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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 13, 2010 at 10:10 AM

My Seattle recession

When I arrived here from Phoenix on Aug. 13, 2007, the portents were anything but unlucky. The economy in Phoenix, the nation’s fifth largest city, had already begun a collapse that has ended in a prolonged depression. In Seattle: Energy, commerce, cranes on the skyline, a booming port, forward-leaning civic projects. And a population that cared deeply, passionately about this specific city in an America of throwaway places. People were literate (two daily newspapers and bookstores everywhere!). People were nice.

Living in the heart of historic old Phoenix, my wife Susan and I always felt as if we were fighting a losing battle. We anxiously patronized every local restaurant, what few local shops that existed, the small weekend downtown market — because each always seemed on the brink of closing. In my lifetime, the city had gone from a relatively diverse economy to one nearly totally dependent on population growth and massive building of tract houses on the fringes. The central core was left to die. We chose Seattle deliberately, for a convenient and sustainable urban life, and we were not disappointed.

Back then, Belltown was full of energy and local shops — and the central shopping core with its department stores and bounty of shops, as well as Pike Place Market were only a few blocks away. There were few of the tear-downs that ruin cities: Buildings were used or preserved. We watched as several skyscrapers went up and saw the signs for 40-story condo towers. Nightclub shootings created big news, but we chuckled, coming from a dangerous big city where such events might not even make the paper. Watching people on the streets was telling: They smiled, whether residents or tourists. They were happy to be here. Then, the recessionary blast wave hit us.

Now the central city is quieter. The old energy is noticeably dialed down. Many of the distinctive local businesses have closed, from the pet boutique on Bell Street to the office supply in Lower Queen Anne and the hardware store up the hill. Stores that made Seattle something other than every other vanilla, chain-store American burg. Elliott Bay Books moved from Pioneer Square. The print PI is gone.

Some tear-downs have happened, and empty lots that once boasted of towers to come are barren and blighted. Some tagger with the moniker ZEB or JEB is vandalizing promiscuously, a sign of places abandoned and lack of people. Along Third Avenue downtown, especially, one sees aimless young people, too many of them looking for trouble and targets of opportunity.

This latter is surely part of the historic high unemployment rate facing the young. But it’s also a change in the mix. With the loss of Washington Mutual and the local Safeco headquarters, along with the many vendors and professional firms that depended on them, downtown has lost many thousands of high-paid professionals who kept so many retailers going. I see the untended planters outside Macy’s and fret.

This is small stuff compared with the pain so many are going through, as a cruel group in Congress won’t extend unemployment help even though there is only one job per five job-seekers. As some see it as a sign of good government to slash programs that help the most vulnerable. It’s small compared with the damage done in much of the suburbs and exurbs. And yes, Seattle still has an economy, a downtown, and stewards who care — all these things that most American cities would kill for.

I wouldn’t have chosen another city in the United States to make my stand. But now, unlike three years ago, I worry.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Oh, great, OMB

Your new chief is a former

Hedge fund manager

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