Seattle is dead and Amazon killed it.
The recent news around Amazon has focused on the company as a workplace. Much of it has been unflattering, all of it is accurate. But a more comprehensive indictment of Amazon would also describe its effect on the rest of Seattle, which used to be a great place to live. In recent years, it has become consumed by Amazon.
I was born here, in 1988. My city was a gentle, easygoing place, a salad of cultural influences: citizens of the outdoors, of grunge and high art, with a dash of software among its bluebloods. Here I reveled in mild weather and glorious views; here I played in the best high-school orchestra in the nation (at a public school), and surrounded myself with brilliant people who understood me and made me better.
Nowhere else was life so good.
Seattle has always represented possibility and prosperity. In old Seattle thrived almost any kind of good life. The diversity of backgrounds, desires, and existences renewed itself through community and leisure. The regional character—a “weirdness” based on interest in what one did—was less of an affectation than in Austin, not so much a next-level normativity as in Portland. The abundant money granted time and choice more than it locked into lifestyles, and for this reason did not accumulate and stagnate among those with nothing else, as in New York or the other Washington. The wealth kept the weirdness weird and the weirdness kept the wealth in check.
Flourishing among a caring community of stable pals and sound adults, I grew up happy, free of most neuroses that tend to mark ambitious youths. Money and status were no concerns of mine. Why would they be? My devoted parents, a traffic engineer and a speech language pathologist, left their work at the office each afternoon and returned to the big brick house they owned. Allusions to millionaires went in one ear and out the other. Nobody cared. Microsoft was out of sight—in Redmond, a suburb 15 miles to the east—and out of mind. Nothing could have contrasted more strongly with my college days, at Columbia, where the diffident scuttled out of Wall Street’s shadow until they became it. My saner peers and professors would tell me I was crazy to have left Seattle, and, after literally going crazy, I listened and moved back. Seattle was intact. I thought: you can always come home; never would Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.
And then everything began to change.
My best friend, Andrew, came back to town this May. I felt proud of my life here and hoped I might convince him to stay a while. The first night we went out, he glanced at the glossy condominiums and the fashionable bars on Bell Street and shuddered: “Seattle is losing its vibe.” We did the things we always did—smoked weed at viewpoints and drove to Dick’s; drinking, bowling, and playing Big Buck Hunter. But something was off. Andrew kept noticing new signs of decline urbanists would call “revitalization.” The bars were too crowded; the food was too expensive; the bros and bores were too pervasive. “The Northwest has had its moment,” he prophesied. “Seattle is dying.”
But he was wrong. Seattle is already dead. Amazon made sure of that.
Seattle has always been prosperous. Now, it is expensive. The center of the blight is South Lake Union, for decades a low-rent neighborhood of warehouses and newspapers. Nearly three years ago, Amazon bought 11 buildings in the area, from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, for $1.16 billion; its objective is to build a “campus” in the image of Google’s, in Mountain View.
Efforts to this end have not been unsuccessful. South Lake Union used to be a dump. Now, as in Brooklyn (as in San Francisco, as in Portland, as in Austin), cubical buildings and yuppie boutiques have emerged from the carcass of industry. South Lake Union is no longer a neighborhood; it is a boomtown, in all the worst senses. Not since 1897 has such a gold rush so remade the Seattle waterfront. SLU’s gender ratios, makeshift culture, and inflated prices recall the Klondike. A cruel irony of tech is that it should free work from geographical constraints; “you can work anywhere,” goes the bromide. If only. In real life, wealth concentrates in faceless hubs more than ever before.
Boomtowns like SLU are an effort to keep tech employees inside a self-sustaining, non-intrusive bubble. This is little more than a libertarian myth. The bubble leaks and spreads blight in all directions. New condos blemish old neighborhoods more than they relieve pressure on their housing stock. Everything around South Lake Union has declined in culture and risen in price. To the east, Capitol Hill has endured a series of costly facelifts. Once our center of gay, musical, biker, bohemian, leftist, and anything-else culture, it now bears as little resemblance to its glory days as modern San Francisco does to the utopia of Hunter S. Thompson. To the west, Lower Queen Anne has aged into a boozy playground of brogrammers. To the south, Belltown offers a programmed imitation of “urban life,” with apartment towers and specialist groceries. A small part of Seattle has always aspired to be New York, and now it has gotten its wish. The frontier of condos pushes forward at the rate of a block a year. The blight’s growth is far faster. The “real Seattle” recedes at the same rate, just ahead of it: north of the Amazon Rainforest, Fremont and Wallingford await their spikes in rent, their hordes of vapid arrivistes.
