Letter From Washington

Kiss My Tan Line

How Californians saved Seattle.

New Yorkers have bagels, San Franciscans the Golden Gate. In Seattle, the natives reserve their civic pride for hating Californians and the predatory consumerism they stand for. There are rusting Volvos all over Seattle’s University District with “Don’t Californicate Washington” bumper stickers. The Seattle Times recently ran a front-page story about the increase of tailgating on freeways, a display of bad manners locals blame on the influx of Californians.

Rather than criticize California emigrants like myself, locals should be kissing our tan lines. It is the Californian mindset that is responsible for the Seattle Miracle, whereby a sleepy backwater has been transformed into a dynamic entrepreneurial hub and the most livable city in the United States. When I first lived in Seattle in the mid-’70s, it was a fussy little hamlet, Mayberry NW, where Meat Is Murder food co-ops abounded and the 40-hour work week was considered indentured servitude. Today the unemployment rate is a percentage point below the national average, and housing prices are soaring, driven by a boom in software, biotechnology, and telecommunications firms. The pine-scented air now hums with ambition and no one gets a day off.

Just as Seattle’s renaissance is fueled by an influx of aggressive capitalists, its previous stagnation was caused by the sloth and poor economic policies of its other tenants: Indians, Scandinavians, and hippies.

Northwest Indians lived in a land of vast abundance, the streams flush with fish, the forest thick with game. Rather than invest their surplus in research and development or compete to see who could build the biggest house, the Northwest Indians instituted the “potlatch,” a tradition of achieving status by giving away one’s wealth. No investments. No competition. No ego. No progress.

If Seattle was initially held back by an indigenous people who didn’t value individual achievement and the Rules of Acquisition, then the arrival of the Scandinavians in the 1800s only made things worse. In a previous “Letter From Washington,” a NW chauvinist bragged that the Vikings not only were the first Europeans to visit the New World, but their descendants shaped the contemporary culture of the Pacific Northwest, creating a city of tolerance and egalitarian refinement. I beg to differ. The Vikings may have made a hit-and-run raid on Newfoundland, but the Scandinavians who migrated to the Pacific NW in the 1800s were not Vikings. Norse culture peaked 1,500 years ago when the Vikings–über capitalists–pillaged the British Isles. The Seattle Scandinavians were ersatz Norsemen, blond socialists who thought the basis of civilization was an upper tax rate of 90 percent, dreary porno movies, and their all-purpose greeting “uff da,” which, translated, means, “I’ve fallen from grace and I can’t get up.” They created a Seattle in which icy politeness and neatly trimmed grass were the ultimate virtues.

To make matters even worse, in the ‘70s when the hippies were driven out of California, many of them migrated to the Northwest, their VW vans stuffed with copies of Lord of the Rings and Small Is Beautiful. The hippies believed that the only good capitalist was someone selling loose joints at the bus station. In this spirit, a moratorium on high-rise office buildings was passed by Seattle voters in the early ‘80s, in the hope that evil corporations would be driven away. The region slumbered, the people insulated in their down parkas and their “what’s your hurry?” smugness, until awakened by the hard-working Californians they complain so much about.

The Californians created the New Seattle, whose Twin Towers are Microsoft and Starbucks. Bill Gates, though a Seattle native, has the soul of a Californian. He is smart and tough, a take-no-prisoners competitor. He is, of course, envied and distrusted by the locals, who feel he should somehow “give more back to the community.” This is code for “give us some of your money, we want to go skiing.” If Bill Gates is the distant father figure of the New Seattle, fellow Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen is the beloved Mom, representing the Old Seattle virtues of fair play and civic generosity.

Father Bill is lean and mean, evinces no interest in sports or popular culture, and doesn’t believe in giving kids an allowance. When he donates money, he endows a chair at the University of Washington or a building at Stanford or computer sciences at Harvard–elitist actions that benefit the best and the brightest, very New Seattle. Moms Allen, by contrast, is round and fuzzy and a soft touch. An egalitarian, he likes common-folk endeavors like team sports and rock music. Allen bought the Portland Trailblazers, and plans to buy the Seattle Seahawks to prevent their departure for–you guessed it–Los Angeles. Allen is also building a museum honoring Seattle’s favorite prodigal son, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, and donated $25 million to jump-start “The Commons,” a plan to replace 30 acres of productive businesses with a huge park in the middle of the city. The New Seattle voters turned down the project, realizing it would actually be a vast open-air toilet for the homeless.

Starbucks was a low-key purveyor of fine coffee for years until Howard Schultz–a New Yorker who would be welcomed in California–took over and turned it into a corporate behemoth, opening stores across the world. It’s only a matter of time until Starbucks is the premier caffeine-delivery system on the planet. People who bought stock in Starbucks at the IPO can now retire. So why isn’t wealth-creator Howard Schultz beloved by his neighbors? Simple: He acted like a Californian.

Ensconced in a large home abutting a small park, Schultz enlarged his driveway and, with the definitive grace of a successful CEO, erected a Citizen Kane autograph-model gate. He also encroached on a bit of park land in the process, just as a thousand other Seattleites had. But it was Schultz who drew the outrage of the Old Seattle types, who sued him. Now, after years of litigation, a frustrated Schultz plans to put the house on the market.

Local boy Gates wisely built his 45,000-square-foot castle in suburban Seattle. While the home still evinces mutterings of “Xanadu” from the envious, it is actually smaller than Aaron Spelling’s 50,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills, and no one in California thinks it unseemly that the genius who brought us Charlie’s Angels shouldn’t reap the fruits of his labor. In California everyone thinks they might be the next one to write the ultimate sitcom and buy their own piece of paradise. They might, too.

The Californication of Seattle continues. The original Seattleites–the NW Indians–have become so Californian they’re Nevadans. Dissatisfied with the chump change earned by selling untaxed cigarettes and fireworks, the Indians have opened gambling casinos on reservations all over the state. An initiative on the November ballot asks voters to approve slot machines and video poker, proceeds of which will be used “to build esteem” among the native peoples. Just think, groups of people outside the mainstream with large stores of explosives, cash, and slot machines. … If they were white, fundamentalist Christians instead of Native American pantheists, Janet Reno would send in the tanks.

Even Moms Allen seems to be turning Californian. He recently purchased 387 acres on one of the San Juan Islands that is the site of Camp Nor’Wester, a venerated children’s summer retreat. But instead of donating the island to the Nature Conservancy, Allen has evicted the camp and plans to build something for himself.

As for the Scandinavian old guard getting the message, well … uff da.