In 2007, I lost my column to the Phoenix newspaper. My transgression was to call the real estate slump (where that was the main sector).
With no work available there, my wife Susan and I have compiled a list of desirable cities. In addition to journalistic work, they had to offer a vibrant hub, abundant cultural resources, architectural delights, walkable neighborhoods, a diverse economy, good local transportation, and Amtrak service.
Seattle was at the top of the list, made even more so since vacancies elsewhere vanished in the newspaper crisis at the start of the Great Recession.
We arrived here 15 years ago next month with me writing, with ridiculous irony, about real estate before settling into this column. When I called the Washington Mutual crash, the Seattle Times rewarded me rather than punished me. A good sign.
When those cool (!) Late summer evenings turned into autumn, we were often in Westlake Park, sitting on the benches. Buses ran on Fourth Avenue as the transit tunnel was readjusted for light rail. We could wait for one to come home to Belltown after a movie or shopping.
It was an inviting public space with the fountain in operation. We never felt in danger. Nobody camped on the sidewalks or begged in the park.
Sitting there, with the lights of the skyscrapers looking like stars overhead and shops all around, it was a wonderful tonic of Phoenix. Its downtown was nearly dead, and the major retail store closest to our downtown historic district was a 5-mile drive. In Seattle, we never felt like we had to spend every penny to keep the minimal restaurants and shops alive nearby.
All of which makes me sad to hear that Starbucks closed its Westlake Park location on Wednesday and moved games.
Whether it’s because of a crime – perfectly credible and the company’s reason for closing six stores in the area – or as a punishment for syndication attempts, it’s a punch in the stomach. (And store employees themselves have complained of assault, theft, and drug use.)
I remember all those nights we enjoyed sitting in Westlake Park, with the Starbucks open until 11pm. I bought my non-greasy, whip-free twenty mocha and took the change for the bus these days pre-ORCA card. Customers came and went undisturbed.
Yes, I know that other Starbucks stores are downtown. And Seattle’s coffee snobs despise Starbucks and prefer smaller stores. Maybe one will move to the Westlake site. But until then, the empty space will remain as a silent testimony of all that we have lost. (To be honest, I recently enjoyed a hot dog in the park, under the surveillance of a security guard, but the old night security isn’t there.)
Those early days contained the excitement of the big cities, that’s for sure. Disco shootings were common – I saw one happen myself from the apartment before I hit the bridge. One establishment was aptly named Venom. But this was a very safe city, especially given its density.
Seattle was the embodiment of urbanist Jane Jacobs’ essentials for allowing outsiders to feel safe in a city: “Eyes on the street”, be it pedestrians, Ralph’s Deli, Bed Bath & Beyond or Westlake Park Starbucks .
I loved that city.
So many times, I’ve retweeted something about Seattle with the comment “I love this city!” Twitter was in its infancy and the iPhone was just out.
The Seattle-based company pioneered the “third place” idea. I noticed this when I went to my first Starbucks, in Denver, then when he followed me to Cincinnati, Charlotte, and it was well established when I arrived in Phoenix at the turn of the century.
The “third place” was one in addition to the home and office. I spent a lot of time there enjoying a drink but also taking notes for one of my columns or my detective novels. The chain has made cameos in several of the latter, including “Deadline Man,” my one thriller and only novel set in Seattle.
In 2018, third place was called into question when two black men in Philadelphia were waiting for a friend and a bartender called the police after a man tried to use the restroom. Were arrested. This resulted in a backlash that led the company to close more than 8,000 stores in the United States to conduct anti-bias training. He has instituted a policy of open bathrooms for all.
This year, Howard Schultz – returned for another stint as CEO and scorned locally for selling the SuperSonics – said Starbucks was considering ending the open bathroom policy.
“We need to strengthen our stores and provide security for our people,” Schultz told the New York Times. “I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open.”
Equally depressing for third place were the company’s plans to install drive-thrus in 90 percent of its new stores.
In the years following 2007, Seattle underwent profound changes, including Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters and downtown. It added a staggering 100,000 people from 2008 to 2018.
Politics has also changed, from a pragmatic liberalism to a majority of far-left activists in the City Council. They called the police even as crime increased and shoplifting stunned the remaining retailers. Third Avenue’s rich assortment of shops is now closed and boarded up.
The pandemic has struck, with particularly catastrophic effects on downtown office work. We have yet to find out what the new normal will be.
Again, I feel the need to spend every penny helping the remaining retailers and restaurants.
Paradoxically, downtown Phoenix has rebounded with an Arizona State University campus, convention center, biomedical campus, new apartment towers, and light rail. However, it will never be Seattle, even though it is the fifth most populous city in the nation.
Love stories often end in sadness and this is no exception.
I loved the city that activists hate. What Seattle elders complain about.
I loved those nights sitting in Westlake Park, with the Starbucks open and welcoming.