Some friends and I recently searched for a house in Fremont and Wallingford. A year ago, per-capita rents for 4-bedroom houses in those neighborhoods ran as little as $500 a month. Now, it is impossible to find anything for less than $800 a month. The rent has skyrocketed, because of Amazon. The application process for decent housing is now more selective than Harvard. The shortage is acute. Across Seattle, rents have increased by double-digit figures in the last six months. Living alone is particularly punishing. Newcomers with little time or familiarity fare badly. Many of them will be software engineers.
The recent Times article reports that Amazon’s company motto is “I’m peculiar,” with its grimly funny echo of the old South’s name for slavery. The company buzzwords—“Hire and develop the best”; “Think big”—are nothing peculiar, but rather reminiscent of institutions like Enron or Bear Stearns.
Ironies like these are as lost on the worker bees as they are on their overlords. Self-conceptions become as shallow and lavish as a hi-res LCD screen. A friend observed that the problem is exacerbated by tech workers “thinking of themselves as a force for good.” The tragedy, as always with corporate life, is that the transplants really are bright people, the crème de la crème. But, by and large, it’s hard to imagine a group of geniuses less interesting, artistic, or culturally engaged, because they flock from across the globe to work for Amazon. What Amazon creates in ethnic diversity it more than takes away in socioeconomic diversity, making its supposed pluralism a skin-deep sham—to say nothing of its ideological uniformity.
The more people in the new Seattle are defined by their jobs, the less they talk about them. Seattleites used to take great interest in what they did, and have time to pursue outside curiosities. Both are less true now, thanks to the “convenience” of software. Anyone who has availed himself of this convenience (for example, through writing) knows working with computers is tedious and antisocial. A friend described his development job as “trying to instruct a small child who sucks at learning,” while reporting: “I have made no friends at work.” These “professional relationships” call to mind the “Seattle Freeze,” a phenomenon where people here pretend to be friendly but form only the most superficial of social connections. The cause is obvious: Wikipedia hilariously deadpans, “The rapid growth of Amazon and its accompanying influx of mostly young, male technology workers may be making the problem worse.” They don’t have time to be interested.
This reality is most unavoidable in Seattle’s dating scene, among the most stunted in the nation. Contrary to Amazon’s name, tall women are greatly outnumbered by short men. This is good for no gender or orientation. Few have the money to date to their standards; fewer have the time, and fewer still have the interest. Serial monogamy of the unhealthiest kind prevails. Unrealistic expectations cut across all demographics. We want someone to save us. This is a symptom and a cause of self-doubt and unhappiness. The main force opposing celibacy is desperation. Visiting any other city makes my dating apps explode with attention, and it is in these moments I wonder most why I still live here. You never see a Seattleite down and out, except in Seattle.
Things have gotten to the point that one good friend talks seriously of moving to Portland. A year ago, he spoke often of Seattle’s greatness, and spoke of Portland with our customary derision. Now he, too, laments Seattle’s death: “It was too nice here,” he said. “It couldn’t last.” Another friend left Seattle because it was “too competitive.” We had no rejoinder, and back he went to his hick town on the Columbia River. Yet another friend briefly entertained a whim to return to Las Vegas. Until recently, such a caprice was unthinkable. Even software engineers relocate, due mainly to discontentment with their jobs. Their final destination is often San Francisco, as if Seattle wasn’t yet bad enough.
It will be. San Francisco, with its square dimensions, functional transit, and high density, was well equipped to handle a population boom. Not so Seattle. Millennia of glaciation have shaped the city like an hourglass, with a busty bulge around the North End, a narrow waist encompassing Downtown, and stubby legs. The irregular hills and ubiquitous water force traffic onto a few roadways, where it bottlenecks. Portland, which is smaller, has five freeways fully servicing the city proper. Seattle has one, I-5. Traffic used to back up on I-5 briefly and rarely. Now, it happens every day, for several hours. Each morning, you can drive over the Ship Canal Bridge and appreciate its views of Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne Hill, which are the very reason you are always stuck in traffic. The Ship Canal, which separates the bust from the waist and now serves only a cosmetic purpose, is another obstacle. Only six roadways traverse it. It can take an hour to cross one, and another hour to get into South Lake Union in the morning, or get out at night. Between traffic, mammon, and work, it is becoming harder to see friends, go to shows, or do anything else worth doing. The social consequences for a city already infamous for the Seattle Freeze are grievous. The consequences for small businesses, which can serve only small regions of a spread-out city, are worse.
