Thursday, June 9, 2011

Seattle needs a credibility check

In recent years, Seattle has received the appellation of “superstar city.” What does that mean? It can’t mean that it has a natural history museum you can lose yourself in on a slow day like there is in New York, Washington D.C. or Chicago; back in the 1980s I laughed at the tiny Los Angeles County museum, but since then it has vastly expanded with an impressive dinosaur skeleton exhibit. To me, that is what a “superstar” city must have. Well, there is the Pacific Science Center, except that outside a traveling temporary exhibit, all the price of your ticket is doing is keeping up the rent on the building, not what’s in it.

No, what “superstar” means in this context is that Seattle is appealing to yuppie and affluent whites. They come here not just because of depressed home prices in a place that outsiders think is a “tourist” city; it took me ten years to go up the Space Needle, and only because my brother wanted to, and having visited the little public aquarium, and the zoo with “natural” exhibits where you’d be fortunate to actually see the animals, the art museum that is as squished inside as it looks outside, I don’t have to see more. Seattle is the kind of place where you have to have money to have a “good time.” They also come to Seattle because it is considered a “white” city—one of the “whitest” in the country—and for a long time one of those “hyper-segregated” cities where what minorities there are were isolated in little “islands,” mainly in the central and southern parts of the city. Seattle likes to call itself a “progressive” town; I call it narcissism.

The Economist recently noted this trend and a portion of its meaning. “By 2010 the islands had largely gone. Seattle and Portland had become ‘smart cities,’ magnets for hordes of young, highly educated and highly paid newcomers, most of them white and childless. Hungry for ‘diversity’ and rushing into relatively rundown black neighborhoods, they snapped up the only housing bargains left. White-owned banks were eager to make loans to yuppies. Tens of thousands of houses were gutted and rebuilt. As gentrification gathered pace, property prices exploded. Black homeowners cashed in, taking their windfalls to the suburbs. Black renters were squeezed out by higher rents.”

The actual thrust of the Economist story concerned "black flight” to the suburbs, although it did not have all its assumptions straight. While some black professionals did vacate inner city neighborhoods for suburbs, the reality was that because of the housing bubble during the Bush administration that inflated property values, the higher property taxes that were then incurred were beyond the means of many black families earning well below the median wage to keep their homes. Also, blacks tended to be charged far higher home finance charges than whites—nearly three times that of whites, according to one study—thus they had little equity, and often had little choice but to “cash in” for what modest amount they could gain when eager white buyers came calling. When the bubble burst, property in previously white-shunned neighborhoods found even more eager developer wanting to take advantage of the situation. These developers who built housing units were supposed to include “affordable” housing and rental units; but with the income of many minority and low-income families far below the median income that the city set as a baseline—that is to say, the poverty range—many long-time residents in the central and southern districts of the city found themselves in a fiscal predicament with no help from city government. While some neighborhoods in the Central District have dropped from 80 percent black forty years ago to 20 percent today, The Economist noted that conditions in the suburbs that blacks are “fleeing” to have not always been what they hoped:

“This is proving a mixed blessing. Well-educated blacks are finding better jobs, bigger houses and newer schools, just as white-flight suburbanites did in previous generations. But many lower-income migrants from the inner cities are finding poverty, crime and poor social services when they arrive in their new homes. In the past decade, poverty has increased more than twice as fast in the suburbs as it has in the cities.”

In the last decade, thousands of affordable rentals units have been either demolished to make room for condominiums, or have seen their rents increased drastically—pricing out low-income renters—or have been simply demolished. I used to live in an apartment (that had seen much better days) on Seneca near downtown Seattle. In 1992, living on something near poverty wages, I was paying $350 a month for the privilege; sure it was a rat and roach-infested closet, but at least its low cost left me a little to live on. In 1998, a finance company bought it from the owners, who could no longer afford its upkeep; I received a notice the following week that the rent was being raised to $650 in two months, then $750 the following month. I had to move out because I couldn’t afford to pay that on my meager wages, but apparently the new management was unable find enough people willing to pay the higher rent for those dilapidated digs; today the apartment building, and an adjacent building, is nothing but a pile of rubble, and has been a pile of rubble since at least 2004.

While the Seattle Times has nibbled at the affordable housing issue to no discernable effect, it has shown a preference to take the side of those who wish to “whiten” the city. For example, in the past six months it took a hammer to mainly black school district officials for real or alleged corrupt practices in assisting schools in minority neighborhoods, and more recently attacking a black church who allegedly received a “sweet deal” from the school district in buying the property of a mostly black school that had recently been closed, in order to keep it “in the neighborhood”—that is the black community. The leading competitor for the property was a largely white and affluent private school; as was going on in the rest of the city, whites with money were simply taking everything. The Times chose to evade the moral issue involved of how the monied people have been allowed by the city to profit from the current economic stresses; so much for being a “progressive” city. Instead, the Times prefers to assault black officials and community leaders without once trying to understand their motivations or concerns in the face of an unequal reality, choosing rather to portray them as corrupt villains--thus allowing readers to evade the moral issues themselves.

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