Hysterically Hating on Seattle: Seattle in Pop Culture Part III

“[T]here really never will be another Silicon Valley,” Margaret O’Mara wrote in 2008, “the Valley remains a truly unique ecosystem for technological innovation, with specialized niches and decades‐old interpersonal networks. However, it’s no longer the only game in town. The people and firms of the Valley are part of a global supply chain in which many places – including Seattle – play an important role.”[1] O’Mara, author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, would know. The University of Washington historian cut her teeth documenting the burgeoning knowledge economy of the mid-to-late twentieth century—a history that came sharply into focus during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As O’Mara explained, this was not to say Seattle hadn’t demonstrated an attention to technological advancement. “Like the Bay Area and other gold‐ and silver‐rush cities of the American West, it has a long tradition of supporting innovators and iconoclasts,” she reminded readers. Still, obstacles persisted. Though its venture capital pool was maturing, it had not reached the dizzying heights of the Valley. University of Washington was a formidable research institution, but not quite a Stanford of the 1950s; the Emerald City undoubtedly attracted talent, but it did not always produce it, as did its Northern California counterpart. In the end, the reality persisted that Silicon Valley occurred at a specific moment in time, in a particular place, in an economic climate spurred by endless postwar military investment.

When Amazon moved its headquarters to a “multi-block development” in the city’s South Lake Union neighborhood circa 2008, O’Mara noted that this reflected a trend away from the suburbanization of the tech industry; some observers referred to such suburban environs as “technoburbs” and “nerdistans”; advocates preferred Silicon Valley, Silicon Prairie, or even Silicon Forest “but never Silicon City.” To be fair, O’Mara acknowledged that New York City did dub its tech sector, “scattered across Manhattan,” Silicon Alley. Likewise, L.A. alluded to its own west side agglomeration of tech by nicknaming it “Silicon Beach.” Still, O’Mara’s larger point remained essentially correct: “The gradual emergence of an alternative, more urban model for the high‐tech district is a result of the growth and diversification of the technology industry and its workforce.”[2]

Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods suggests that the company’s massive growth will continue. It has been hiring lawyers and other professionals left and right from the East Coast. This influx of young professionals promises to continue reshaping city culture; inevitably some newcomers will chafe at the Pacific Northwest metropolis’s notoriously earnest persona.

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Enter Bernadette Fox, the protagonist at the heart of Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette? Fox and her husband Elgin Branch, an IT savant employed at Microsoft (MS), decamped from Los Angeles years ago, gave birth to a child, Bee, and settled into life in the city, living in an the increasingly dilapidated, “Straight Gate,” a former Catholic School for “wayward girls”.

Seattle did not bring out the best in Fox. A former McArthur Grant recipient and gifted architect, she fell off the map upon arrival—creating a sort of ghoulish aura around her. In an email, former mentor and fellow architect Paul Jellinek, warns Fox that a failure to attend to her creative side would result in disaster: “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”[3]

Jellinek’s prediction, though not wholly accurate, was not far off. Fox navigates the city sparingly, leaving the home only when ferrying Bee to her school or dinner with Bee’s friend Kennedy. She shops over the internet via a South Asian online assistant, Manjula Kapoor. She rages silently at motorists: “The drivers here are horrible. And by horrible, I mean they don’t realize I have someplace to be.”

Despite her own travails, she is not a source of empathy for the downtrodden. “Seattle. I’ve never seen a city so overrun with runaways, drug addicts, and bums. Pike Place Market: they’re everywhere. Pioneer Square: teeming with them. The flagship Nordstrom: have to step over them on your way in,” she confides to Jellinek. “Seattle is the only city where you step in shit and you pray, ‘Please god, let this be dog shit.’”[4] Fox remains unimpressed by local fashion. Seattle women choose from two hairstyles: “short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for hair color, and they flap their elbows and cluck, ‘Oh Goody, we never get to do color!’”[5] She takes issue with men’s aesthetic choices as well: “fathers only come in one style here, and that’s outdoorsy.”[6]

Her daughter’s school, the Galer Street School, located next to a fish factory, often smells of salmon and the parents reek of the kind of kumbaya sincerity that has earned the city its humorless reputation. After a school fundraising event goes horribly, but hysterically, wrong one parent—a psychiatrist who once worked with residents in post disaster New Orleans and Haiti and now works as a Swedish Medical Center counselor—evaluates students for PTSD. “During the walk to the bus, I was able to listen, express curiosity, and simply ‘be’ with the child,” she relates to parents in an email. “We are still weighing whether or not to have an all-school assembly, a kindergarten only gathering, or a parent forum to collectively process this traumatic event.”[7]

Mugsy coffee
Even the coffee shops have that vaguely craftsman feel, “Mugsy Expresso, Seattle Way”, John Margolies, John Margolies Roadside America photo archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Seattle’s vernacular architecture receives the Fox treatment as well. When shopping for houses, Fox compares house hunting to shopping at IKEA, where “you can’t believe how cheap everything is, and even though you may not need a hundred tea lights, my God they’re only ninety nine cents for the whole bag?” More specifically, Seattle’s famed collection of Craftsman homes gets no love from Fox:

“Everything else is a Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.” [8]

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Perhaps traffic would be better with more “Giant Cones”, this one  part of the art walk along Seattle’s waterfront, Ryan Reft photographer, 2008

