This summer in Seattle has truly been a rollercoaster, full of positive ups and crushing downs, twists and turns that reveal unseen things around the corner, and loop-de-loops that turn the entire world upside down. When I first applied to DukeEngage Seattle, to a program working on urban sustainability in one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., I was beyond excited and thrilled. I imagined Seattle as a west coast utopia, a golden city in the clouds somewhere between Mount Rainer and the Puget Sound, a sort of liberal paradise where social and economic equality ruled supreme. Somewhere in this magical city, Jeff Bezos bumped elbows with Bill Gates, Amazon and Google and Starbucks and Microsoft all competed in order to improve their city and their world. A city perfect for a Duke student studying public policy and environmental science, a city that proposes taxes to combat homelessness and actually composts(!) on a city-wide scale. In many ways, Seattle was deserving of the epithet Emerald City. Just like the final destination of Dorothy’s quest along the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz, Seattle was my Emerald City, my destination of the summer. I imagined that in this place, I would witness solutions and problem solving unlike any I had seen on the east coast, and that I would be able to bring back with me new-kindled passion and ability from viewing the utopian heart of the pacific northwest.
However, just as Dorothy saw upon reaching the emerald city, upon reaching Seattle I began to notice a number of disturbing inconsistencies with my utopic vision. Seattle in many ways didn’t seem like a step forward, towards a futuristic hyper-city of technology and equality. In many ways, Seattle seemed like a step backwards, simultaneously bringing to heart a Dickensian world of grime and inequality while also resembling a scene from the mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald, where Gatsby plays and parties even as the poor labor in the valley of ashes. When speaking of the issues and ills of Seattle, everyone always took care to mention the burgeoning homelessness crisis. However, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of the situation in the Seattle streets. Crowding sidewalks and street corners, squatted at bus stops and city squares, in encampments along the highway or in the very heart of Seattle, people experiencing homelessness are utterly ubiquitous in the city. Nowhere, in any other city in U.S. that I have visited, has poverty worn a face so emaciated and prominent, so unendingly visible. To live and walk outside in Seattle is to witness the reality of homelessness; it is impossible to ignore. And yet, simultaneously, and also impossible to ignore, is the wealth of Seattle.
The Amazon and Google campuses sprawl in luxurious expansions of sleek and modern buildings, from which young attractive people decked in the trappings of wealth come and go endlessly. The sky is full of helicopters and planes, the lakes and canals full of yachts and pleasure boats. The boroughs of north Seattle extend in unbroken and unapologetic gentrification, chock full of amazing and niche eateries, museums, and beautiful parks. Tesla cars patrol the streets, Amazon and Microsoft employee-only trollies and buses run with smooth efficiency. The city is young and fresh, full of comfortable and happy citizens riding the wave of Seattle’s booming economy.
How can these two Seattles exist so concurrently, both so visible, both occupying the same city, and yet so incongruous with each other? How can such wealth exist where there is such poverty, and vice versa? Exploring Seattle in my free time, during work at my nonprofit, and through program outings to various sectors and establishments in the city, I came to realize Seattle was no utopia. If anything, it was a horrifying dystopia, something out of a young adult novel. Seattle was plagued with the same problems as the east coast, as every other city, as the whole United States. The liberal paradise I imagined simply didn’t exist. Or it did, for a select few. But the Seattle dream of paradise certainly wasn’t available to everyone. When the DukeEngage program was able to sit down for dinner and discussion with city councilman Mike O’Brien, a Duke grad himself, he explained how things came to be the way they are today. He described what he learned while studying economics at Duke; when cost of living rises in a city, those on low wages end up fleeing because they can’t afford it. Then, because those with money still want people to make them coffee and sell them newspapers and so on, they will raise wages to match the rising cost of living so they can keep their workers in the city. However, O’Brien lamented, this has not happened in Seattle. The booming economy of Seattle has caused cost of living to rise and essentials like affordable housing to disappear, and yet, companies still manage to hold people in the city on low wages. This puts many people in the precarious situation where it is all too easy to fall into homelessness, food insecurity, and other expressions of poverty.
When O’Brien and his colleagues on the city council proposed and passed a head tax on employee hours for large corporations in the city, in order to fund anti-homelessness efforts, they were met with strong opposition from companies like Amazon. Amazon and its peers flexed their clout in Seattle and essentially strong armed the city council into repealing the head tax, in a terrifying move where enormous corporations seemed to remind the democratically elected law-making body of the city that it was they, and not the council, that actually called the shots around here.
It has been hard to be in Seattle these last two months and prevent myself from becoming jaded. Nonprofit work is engaging and rewarding, but it also wears you down, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It was disheartening to realize my summer basking in the green of the Emerald City would actually be a summer spent trying on green glasses and chaffing at the fit. But although it was a tougher road than I initially anticipated, I have learned a great deal about problem solving and fighting for social change in Seattle. Watching my nonprofit struggle and claw to make a difference has definitely imparted some lessons on fighting the good fight. And the thing about these lessons is that they can be used anywhere, at any time, to work to make any place look a little more like paradise.