Nonfiction Observations Seattle Systems

What Seattle Got From Amazon.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article with the title “Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?” I don’t know what New York (and Crystal City) will get, but here are my observations (as someone who lived in Seattle from 2004 to 2008, and then from 2011 to now) as to what Seattle got:

Lots of young people. Some of these people look like they’re 12 years old, but that’s because I’m now officially old. And some of these young people, fresh out of college, make six-figure salaries. Sometimes it shows. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Lots of blue badges. Amazon employees wear blue badges. You can tell your proximity from the Amazon campus (which is a campus; it occupies an entire neighborhood) by the density of blue badges hanging from lanyards, dangling off of belts, and swinging off of coats.

Food trucks. The young people apparently like food trucks. Caravans of food trucks rumble towards South Lake Union, the site of the Amazon campus. The rotating food trucks sell Thai bowls, Italian sandwiches, barbecue wings, Turkish kebabs, Hawaiian poke bowls, and other international cuisines from their portable kitchens.

Hip restaurants that sell overpriced food. Here’s an anecdote that I share with some bitterness: One such restaurant has the following item on its dessert menu:

Warm chocolate chunk cookie with whole milk. $8.

Long-time readers know that I am fond of cookies, particularly the chocolate chip variety. Upon seeing this item, my eyes lit up, but the light drained from my eyes when I saw the price.

“No cookie and milk is worth $8,” I said. “Even my favorite cookie (the Levain Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie) is just $4.”

“But what if it is the best chocolate cookie you will ever eat?” my husband countered.

“I doubt it. This is a restaurant, not a bakery.”

“Let me buy it for you.”

I relented and ordered the warm chocolate chunk cookie with whole milk, my taste buds eager and my mind skeptical.

What actually arrived? Two cookies, each about four inches in diameter, and a glass holding about six ounces of milk. The cookies were barely warm, the chocolate was not chunky, and the overall texture of the cookies was dry. The milk was wholly unremarkable. The dessert was rich only in the flavor of disappointment.

These restaurants can charge $8 for cookies and milk because they know that the young people who work at Amazon have no qualms spending such a ridiculous sum on a treat that is sweet only in memory.

Traffic. The tens of thousands of people who moved to the Seattle metropolitan area have to get around somehow. When I was a resident, I saw few taxis downtown or on Capitol Hill. Taxis of all colors now zip around the city, along with ride sharing vehicles. There are a lot more fancy cars—Teslas, Porsches, and the like—crawling up the hills. The buses, streetcars, and trains are packed with well-heeled young people.

High rents and expensive homes. The city of Seattle is in King County. The average rent in King County is $1,731, which doesn’t seem impressive compared to rents in other major metropolitan areas. The rent in King County, though, has increased 155% in the past twenty years. Furthermore, Seattle, by far, is the most expensive and developed city in the region and pulls the average up, as other areas in the county are sparsely populated and considered rural.

Income inequality. I don’t know if Amazon was/is the cause of the homelessness crisis in this region (remember, correlation does not mean causation). As young people with gobs on money have moved in, more people with little money have moved out onto the streets. Certainly the higher rents have pushed many people out of the city: Some people work in Seattle and live in neighboring counties, as that is the only way they can afford their rent or mortgage. Landlords in Seattle know that they can charge nearly $3000 for a one-bedroom apartment because someone from Amazon can afford to pay that. (Just like restaurants can charge $8 for cookies and milk.)

Anti-Amazon and anti-Jeff Bezos graffiti. It is not uncommon to see graffiti painted on sidewalks and buildings that denounce Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Some of it is frankly disturbing (e.g., death threats), though it illustrates the strong feelings people have about Amazon.

Spherical buildings. They took all the trees / And put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half to seem ’em

Amazon has done well for itself, though it seems that many people in Seattle have an uneasy relationship with Amazon. They like what Amazon has to offer, but don’t like how the wealth of the company has affected the city. Perhaps the leadership of New York and Crystal City will forge closer working relationships with Amazon from the outset to prevent the congestion, big income disparities, and resentment[1. The resentment that people have for Amazon also comes from its own employees. For a while I worked in a clinic where some of my patients were Amazon employees. They often spoke of the pressures working at Amazon, whether they worked in programming, marketing, supply chain, or warehousing. There’s likely selection bias at play, but their work nonetheless induced anxiety and affected their abilities to cope.] that occurred in Seattle.