Who defines Seattle?
Addressing that crucial question ultimately benefits from close consideration of Seattle’s most economically prosperous — and thus most politically contentious — twentieth-century decade: namely, the 1990s. Just as the 1910s began here with a major cultural event and ended with a major political event, so did the 1990s. The decade that ushered Seattle into the twenty-first century began with Grungemania and ended with the WTO protests. Nevertheless, those two world-famous events were merely bookends to the decade in which Old Seattle finally became New Seattle — for better or worse.
During the 1990s, the city whose global icon is the Space Needle became a political battleground over public space. More money — and thus more potential public revenue — then flowed through Seattle than during any previous decade in its history. Yet instead of using that prosperity to help its less fortunate citizens, the Seattle city government then engaged in hostile action towards its underclass, actively embracing gentrification with both public rhetoric and official legislation.
Seattle has long suffered from the anxiety of being a perpetual underdog city. During the 1990s, that anxiety manifested itself in the “world-class city” meme. Candidates for high municipal public office and Seattle Times editorials alike all then spoke glowingly of the aspiration for Seattle to become a “world-class city.” That meme unfortunately still persists recently, as evidenced by such boilerplate boosterist fluff as the following, from an article in a 2010 Times weekend lifestyle section:
“There is an extra perk that comes with living near the heart of downtown Seattle: global soul. A world-class city that hasn’t lost sight of its down-home roots, Seattle offers urban living that trumps mere status with genuine international flavor.”
Such disingenuous rhetoric has long exemplified and rationalized the downtown establishment’s deliberate transformation of Seattle from its gritty progressive past towards the exclusive upscale milieu obviously desired by that establishment.
If any single particular person best embodied the sociopolitical life of Seattle during the 1990s as it was then lived by its citizens, it was surely Mark Sidran. Elected as city attorney in November 1989 and holding that office until January 2002, Sidran became infamous among the city’s progressive activist community for championing so-called “civility laws” that effectively criminalized poverty within the Seattle city limits. Specifically, he sponsored ordinances against public drinking, public urination, aggressive panhandling, sleeping in parks, sitting on sidewalks, and driving with a suspended license. Sidran and his supporters claimed that these ordinances would make Seattle a much safer and thus more civil place to live, while his opponents claimed that they unfairly demonized homeless people. The majority of Sidran’s ordinances were passed by the Seattle City Council with minimal opposition among the council members.
At the time of his election a property owner with buildings worth more than $2 million, Sidran embraced the controversial “broken windows” philosophy that New York City employed during the 1994-2001 mayorship of Rudolph Giuliani to “clean up” Times Square and other such downscale parts of NYC. (The “broken windows” theory, introduced in a 1982 article in The Atlantic magazine, maintains that cracking down on small crimes — such as vandalism and vagrancy — prevents larger crimes later.) Sidran’s popularity among mainstream Seattle citizens during the 1990s was symptomatic of the creeping classism that then pervaded the city, once a stronghold of working-class progressivism. This fundamental change in Seattle’s collective character was also reflected in the editorial attitude of The Seattle Times, a mouthpiece for the city’s affluent elite for several previous decades (as demonstrated most blatantly during the Potlatch Riot of 1913). In July 1993, the Times justified its support for Sidran’s civility laws in a politically telegraphic staff editorial.
“Seattleites have made huge investments,” the Times then argued, “to make downtown an economically viable, physically inviting place. Those achievements are threatened when some streets and parks become unpoliced havens for panhandlers and unruly drunks.”
Gentrification was rampant in Seattle during the 1990s as a consequence of the city’s unprecedented economic boom — not only in terms of real-estate property values and displacement, but also in terms of political power. University of Washington geography professor Matthew Sparke, in the 2011 UW anthology Seattle Geographies, coined a perfect phrase to describe this phenomenon: “the gentrification of urban citizenship.” Indeed, within Seattle’s municipal politics during the 1990s, urban citizenship was as much at stake as urban space.
