I Still Believe in the City

The poison air has mercifully left Seattle. Autumn has begun with a mixture of rain and sunshine. Now is a great time to go outside, weather permitting, especially because some of our Keep Moving Streets will reopen to vehicles soon. This morning I also decided to go for a bike ride downtown to stop by Fadó, the bar where under normal circumstances Seattle’s Pittsburgh Steelers Meetup Group would be gathering to watch the game. (The Steelers are playing the Texans as I write this, and the game isn’t on local TV, so I’m writing this in part to distract myself until highlights are available.) Fadó is closed “until further notice” and has been for months, but the place is not packed up or boarded up. Many other places in downtown Seattle, especially those that depend on office workers and tourists, have not been so lucky. I sincerely hope that Fadó comes back: the community, the staff, and the food have all been great on Steelers Sundays. As sad as it was to see downtown Seattle struggling, I have seen my own neighborhood close up shop and largely reopen this year. I believe that downtown will come back. I still believe in the city.

There are plenty of anthropological and sociological reasons why downtowns are so important, and I won’t go into them here. Alex Brennan, the Executive Director of Futurewise, wrote a great article entitled “Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution” for Publicola that makes a convincing case for the primacy of the city. The numbers also back up the appeal of cities even in 2020. Seattle home prices, like those of its suburban neighbors, hit record highs this summer. In San Francisco and Manhattan, two of the few places where rents have dropped this year, you’ll still need to pay over $3,000 a month to rent a typical 1-bedroom apartment. There has certainly been a rise in interest in suburban and rural homes, according to press releases like this one from Redfin, but urban homes continue to appreciate — and from a higher starting point. Commercial property remains in demand, too, with a 1980s office building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood selling this summer for 88% more than it fetched in 2014 and another in Belltown selling for more than double its prior price.

The growth of suburban cities, such as Seattle’s booming neighbor Bellevue, is a validation of the importance of the core city to people who are choosing places where they want to live, work, and start families. It’s pretty clear that people want the amenities of a city — entertainment, culture, professional sports teams, top universities, and so on — but they may not want to see or pay to address the social ills that the big cities continue to struggle with. Seattle is hurting, big time, and it’s impossible for even optimists like me to ignore that. Just yesterday I saw a couple sitting outside at a distillery tasting room sipping cocktails while less than 10 feet away a homeless person sat in a tent outside a derelict building. Many of our parks and side streets have become even larger sites of homeless encampments than they were before the pandemic, which has shone a light through the many gaps in our social services. Overnight congregate shelters were suboptimal even before the pandemic, but now they represent a health risk just like other shared spaces do. I was excited to read my City Councilmember Dan Strauss’s most recent newsletter, “Addressing Homelessness in District 6 & Across Seattle,” in which he specifically rejected calls to “sweep” away homeless people, as our city has done repeatedly at great expense without long-term benefit. We should be building permanent shelter, now, in significant amounts, with significant associated supportive services for people who need them. This is a health and human services emergency that Seattle has had for years, yet it has not been addressed with the urgency or the spending that it deserves. Instead, talk-radio cynicism has led to a defeatist attitude, and those who already disliked the city (including the President of the United States) are publicly celebrating our struggle.

The American city as a concept is struggling. Traffic is up, public transit is under threat, and many white-collar workers wonder when, if ever, they will return to the office. I count myself in the minority: I would like to return to working from an office when it’s safe to do so. I miss the chance encounters in the communal kitchen. I miss having face time with individual teammates. I miss sitting with a rookie developer or intern, helping them get their bearings and going for a walk in the park or a coffee break if things get too overwhelming. These human interactions go hand-in-hand with dense design, so much so that suburban-based companies build faux-urban campuses to encourage community among employees while keeping outsiders out. The city should be for everyone: all backgrounds, all jobs, rich and poor, young and old. I believe that it will be.