Tales of Two Cities

cityI live a minute and twenty-three seconds away from one of the finest bakeries in Seattle, Bakery Nouveau, a purveyor of croissants and macarons that has improved the quality of my life to the detriment of my waistline. The bakery is across the street from a small park called Williams Place, where some of my fellow citizens sleep, get high, and relieve themselves.

I live in an apartment a short walk from houses that sell for seven figures. Occasionally I have to avoid human feces on the sidewalk of a street where one can enjoy two gourmet coffee shops, a vegan dessert shop, a gluten-free bakery, and a handful of restaurants where a meal for two sets you back $50. Every time I walk to yoga class, I pass blanket-shrouded shapes of human beings in the entryways of businesses. I barely notice when someone on the sidewalk outside my apartment screams a string of profanities, a weekly occurence that can happen at any hour.

I’ve started to pay more attention to certain givens in my life. One given is that I won’t ever let my kids play in Williams Place. Another is that I’ll never own a home in Seattle. I just sort of accept these things. I love my neighborhood, but this love is paired with deliberately choosing to ignore the disparity around me. I wonder what it says about me that I’ve come to accept certain ugly things about my neighborhood as just the way things are.

China Mieville’s 2010 novel The City and the City is for augmented reality what Ready Player One is for virtual reality. The setting of this detective fantasy is two cities that are superimposed upon one another in the same geographic location. Strict laws governing the residents of Beszel and the residents of Ul Qoma, who are not allowed to cross from one city into the other. Buildings in one city often cast shadows on the streets of the other city, and there are areas that appear “cross-hatched.” Years before Microsoft coined the term, the novel represents a vision of mixed reality, and feels like a premonition of the Seattle of today.

Seattle is two cities now, too. My career has toggled between these two cities, with years spent in the low-paying world of the arts and nonprofits, and years spent in technology. I’ve never felt that I’ve ever fully belonged in either. When I worked for Amazon the first time, I was in the middle of earning my Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. My first book got published while I was working at Amazon the second time, my box of 25 copies delivered to my desk in the Columbia Tower along with my other daily deliveries of merch. I’ve straddled the divide between tech and non-tech, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve even had that choice. The divide between these worlds grows wider by the day, with an expanding list of non-tech jobs you simply can’t have anymore if you expect to live in Seattle proper.

I’m writing this post from the new Starbucks in White Center, which shows all the signs of gentrification like the West Seattle Junction and Columbia City before it. There are two Latina women at the table next to mine, who may be mother and daughter. The older of the two looks to be in her late sixties. A few moments ago, pointing at my laptop, she asked me, “Is it hard to learn computers?” I cheerily told her that there are free computer classes at the local library.

Of course the real answer to her question is much more complex. If I was being honest, I would have said, “Yes, it’s simple. Be born into a middle class white family and have a father who’s a civil engineer. Play rudimentary games on his HP-85 and write stories on the Digital computer he brings home from work. Go to college where you have access to a computer lab and your own Apple LC-520. Use the electronic ordering system at the bookstore where you work. Get a job at an Internet startup in 1998 where you get a full month of training on how to use a UNIX-based customer relationship management database. Take classes in HTML and PERL. Buy some books to teach yourself how to use Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks. Work closely with developers at a variety of startups. Get involved in a community that gives you regular access to prototypes of virtual and mixed reality headsets and associated software. See? Learning computers is a snap!”

Amazon’s HQ2 announcement is a watershed moment for Seattle’s evolving identity. While our civic leaders fall all over each other, groveling, as Amazon ponders opening a second home in another city, they’re hard-pressed to confront that they already have two cities of their own to manage. There’s the city where privileged people like me live, and there’s the city where people like this charming lady seated a couple feet to my right live.

Our election is happening soon, and the new mayor, either Cary Moon or Jenny Durkan, will face the daunting task of addressing Seattle’s growing economic disparity, which is increasingly tied to the tech/non-tech divide. Amazon has made its preference clear, dumping over $300k into Durkan’s campaign, while Moon is popular with progressives who concern themselves with matters of social justice.

As someone who has has lived in both Seattles, my hope is that each side of the divide borrows something from the other. I hope that the progressives committed to addressing disparity don’t just sit around and convene endless discussions and study the issue to death, but approach these problems with an innovative, bias-for-action mindset. And I hope that the tech industry takes more responsibility for the common good and supports the level of taxation we need to get more people off the streets, into homes, off drugs, and into jobs. Each side would benefit greatly by taking a page from the playbook of the other. Perhaps, in this way, we can start belonging to the same city again.

It appears that the two women to my right have come to Starbucks to meet with a man who is telling them about a health care program the older of the two qualifies for, which will address an $8000 medical bill that she is unable to pay. The man is describing a bureaucratic process that these two women must now navigate. It sounds a lot harder than learning computers.


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