The brutal side of gentrification showed itself most blatantly in a June 1995 incident in downtown Seattle. A low-income apartment building, the Payne Apartments, was then scheduled for demolition to make way for a $25 million commercial complex that would feature a NikeTown outlet as its retail centerpiece. Operation Homestead, a grassroots activist group dedicated to preserving affordable housing in Seattle, staged a non-violent protest against the demolition involving two activists, Bob Kubiniec and Dana Schuerholz, who climbed to the roof of the Payne to hang banners bearing anti-gentrification slogans. When they refused to leave the building, the Seattle Police Department sent a full Special Patrol Unit (then Seattle’s equivalent of a SWAT team) into the building, with weapons drawn and wearing gas masks, to arrest the two protesters. This incident would not be the last time during the 1990s that Seattle police would use brutal force against social justice activists.
As mentioned previously, throughout the 1990s, the Seattle city government neglected social services in favor of big-money downtown development projects such as the NikeTown complex, Benaroya Hall, and the Pacific Place parking garage. In 1995, as part of the Rhodes Project (discussed further below), the city gave away $23 million of public money behind closed doors to none other than Nordstrom, the Seattle-based upscale corporate retailer, during negotiations for the construction of the private parking garage that now stands at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street, underneath the Pacific Place mall, one block north from NikeTown. As with other such so-called “public-private partnerships” of that time, many vigilant local citizens objected, yet the deal was ultimately done. Meanwhile, social services for the city’s homeless population remained woefully underfunded.
Such appalling anecdotes were typical of civic Seattle’s attitude towards its underclass during the 1990s. The schism between Seattle’s radical past and its emerging aspirations towards “world-class” status would reach a cathartic clash at the end of that decade. Meanwhile, at the start of that decade, a grand countercultural catharsis would draw the world’s attention to Seattle once again — very much by surprise.
Obviously, much has been written already about the grunge explosion of the early 1990s — yet that event is always worth contemplating further in the context of Seattle’s broader cultural history. The sudden and overwhelming success of Nirvana’s Nevermind album in the autumn of 1991 was a profound surprise for many — especially within Seattle’s countercultural community. Coming from the humble origins of the counterculture of a small and provincial American city, the grunge explosion was arguably the one single historical event more than any other that finally thrust Seattle into the global spotlight for good.
Grunge was a social phenomenon as much as a musical one. It ultimately reflected the collective disillusionment of much of the young generation of the time — now commonly known, for better or worse, as “Generation X” — in Seattle and elsewhere. In both sound and sentiment, grunge was a profound rejection of the mainstream values of the 1980s, both musically and socially: the raw, distorted guitar style that commonly defines the genre was a rejection of the synthesizer gloss typical of much of the popular music of the previous decade, while the anti-fashion aesthetic was a rejection of the sartorial excesses of that decade. While most grunge lyrics were not overtly political, the dystopian negation of such signature songs as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” was ultimately a rejection of the puerile “Morning in America” optimism of the Reagan years.
Grunge could only have happened in Seattle. It was a profoundly regional musical genre, influenced as much by the infamously gloomy Cascadian climate as by any obvious musical influences. As pioneering local recording engineer Jack Endino said in the 1996 documentary film Hype!, “When the weather’s crappy, you don’t wanna go outside, you know, you basically feel like staying in the house, and it’s a very logical thing to wanna go down into your basement and, you know, make noise to take out your frustrations because you can’t go outside and do anything when it’s raining all the time.” Seattle’s geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the nation was also a considerable factor in the emergence of grunge as a distinct musical genre. As Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman has noted, “Seattle [prior to Grungemania] was a perfect example of a secondary city with an active music scene that was completely ignored by an American media fixated on Los Angeles and New York.”
The birth of grunge can best be traced back to the year 1984. That was the year of the formation of Soundgarden and Green River, the two bands most closely associated with grunge’s early years. Both bands would later appear on Deep Six, the 1986 compilation album generally considered among the first recorded documents of grunge. Green River, formed by the alumni of several hardcore punk bands from Seattle and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, was the seminal band that would eventually beget Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.
The year 1984 also brought, in December, the opening of Gorilla Gardens, a crucial all-ages underground music venue located in Seattle’s International District that featured both punk and metal acts. What now qualifies Gorilla Gardens as the ultimate birthplace of grunge is the character of its core clientele: a mixture of hardcore punk rockers and suburban heavy metal fans — still a potentially volatile combination at the time of the venue’s debut. It’s easy these days for underground rock music fans to forget that, prior to the mid-1980s, the American hardcore punk and heavy metal scenes were often hostile towards each other — especially in Seattle, where punk and metal youth often engaged in fights on school grounds and at parties to express that mutual hostility.
