage of Washington born has dwindled steadily downward—in 2013, just 38 percent. Of course, if you live here that’s just statistical evidence of what you know in your bones: Nobody’s ever from here. A friend from Virginia—here since 1988, still not “a Seattleite”—claims that in her wide circle of friends, she can name three who were born here.
If you can picture those three feeling a little defensive, being the minority and all, fearing that more people could threaten the quality of life that here in the Northwest, uniquely, depends less on human culture and more on its absence—well, perhaps that can help explain Seattle’s weirdly xenophobic regional psyche, if not Ron Judd. “You Seattle pioneers are very peculiar people,” a ship captain in the late nineteenth century reportedly observed. “You want to have a big city but don’t want anyone to live here but yourselves.”
Growth is a legitimately thorny issue, one Seattle is currently grappling with in ways big and small. Perhaps that makes this an ideal time to acknowledge a truth other cities don’t seem to mind admitting: Newcomers belong here. They built this city. They add vitality and the strength of diversity. They bring the essential optimism of those who chose to be here, as opposed to those of us who got here by, well, not moving.
Honestly, my two fellow natives? Newcomers are cooler than we are.
Isn’t it time we meaningfully let them in? Raban, a Seattleite for nearly 20 years now, counts himself a “near native.” I’m pretty sure we could work up a calculus for this…say, near-native status at 10 years? Quasi native at 20? Just about native if you were here when the Kingdome exploded or the I-90 bridge went into the drink, or if you know precisely why it’s significant that Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest?
Double points if you can claim any sort of familiarity with J. P. Patches. My husband was a Patches Pal and I’m prepared to call that native, unqualified.