To get anywhere in a car is onerous; to get anywhere any other way is impossible. There is an acute lack of alternatives to driving. The bus system is fine, if you live in one of a few areas and are looking to get to another in no hurry. Outside of Amazon hours, it is simply not an option. The light rail is similarly limited. Its 13 stations serve only part of the waist and legs, where growth and expense have lagged far behind the bust. The bust is scheduled to get one station, in 2016; a total of 38 are projected to be finished by 2030. Sound Transit’s current daily ridership is around 35,000; BART has 420,000, and San Francisco has still been overrun. The Department of Transportation has favored band-aids like bike lanes and restrictions on driving over the construction of viable transit. The toll on the 520 bridge, which connects Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond, has alleviated congestion there. But the traffic must go somewhere, and the toll is yet another regressive tax in a state with the most regressive taxes in the nation. Needless to say, it is these regressive taxes that make the region so attractive to new businesses, whose employees will happily pay the tolls and pocket their paychecks. Traffic in Seattle will get worse, and, barring the advent of robot drivers, it may never get better. As with housing, transit capacity will not keep pace with Amazon’s corporate growth. In Seattle, there are roughly 25,000 Amazon jobs. By 2019, the company plans to employ 71,500.
To see these figures is to understand this is not the new normal. We have at least a decade of Amazon’s growth, and Seattle’s decline, before we bottom out. Gleams of improvement, like the Seahawks’ dominance or the Symphony’s resurgence, briefly capture my imagination. But I know these are the avatars of a lost city, and only a politician or a programmer would conflate those with a city’s “culture.” The sheen of success here is mortician’s makeup on a dead man’s face.
For Amazon has killed Seattle and gotten away with it. The counts of worse traffic, longer hours, higher costs of living, greater income inequality, and lower quality of life have no other suspects and few co-defendants. Amazon is guilty. But what little outrage there is has been mild. Anger dies out and Amazon lives on, untroubled and too big to fail. The mainstream is for Amazon, because Amazon is for the mainstream.
Increasingly, Amazon is the mainstream, flooding markets with ruthless efficiency and washing Seattle clean of the grit of independent lifestyles and small businesses. Amazon explicitly aims to eradicate these. A friend works in pricing; he told me Amazon has scripts to scrape prices from competitors’ websites and undercut them, even at great marginal loss. This is the essence of anti-competitive behavior. Next to Amazon, Microsoft’s dominance in the nineties seems quaint. Yet no one mentions an anti-trust lawsuit. Amazon rarely runs at a profit, because it doesn’t need to. It will always find investors.
Amazon is a friend—and a product—of the existing social order. It hires the young year-round—the recruiters’ hustle never stops—but it enriches the old, through spikes in rent, house prices, and management pay that takes into account Seattle’s regressive taxes. “I think Amazon has had a spectacularly positive impact on the city,” said billionaire Nick Hanauer—a tenable view, if you are a billionaire. And you have to wonder how many local politicians, made complacent by decades of prosperity, are on the payroll.
At a recent fundraiser for a city-council candidate, a meeting got underway. The ostensible topic was “Growth in Seattle.” “I think we need to support growth while not losing diversity,” said the candidate. “We should ensure the tech boom continues to benefit everyone in the area,” said an adjunct, delusionally or mendaciously. No one spoke up against this Amazon copy. Not even after we adjourned into private conversation did anyone seemed disturbed by the nostrums, though someone related the disturbing uptick in teenage prostitution to Amazon employees making up for lost time.
Even millennials hate Amazon less than we should. Many of us who do hate it leave. A decade ago, the college diaspora could always come home, and did. Now the exodus accelerates. Amazon’s churn catches all Seattle in its gyre. The wrong people move in, the right people move out. Andrew, my best friend, has gone to Los Angeles. I couldn’t argue compellingly for him to stay. Part of me didn’t even want to. My other creative friends have also scattered to the winds. Seattle is losing its voices who can speak up against Amazon. Those of us who remain too often mute ourselves.
This is mainly because Amazon employs us. If it doesn’t employ us, it employs people we know, some of whom we might even like. If our generation’s cardinal virtue is a mistrust of institutions, its worst vice is a hesitation to criticize our friends’ jobs, especially in writing or in public. This is a direct result of the economic and emotional insecurity promoted by organizations like Amazon. Four years ago, a friend tendered his resignation on a cocktail napkin. Today’s drones are more circumspect, and less free.
A company as omnipresent as Amazon has no need of introspection, but its critics are always questioning themselves. Limited liability is the corporate euphemism for diffusion of responsibility, which extends beyond employees to customers, friends, and partners. The goal of “the most consumer-centric company in the U.S.” is less to make money and more to make everyone complicit. Sometimes I doubt myself. Do my Amazon Prime membership, my unwillingness to spend more time and money to support local bookstores, and my failure to run for city council on an anti-Amazon platform make me a hypocrite? Do they invalidate my animosity towards Amazon?
