Downtown Seattle isn’t what it used to be. In my youth it was a wonderland, a special place to go for shopping and entertainment. It was safe enough that my parents felt comfortable dropping a group of us kids off to see a movie and then picking us up later. During sales periods or winter holidays the streets would be lined with lights and we looked forward to strolling along the sidewalks with our parents. Later as a young man I would go downtown with my friends for double or triple features at the ornate cinemas or to head to the waterfront to view the exhibits in the aquarium, eat fish and chips at outdoor tables, or take ferries to the islands in Puget Sound.
A few days ago I took a bus downtown to meet two of my sons. They had flown in from their disparate college and work locations to attend a metal concert in downtown Seattle. I met them at their hotel and we went to have a bite to eat and walked around a bit before they had to head to the airport for their flights out. It was the first time I had been downtown since before the start of the COVID pandemic. I had heard that things had changed, that violent incidents had increased, and that safety warnings had even been issued. Still, I was unprepared for the shock of how much the area had deteriorated. There was vomit and rubbish on the pavements, and indigent people were everywhere: on every corner and in many of the doorways. Some sat on the sidewalks with rough cardboard “spare change” signs propped in front of them, while others gathered in groups or wandered along the sidewalks mumbling to themselves. There had always been homeless people here and there downtown in the past, but never as many as now. They were literally everywhere. I could sympathize, of course, having been broke and homeless myself for years when I hitchhiked around the world; however, I had voluntarily embraced homelessness, while these multitudes around me were victims of the current cataclysmic economic catastrophe.
It was a hot day, but instead of the brilliant blue of yore, the sky was gray and glowering due to the smoke from wildfires in Canada.
The strange contrast between wealth and poverty, between the tourists who strolled from attraction to attraction and the filthy street residents trying to survive was accentuated when my sons and I stopped for a sandwich at a bakery. We supposed that having a bite at a bakery rather than a sit-down restaurant would save us time and money, but the amount we were charged for three small sandwiches took my breath away.
We decided to head for Pike Place Market, which has remained more or less the same over the decades: low ceilings, polished wood floors, and fascinating idiosyncratic small shops. The highlight was my discovery that the used book store in the heart of the market was still there and had the same owner with the truly encyclopedic knowledge of the used book trade. We wandered the various levels of the market and then decided to walk along the Seattle waterfront, which has always been one of my favorite places. Alas, the peaceful ambiance of the waterfront is gone. When we descended to the bottom of the market and approached Alaskan Way, the street that runs alongside the piers, we were confronted with an apocalyptic wasteland. As far as we could see the street was gutted and filled with pits, mounds of earth, construction equipment, and construction workers. At first glance we couldn’t even discern a path through to the waterfront itself. We decided to abandon our plan for a waterfront walk, realizing it would have to be accomplished amidst grating noise and roiling dust. In chagrin we retreated to the relative calm of the crowded market.
On the bus ride home I wondered what had become of the city I had once known. It had grown, of course, from a neglected oasis to a tech hub; its population had increased greatly since I had grown up there. Still, growth can be positive instead of negative. But the city center I had just seen had somehow imploded into catastrophic desolation. I wondered if it could ever be saved and once again become the glittering attraction I imagined from my youth. Or had it ever really been as perfect as I remembered it? It had been different anyway – cleaner, brighter – that was for sure. For the present, I was thankful to be able to retreat to the relative safety and cleanliness of my apartment complex in the suburbs.