In moving to the Pacific Northwest from New York City, my hope was to find a charming small town, settle in, settle down, get a dog, find a girl, buy a house, do lots of camping and hiking and exploring, and generally just enjoy life.
I may have overestimated the possibilities.
Small towns are lovely, but they generally lack strong economies, and thus, jobs. If you have unique, highly-valued, specialized skills, that’s usually not a problem. I am not so lucky. Instead of a small town, I chose to land in Seattle. However, to offset the big city* with the feel of a small town, I also chose to live in one of Seattle’s quieter, historic neighborhoods: Ballard.
Incorporated into Seattle about 100 years ago, Ballard has undergone several metamorphoses: railroad stop and way station, mill town (lumber, shingles), fishing village, Scandinavian center, retirement community, etc. Over the last decade, the neighborhood has seen a revitalization and a building boom to accommodate the surge in transplants moving in from around the country, taking on tech jobs at Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia and other organizations. The pace of housing development has hardly kept pace with the addition of population influx. Real estate prices have increased by an average of 45% over the last nine years, pricing (or taxing) many long-time residents out of the market, or spurring them to sell to their properties to cash in on the boom.
And here’s where the trouble begins. Never mind the seemingly haphazard development, or the under-planning on infrastructure improvements (parking, traffic, public transportation, bike trails, etc.); the central issue that glares out at the most casual observer is the changing nature of the community itself.
Single-family homes imply something specific: a long-term residence in which a single family grows together, lives together, builds lives and memories together. The spate of modernist, boxy townhouses, condos, apartment buildings and “apodments” under construction imply transience. These are not “homes” built for generational families, but (somewhat impersonal) dwellings for workers who have come to town for one reason: high-paying jobs. Maybe as a fringe benefit: the beer and hipster beard culture. But what happens when the 20-somethings become 30-somethings and 40-somethings? Where do they live? Will they be able to find a home large enough to accommodate a family as the supply diminishes? Will they raise a family? Will they be able to afford such a home if they do find one?
Seattle has transitioned many times, and it will likely transition in the future. Perhaps it’s not any more unique than other cities. For residents who hoped to establish roots, however, it may be transforming its culture beyond recognition, and past what had been a desirable state: a community of families, a sense of longevity and — as much as such a thing can exist — permanence, and a place to call home.
In moving here, I did manage to find a charming neighborhood…though one that’s changing rapidly. I’ve only just begun to settle in, but with a constant worry that prices will go too high (and certainly don’t offer a strong prospect of home ownership), that the bubble will burst, that my lack of specialized skills will lead to not only the loss of a job, but the inability to get a new one. Needless to say, this puts plans of getting a dog on hold. Finding a girl has never been easy, and the confluence of factors make it ever more difficult. Fair to say, camping, hiking, and exploring are still possibilities, and perhaps for now that’s enough.
Note: Seattle is more like a big town than a big city…but it’s getting there.