The opening of Gorilla Gardens changed that situation positively by offering two separate shows in the same venue at the same time. As a result, punk and metal acts often played there on the same nights, thus leading to the softening of relations between the two subcultures. Each night’s cover charge paid for admission to both shows — a crucial factor in the creation of the musical miscegenation that would commence in Seattle at the height of the venue’s local popularity circa 1985.
Among the key catalysts of grunge culture was another gifted local musician who helped define grunge primarily as a poet. Steven Jay “Jesse” Bernstein, underground writer, musician, and performance artist, was born in Los Angeles on December 4, 1950, and came to Seattle in January 1967. After spending his first several years in his adopted home city in obscurity, he would become a crucial fixture within Seattle’s counterculture during the late 1980s.
Bernstein’s regular poetry readings at such erstwhile venues as the Dogtown Poetry Theater and Red Sky Poetry Theatre were deeply influential in Seattle, and he has been credited as a major personal influence by many local poets from his era. All through his life he suffered from substance abuse and mental illness, yet he managed to be highly productive during the 1980s, due mainly to his sobriety during that decade, which culminated in 1989 when Seattle Weekly readers crowned him Seattle’s Best Poet. During his late-1980s heyday, he often opened for local musical acts, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the U-Men. His most famous recorded work from that time was a spoken word piece, “Come Out Tonight,” which appeared on the crucial 1988 compilation album Sub Pop 200 along with early tracks by Mudhoney and Nirvana, among others.
Steven Jesse Bernstein’s astounding aesthetic ascendancy unfortunately ended violently on October 22, 1991. On that date, at the age of 40, Bernstein committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat while visiting friends in Neah Bay, Washington. Several years after his truly tragic death, in 2003, Seattle Post-Intelligencer arts writer Regina Hackett would reflect poignantly on Bernstein’s volatile personality and local influence:
“He read poems from a stage with a live rodent in his mouth, its tail twitching as baseline punctuation. He tried to cut his heart out in order to hold it in his hands and calm it down. He once urinated on a heckler and tended to throw things: beer bottles, manuscripts, drumsticks, his wallet, a sandwich.”
Grungemania coincided with other local developments, such as the Microsoft-driven technology boom, to attract both attention and migration to Seattle during the early 1990s. For better or worse, these developments cemented the transformation from Old Seattle into New Seattle, changing the city’s fundamental nature from provincial to cosmopolitan. The bad part of that transformation for the city’s music scene was the damage done by all the absurd attention: by early 1993, much of that scene had been corrupted both by record company executives seeking “the next Nirvana” and by mediocre musicians moving to Seattle hoping to snag major-label record contracts by playing genetically-modified “grunge.”
Make no mistake: grunge died privately on April 5, 1994. Kurt Cobain’s suicide was indeed a devastating blow to Seattle’s music community, and it would take several years for the scene to fully recover. Meanwhile, Seattle would transform itself from a countercultural sanctuary city into the contentious epicenter of corporate globalization.
Among the most contentious topics in Seattle city politics during the 1990s was the Rhodes Project. Conceived in late 1994 and named after real-estate developer and project director Jeffrey Rhodes, the project involved plans to redevelop three crucial blocks of Seattle’s downtown retail core. The centerpiece of the project was a plan to move the flagship store and corporate headquarters of Seattle-based upscale retailer Nordstrom into the historic former Frederick & Nelson department store building at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street and to redevelop the former F&N parking garage to include underground parking, retail stores, restaurants, and a multiscreen movie theater.
As part of the art of the deal, Nordstrom demanded that the city reopen Pine Street to automobile traffic between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. This demand would divide Westlake Park, a longtime public gathering place and a crucial civic space for political rallies, free musical concerts, and other such activities lacking purely commercial value. Public opposition to this demand was strong enough to force a public vote on a ballot measure concerning the topic in a special municipal election in March 1995.