These issues are messiest to disentangle in matters of friendship. People will always be more important than principles, and I enjoy my friends who work at Amazon. But how cool would they be if they worked elsewhere? Their numbers are so few as to be, in a broader sense, irrelevant.
Two months ago, I went to a birthday party at Rhein Haus, between one neighborhood long-gone to Amazon and another about to go under. Rhein Haus brands itself a “German beer hall,” but with its 10-dollar sours and two-byte bros, it was hard to see any resemblance to Germany.
“What happened to this place?” I asked a friend.
“Amazon happened,” said Brian. He glanced around to make sure our friend Robert, who’d recently started work at Amazon, hadn’t heard. The coast was clear. He continued.
“I feel so conflicted. I love Robert, I really do. He’s my best friend, and I want to see him happy and successful. But, at the same time, I hate Amazon. I hate Jeff Bezos; I hate him more than I hate Clay Bennett. I hate how he spends his money, and I hate what he’s done to this city.”
“Maybe there’s nothing you can do,” I said, as if a platitude could make it all go away...
...I have fantasies where Amazon is annihilated from the face of the earth. The tech boom consumes itself. Jeff Bezos overdoses on Vyvanse. The “really big” Seattle earthquake liquefies the low-lying ground of South Lake Union. In all of them, my friends make it out alive and land on their feet, the brogrammers exile themselves to the east coast, and Seattle returns to its prelapsarian state. I know these are absurd fantasies, but we are soon to have little else, so quickly have the waters come flooding in. If the bubble bursts, it may drown us all.
As with climate change, the current consequences signify it is already too late. As with climate change, the groups unable to adapt to a harsher and starker world are dying off. Many have already gone extinct. Software does not define the culture here as it does in the Bay or finance does in New York, but it will. A decade ago, New York was a gray and dreary capitalist prison. It could not see Wall Street disfiguring it, like a tumor, because it was blinded by its own history: the lie of the living past averted its eyes from its ugly reality. So that the same will not happen in Seattle, I will write this here. Seattle is dead.
Amazon, of course, is alive and well. Each day, it seems, it grows stronger. Earlier in July, following revelations of quarterly profit, Amazon’s stock surged, from $480 to $580. The Wizard of the Emerald City had snapped his fingers, shown some numbers, and made seven billion dollars. And why shouldn’t the humbug and his charade surge still higher? Why should there ever be an end to the watery conversation and beer, the dainty bars, the boxy cars and condos of shiny chrome, and the dullards who keep it all going?
As Amazon’s ranks swell, it will break its banks and submerge all that was dear about life in the Northwest. The rising tide will lift the yachts of the software gods, while the rest of us sift through the wreckage for memories of how life once was here. The more recollections I dredge up in Jeff Bezos’ Seattle, the more I yearn to bring back the Seattle in my memory.
These two visions collided violently at Robert’s last Halloween party. Among friends and friends of friends, I drank and talked and drank some more. Someone I hadn’t seen since high school came onscreen, like a hallucination, and loaded a bowl of legal weed. Costumed grotesques floated by with a smile and a joke. It was one of those nights where the past bubbled cheerfully upward, and the dense connections of city and community wrapped us all in a sense of belonging and coherence. Nowhere else was life so good.
It was in this state that Robert introduced me to his colleague.
“CML, this is Alan,” said Robert. “Alan, CML also went to Columbia.”
“You went to Columbia?!” the dude enthused.
“Wow! Me too!”
“Yep,” I said. “I hated it.”
“Wow! Cool! Remember Low Library?”
“Remember Lit Hum? It’s just so great to find someone out here who’s had a shared experience. I feel like I can’t, uh … relate to people out here. Are you also out here for work? You seem like the programming type. No offense! I’m a programmer too.”
“Nope. Do you like Amazon?”
“Er, uh, I guess, I mean, I dunno. I like,” he began and paused to shotgun a PBR, “the paycheck they give me. So you must be from New York too, right?”
“I’m from here,” I said. “Do you like my costume?”
I had come as Percy Harvin, an offloaded football player not good enough for Seattle, but good enough for New York. I don’t remember what costume my enemy was wearing. As the old joke goes, he didn’t need one to be scary. Not that he was a monster. He was nothing, a cipher. I might as well have been talking to Siri. He looked at my outfit like an algorithm trying to comprehend a joke, then terminated the process and resumed his programmed task.
“It’s cool, dude,” he said, “but I don’t get it.”
Why bother explaining? The friend of a friend was an enemy. Nothing I could do would make him less vile. I found myself watching my own language like a child or CEO. Through the music I heard him utter phrases like “golden handcuffs,” “prime real estate,” and “nice pick-up bar.” I wanted to punch him in the face. But I knew I wouldn’t. I’m from Seattle, after all. We’d already let it happen.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]