City planners do not fare much better. Asleep at the wheel for decades, the zoning commissioner must have handed the reins over to the “Soviets,” she argues. Five lane intersections bedevil her waking hours: “whoever laid out this city never met a four way intersection they didn’t turn into a five way intersection.” Elaborating, she says of the non-craftsman apartment buildings: “They never met a beautiful view they didn’t block with a twenty story old folks home with zero architectural integrity. Wait, I think that’s the first time the words “architectural” and “integrity” have ever been used together in a discussion of Seattle.”[9]

Seattle, Washington fire Station
“Fire Station, Seattle Washington”, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. HIghsmith’s America, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Semple, a former television writer for Arrested Development, imbues the story with a healthy sense of humor and based the story on her own struggle with acclimating to Seattle after moving from Los Angeles. “I was in a miserable mind frame, and I found that I was driving around and all I was thinking about were funny things about how awful Seattle was,” she told the New York Times in 2012. “I would do these riffs in my head and I would polish them in my head. It was poisonous and self-pitying.”[10] Clearly, Fox serves as Semple’s exaggerated literary avatar and she tells the story not through a clean straight narrative but rather through what one might describe as a series of primary sources, many from a variety of perspectives: F.B.I. files, diary entries, police and psychiatric reports, letters, emails, report cards, blog posts, newsletters and magazine articles.

Other aspects of life in twenty-first century Seattle emerge in the novel. For decades, Pacific Northwest natives have looked askance at transplants from California. I personally can remember taking the city’s underground tour in the 1990s and baked into the presentation were jokes about Californians driving up real estate prices.

Shane Updike, a school administrator, went to college at Seattle University during the mid-1990s and moved back to the city in 2007 after nearly ten years teaching public high school in New York City. “House prices in Seattle have risen pretty dramatically over the past 4 or 5 years,” he told The Metropole recently. The tech boom, foreign investment by homeowners overseas, and a tight housing stock have all contributed to the sharp increase in housing prices. “Another huge factor is that people are moving to the city from the San Francisco area for tech jobs, and to these people, homes are relatively inexpensive compared to the bay area.  These people have money and help to drive up the cost of housing.”[11]

Though from the Southern limits of the Golden State, Fox and Elgin represent this exact demographic. As one character tells Fox during a heated argument: “Nobody realized you were the people from L.A. who came to Seattle and bought a twelve thousand square foot building in the middle of a charming neighborhood and called it your home.”[12] In the wake of Microsoft, Amazon, and an expanding tech sector, this feeling has only grown. “Seattle, with the tech industry generally and Amazon specifically, is booming economically and people are moving here,” confirms Updike.

The novel also skewers Seattle’s self-image as a “compassionate,” tolerant city. Fox mocks the city for its attempts to address pressing social issues like low riding trousers. “And the mayor said he wanted to get to the root of why kids sag their pants. The fucking mayor. Don’t get me started on Canadians. It’s a whole thing.”[13]

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Yet one more shot of Seattle’s iconic Public Market, photograph Ryan Reft, 2008

Neither is Fox convinced by claims of metropolitan diversity. Overhearing a conversation in the grocery store about the city’s cosmopolitanism, Fox can’t resist: “Encouraged I asked, ‘Really?’ She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over. ‘Like where?’ Her answer, ‘Alaska. I have a ton of friends from Alaska.’ Whoomp there it is.”[14]

Semple also gets at the vast change in American culture that has unfolded with the spread of technology. People continually comment on Elgin Branch, Fox’s husband and Microsoft “celebrity”, and his famed TED talk regarding one the company’s new cutting-edge products, the Samantha 2; when the F.B.I. gets involved due to Fox’s dangerous internet habits, even the investigating agent, Marcus Strang, references the presentation. “P.S. We all loved your TEDtalk,” he writes. “I’d love to see the latest on Samantha 2 if time permits.”[15] Unsurprisingly, Fox thinks little of Microsoft’s larger ambitions: “Well, on Microsoft’s walls are maps of the world, and in case you’re still unclear about their dominion, under these maps are the words: THE WORLD.”

View of Lake Union
“View of Lake Union, Seattle, Washington”, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. HIghsmith’s America, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did Seattle react to the book? Local alternative websites like The Stranger endorsed it, describing Where’d You Go Bernadette? as “the funniest novel ever written about Seattle,” and nominated it for its 2015 Genius Award in Literature. Some residents, however, remained “miffed” about Semple’s take on the city—particularly about women’s hair, if one bookstore customer is to be believed. In the end, though, all great cities must learn to laugh at themselves, especially at the things that make them notable. “It’s just not a funny place,” Semple told the Times, but apparently it can be.

 

[1] Margaret O’Mara, “We are not ‘the next Silicon Valley’”, crosscut.com, February 18, 2008.

[2] Margaret O’Mara, “Amazon joins a parade of high tech to the urban core”, crosscut.com, December 20, 2007.

[3] Maria Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012), 136.

[4] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 127-128.

[5] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 128.

[6] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 125.

[7] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 78-79.

[8] Maria Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 25

[9] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 126- 127.

[10] Julie Bosman, “A novel asks Seattle to laugh at itself”, New York Times, August 15, 2012.

[11] Shane Updike, interview with author, June 25, 2017.

[12] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 86.

[13] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 128.

[14] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 132.

[15] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 170.

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