Among the key flashpoints of controversy surrounding the Rhodes Project was the secretive nature of the negotiations behind the project. For example, skirting the Washington State Constitution’s ban on giving public money to private interests, the Seattle city government knowingly and intentionally overpaid Pine Street Development, the ad hoc organization in charge of the Rhodes Project, to the tune of $23 million in order to close the deal that would move Nordstrom into the Frederick & Nelson building. This part of the deal, negotiated in 1995, would not become fully public knowledge until December 1997, when The Seattle Times published an investigative report on the transaction. By then, it was too late for any meaningful public objection.
The Rhodes Project prevailed in the end — yet not without considerable civic consequences. In Timothy A. Gibson’s 2003 book Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle, Gibson framed the civic consequences of the Rhodes Project as a struggle between civil society and economic fundamentalism in the context of “the organic city trope,” in which the issue of public subsidies for private development was cast as a decision between the “life” and “death” of a city’s urban core:
“In this vision of urban vitality, that which contributes to the process of upscale recreation and consumption contributes to the ‘life’ of the city, while those activities or spaces viewed as impediments to spectacular consumption are treated as potential sources of ‘decay’ and therefore become subject to calls for private appropriation and control.”
This was the essence of political Seattle during the 1990s: a city whose government had succumbed to the ideological disease of economic fundamentalism. Within the context of the organic city trope, Seattle’s civic leaders had then come to define the city’s “vitality” strictly in terms of economic prosperity and real-estate property values, while the progressive notion of economic diversity — a longtime Seattle value prior to 1989 — was allowed to wither on the vine.
Along with the Rhodes Project, another controversial proposal based in downtown Seattle during the 1990s was the Glen Hotel Urban Rest Stop. Conceived in 1993 as a hygiene center for homeless people that would provide restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities, the Urban Rest Stop drew the ire of the downtown business community due to its proposed location one block north from the site of Seattle’s planned new symphony hall at Third Avenue and Union Street. At the time, Seattle’s political establishment planned to transform that area into a so-called “cultural district” with the symphony hall as its centerpiece. The hygiene center was seen as a threat to those plans, due to its alleged potential to attract street disorder.
Several politically powerful Seattleites, including real-estate developer and philanthropist Jack Benaroya, upscale restaurateur Rick Yoder, and Downtown Seattle Association president Kate Joncas, fought tooth-and-nail against the location of the Urban Rest Stop at the Glen Hotel. Since the hygiene center had been originally proposed and funded by the Seattle city government, the political battle over its location would become a three-year-long drama, staged both in city hall and in the opinion sections of Seattle’s two major daily newspapers. Eventually, an alternative location was settled upon, at Ninth Avenue and Virginia Street, just outside the downtown retail core. The Urban Rest Stop finally opened in March 2000, seven long years after its original conception.
Another sign of Seattle’s apparent ascension to world-class status arrived with the May 20, 1996, Newsweek cover story titled “Seattle Reigns.” Featuring CNN liberal pundit, Slate founder, and recent Seattle transplant Michael Kinsley on the cover wearing pristine rain gear and awkwardly holding a salmon, the article extolled the virtues of the city that had by then become a brazen magnet for wealth, prestige, and ambition:
“Sooner or later, it seems, everyone moves to Seattle, or thinks about it, or at least their kids do. The city is a demographic paradox, a place whose population — 532,900 in 1995 — is essentially stable, yet which seems to visitors (who don’t often get to working-class neighborhoods) to consist entirely of people who were born somewhere else. Rootless youths seeking alienation beneath Seattle’s brooding skies, but with plenty of girls to keep them company. Middle-aged strivers betting that Microsoft can create one more millionaire. Even those constrained to spend the 21st century in some less-favored city will inevitably feel the tug of Seattle’s gloom. For decades the Pacific Northwest has quietly positioned itself at the leading edge of economic growth — natural resources (Weyerhaeuser), manufacturing (Boeing), technology (Microsoft), music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and coffee (Starbucks).”
Writer Jerry Adler clearly did his research well, featuring local countercultural luminaries Bruce Pavitt and gallery owner Larry Reid along with Kinsley and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, among other famous names then representing New Seattle to the rest of the nation. The article also deftly discussed the transitional nature of Seattle in that crucial historical moment, when the city’s parochial slacker past was engaged in a civic tug-of-war against the global ambitions of such absurdly overachieving men as Howard Schultz, Bill Gates, and Paul Allen.
When Seattle invited the WTO to town, little did it know what “world-class” would mean after the party was over.
