Embarrassing admission time: Before I moved here from St. Louis almost nine years ago, I assumed Seattle was situated smack on the shores of the Pacific. This is going to be so great, the naive 30-year-old me thought, not bothering to look at a map or think back to that time eight years earlier when I’d actually visited. I’ve never lived on an ocean! Now, without question, my public education had failed me. (I graduated from college, I swear.) But the real reason I was ignorant to Seattle’s most basic characteristics was that, in my mind, it had always existed apart from the rest of the country. And not in the “physically inaccessible backwater” way that self-loathing natives think outsiders perceive the Pacific Northwest. No, for me it was less a city and more the manifestation of an ideal, unbound by geography.
I’m part of the more than 21 percent of current residents who emigrated from the Midwest. I say current, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. And it’s well documented. Settlers from Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and a mess of other states in the middle started heading this way in the mid-nineteenth century. (The Oregon Trail—not just a shockingly morbid computer game you played in grade school!) Later, Germans and Scandinavians from the Upper Great Lakes helped build the Great Northern Railway, which started in Minnesota, and settled at the end of the line, in Seattle. Relatives followed, some hoping to reunite with family here, others no doubt trying to get away from family back home who just wanted to talk about corn and cows.
Where did you move from?
That explains why so many fled flyover country a couple generations ago, but the bigger question may be why they (or we) keep coming. And no one—specifically the half dozen history professors I pestered during their winter break—can really answer that. But I have a theory.
If you’ve never been east of the Mississippi—this will sound heretical, but it’s true—Seattle amplifies the best qualities of a big midwestern city (natural beauty and progressive culture) and dials down the bad ones (meteorological extremes and…some not-so-progressive culture). It’s a starting point for anyone who’s ever aspired to something bigger and a destination for those who don’t want that something to be too big.
Obviously I didn’t know any of that in summer 2008. My number one motivation for moving to Seattle was the prospect of a new job, not moving to Seattle. In fact, the vast majority of Midwest transplants I know came here for work, either theirs or their partner’s. And viewed through that career-first lens it’s tempting to say we might have just as easily ended up following jobs to Cincinnati or Tampa or Phoenix. But in reality I’m not so sure we could have. There’s a strange gravity to Seattle—a combination of comfortable and challenging, familiar and alien—that’s inescapable for someone from a place like Milwaukee or Minneapolis. You may not be able to give it a name before you get here, but you can describe the feeling: the promise of something better.