Sign of All Times: Will Reports of Seattle Dying Ever Expire?

Fifty years ago, an iconic billboard mocked our particular brand of civic pessimism. Can the latest recovery squash that gloom for good?

By Benjamin Cassidy July 6, 2021

The sign’s typography didn’t do it any favors.

In 1971, a couple of hotshot real estate agents walked into a Madison Park bar and brewed up a plan. For weeks Bob McDonald and Jim Youngren had shuttled skeptical clients from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to a city reeling from 60,000 Boeing layoffs. Seattle then was a one-company town, and with fewer jet orders and the cancellation of the aerospace giant’s supersonic transport contract came the prevailing sentiment that the city’s economy might be doomed. Visitors expected tumbleweeds to greet them after touching down. All the negativity rankled McDonald and Youngren, who’d grown tired of having to persuade potential buyers of the city’s resilience. So over beers at the Red Onion Tavern, the Henry Broderick Inc. employees conjured a form of payback, the sort of half-baked gag only a few rounds can summon: They’d mock the city’s pessimism with a billboard one-liner, “Will the last person leaving Seattle - Turn out the lights.”

Fifty years after the sign’s genesis, its words still appear on T-shirts and mugs and newspaper quizzes. It remains both a symbol of the Boeing Bust period and a dig at a more enduring truth about Seattle: No matter how fast it’s grown after economic downturns, the city has never totally distanced itself from the gloomy mentality that inspired the billboard.

Every threat to jobs at the region’s handful of major employers brings a fresh round of references to the sign—some jokingly, some not. As recently as 2018, the passage of a head tax aimed at Amazon prompted the Northwest Iron Workers Council to say in a statement that “the Seattle City Council wants to turn out the lights again.”

At the same time, many of those jobs have driven up home prices and exacerbated the region’s housing crisis, another source of Seattle fatalism. A 2019 KOMO News documentary about homelessness infamously declared, with dubious evidence, that “Seattle Is Dying.”

The KOMO piece had many critics. So did Youngren and McDonald’s message. Though the real estate agents’ backer had plunked down $160 for a month of billboard space, their sign only stayed up for a couple of weeks in that April of 1971. Some got the joke, but others took it literally and demanded its takedown. “As for that pesky billboard,” a Seattle Sunday Post-Intelligencer editorial said at the time, “we suggest that the next to leave town be the two wise guys who dreamed up the sign.”

Instead Youngren and McDonald stuck around. They prospered as the Boeing Bust ushered in a more diverse Seattle economy. “A lot of companies sprang out of that whole episode,” recalls Youngren. “It was an economic stimulus.”

Half a century later, Seattle has needed more than one stimulus to ride out another economic emergency, a collapse that has gutted its smallest employers rather than its largest this time. The coronavirus pandemic halted foot traffic and hastened the closure of many mom-and-pops downtown. Coupled with rogue property damage amid Black Lives Matter protests, depictions of the city’s plight prompted more exaggerated reports of Seattle’s demise.

An SPD car was torched during protests on May 30, 2020.

The image is seared into Pamela Banks’s memory: a police car engulfed in flames outside boarded-up storefronts in downtown Seattle. Banks had recently uprooted to Atlanta when, last spring, she saw the TV reports about protests in Seattle, the city she’d called home for four decades before her retirement. But this Seattle didn’t look like the one she left in 2018. Not with businesses shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic and some protesters violently co-opting Black Lives Matter demonstrations (the person later sentenced for hurling a Molotov cocktail into that cop car was a 21-year-old white man from Edmonds). “I just felt like my city had deteriorated in a very short period of time,” says Banks, who identifies as Black and Asian, “and I knew Seattle was better than that.”

Pamela Banks came back.

Banks didn’t resort to wryly posting about a certain billboard to condemn the city, as conservative groups and others did at various points during 2020. The former president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle instead took a more productive approach: While some fled Seattle amid quarantine and civil unrest, she decided to fly back across the country and help the city rebound from coronavirus shutdowns. In February, she assumed a new role as the interim director of the city’s Office of Economic Development. She’s charged with helping lead the city’s recovery from Covid-19, particularly its downtown neighborhoods—the city’s “heartbeat…and the tax base,” she adds with a laugh. Though the communities in Seattle’s core occupy less than 6 percent of the city’s land, they contribute about half of the city’s business taxes, according to a Downtown Seattle Association report.

The same report estimated that 160 street-level downtown storefronts closed during 2020. The city’s mom-and-pops aren’t corporate tax giants, but their employees collectively represent a local workforce much larger than the one roiled in 1971, or the one the head tax threatened in 2018. “It’s like five Amazons,” says Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan.

Durkan believes the return of travel will help city businesses regain some of those lost customers. She also aims to keep certain streets closed to vehicle traffic, allowing more pedestrians to circulate between storefronts.

Banks echoes that idea but knows the area needs some of its largest employers to return to the office at least part-time to give small businesses a boost. Amazon has promised an “office-centric culture” by fall, and Banks hopes about 30 percent of downtown office workers will be back then. In the meantime, she’s considering temporary permitting in vacant office spaces for galleries and even entrepreneurial hubs (the mayor's office recently proposed a similar concept). Such centers could help business owners of color receive vital technical and financial assistance, she thinks, as a variety of local and federal aid programs roll out. “Our goal is not to bring downtown back like it was,” says Banks, “but to bring it back more equitably.”

It’s a progressive notion, the type of ideal that often arises to counter the negativity and nostalgia Youngren and McDonald skewered in their billboard all those years ago. William Woodward, a professor emeritus of history at Seattle Pacific University, compares the city’s temperament to the stereotype of an adolescent, swinging between swagger and angst, between forward-thinking boosterism and self-preservation. “There’s that inner discontent, that sense that we can be great,” he says. “But maybe we won’t be.”

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