Seattle’s longtime aspirations towards “world-class” status came to an unexpected fruition during the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle during the week of November 29, 1999. During the preceding year, several of Seattle’s key civic leaders had lobbied the WTO to earn Seattle the honor of hosting that year’s WTO conference, including Mayor Paul Schell and Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis, who led the lobbying effort. The honor was granted in January 1999. As soon as the honor was announced, a coalition of grassroots social justice activists quickly formed to organize protests against the WTO during the conference.
Those civic leaders clearly expected the WTO conference to shine a positive global spotlight on Seattle. What they apparently didn’t know was that corporate globalization was then already a contentious topic in much of the world outside the United States. Major protests against so-called “free trade” had already been staged at previous conferences devoted to multilateral trade negotiations, most recently in 1998 against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The ultimate concern of the opponents of corporate globalization was its anti-democratic nature: as of January 1999, several democratically created laws had already been overturned in other countries by the WTO without public recourse. An editorial in London’s Independent newspaper published in July 1999 summed up the suspicion of the opposition:
“The way [the WTO] has used [its] powers is leading to a growing suspicion that its initials should really stand for World Take Over. In a series of rulings it has struck down measures to help the world’s poor, protect the environment, and safeguard health in the interests of private — usually American — companies.”
In Seattle, the protesters’ grievances were legion: trade unions were concerned about competition from cheap foreign labor; environmentalists were concerned about the outsourcing of polluting activities; consumer protection groups were concerned about unsafe imports; labor rights groups were concerned about unjust working conditions in other countries. Among the noteworthy activist coalitions that aligned in protest in Seattle was the “teamsters and turtles”: a blue-green alliance consisting of trade unions and environmentalists, two groups that had previously been antagonistic towards each other for many years.
The rest, of course, was history: while the majority of the estimated 50,000 demonstrators who converged in downtown Seattle on November 30, 1999, participated in the various marches, rallies, and workshops held that day, a small but brave group of activists played an equally important role in the WTO protests by engaging in non-violent direct action, shutting down the first day’s official business by blockading the convention center, braving police brutality in doing so. While what happened on that crucial day has been described in certain media outlets as a “riot” due to the vandalism committed by a small group of renegade anarchists, the activists who had organized the protests several months earlier were all profoundly concerned and informed about the issues that provoked the protests.
Mark Sidran played a noteworthy role in the WTO protests by locking up some 600 persons in King County Jail that week — only a portion of whom were actual protesters. All the arrestees were downtown on December 1, after Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had officially declared downtown Seattle a “no-protest zone,” and all were arrested in a massive and indiscriminate sweep — including many who had nothing to do with the demonstrations. Sidran insisted on holding all the arrestees until they were all processed, and he also insisted on pursuing charges against all of them, consuming considerable city resources in doing so. Charges were later dismissed against the vast majority of the arrestees, and eventually more than 175 persons filed damage claims with the city.
Among the positive ironies of WTO Week was the location of the Independent Media Center (IMC) on the ground floor of the Glen Hotel, which had been the controversial original proposed location of Seattle’s Urban Rest Stop earlier during that decade. The IMC was created as an ad hoc gathering place for independent journalists to cover the protests and publish reports online in real time. After the protests, the IMC would continue to operate from the Glen Hotel for several months afterwards, and would also help establish other IMCs in several major cities around the globe — thus answering the globalization of corporate power with the globalization of independent grassroots journalism. Coming from a location that had once been the locus of a significant political battle over economic justice in Seattle, the IMC was a truly great legacy of WTO Week.
Make no mistake: what happened in Seattle during the week of November 29, 1999, was essentially a series of protests — not a series of riots. Nevertheless, the violence that occurred during those protests — committed mostly by Seattle and King County police officers — was surely a symptom of something deep and disturbing lurking beneath the facile urban legend of “Seattle nice.” In a city with such an infamously repressed collective psyche, is it any wonder such an infamous catharsis occurred here?
While the majority of Seattle’s civic leaders considered the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference an embarrassing failure in its immediate aftermath, social justice activists in Seattle and around the globe considered it a profound success. It hosted the sabotage of a round of potentially destructive trade negotiations and brought the folly of corporate globalization to the world’s attention — especially in the United States, where the subject had previously been invisible in the mainstream corporate media.
–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.