Seattle’s bohemian culture struggles to survive as tech takes over

A solstice festival highlightings the citys history of embracing the weird as Amazon gas a changing landscape

Covered in swirled pink paint and clad only in an emerald green thong, Shannon Kringen blended into an essential Seattle summertime scene, becoming a nude in a sea of bicycling nudes.

The thousands of naked cyclists gliding through the city’s Fremont neighborhood for the annual Fremont Solstice Festival are of Old Seattle, an aloof, weird place with space for dreamers and their work. Back in 1986, when she was 17 and newly arrived in the city, Kringen was able to induce rent serving pizza before becoming a nude model. She hosted an arrest public access television prove,” Goddess Kring“, in the 1990 s. She danced, talked and sang- often naked.

New Seattle, though, has little space for someone like Kringen, who now needs a housing voucher to afford an apartment. Housing costs have ballooned as tech-sector firms pack workers into downtown and central neighborhoods, like the historically hippy Fremont.

” It seems like it’s gotten a little snooty ,” Kringen said.” Like,’ We are suuuuuper fancy, like the new San Francisco .'”

The irony is that Seattle’s tech industry, which relies on a furnish of dynamic, inventive people, also relies, in part, on its hip counterculture.

Seattle’s grunge scene helped depict the first rush of tech entrepreneurs inside the city limits in the 1990 s. But a 2017 city analysis observed Seattle’s explosive, tech-driven growth threatening to displace the” communities that have added cultural richness to the city “.

To combat that, a proposal to build a city-certified “brain trust” of culturally significant someones- realtors, urban activists and artists among other issues– has been floated, as have changes to city code meant to foster creative spaces. Whatever their merits, those efforts don’t amount to much in America’s fastest-growing major city.

The changes have come fast even for boom-bust Seattle. The 30 ft hill where Kringen took a seat with other festival-goers- Gas Works Park’s Great Mound- is itself a relic, a sodded-over cone of violated buildings from an early 20 th-century coal gasification plant. Beyond the reclaimed park sits Lake Union, a heart-shaped lake contaminated by long-dead industries. Boeing 737 s, once the city’s defining exportation, plow across a blue sky.

A spectator passes nude cyclists at Gas Works park. Photograph: Grant Hindsley for the Guardian

But they now increasingly share airspace with chartered Gulfstreams and Cessnas. Across the lake, construction cranes float above the downtown core. Inside the modern- and forgettable – high-rises is Amazon, one of Seattle’s key economic drivers.

Rush-hour buses and Ubers deliver a inundation of passengers carrying Amazon-branded backpacks and jackets. The Silicon Valley men’s uniform of a $200 hoodie topping jeans is displacing Seattle’s classic polar fleece.

Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist who last year published The New Urban Crisis, said reasons abounded for the tech sector’s migration from the suburbs into the cities.

Until the late 90 s and early 2000 s, the new economy was decidedly suburban. Microsoft’s campus in neighboring Redmond- a muddled expanse of mismatched office buildings- was typical.

But then that began to shift. Two University of Washington researchers, writing for the Brookings Institution in 2000, found that Seattle’s” street scene” was called upon to companies, and Fremont was noted for” the’ coolness factor’ which businesses crave “.

It was the “coolness” that drew Elissa Fink’s employer, Tableau, to Fremont in 2003 after it launched in Silicon Valley. In 2007, when Fink joined, the data visualization firm had a few dozen employees. It now boasts 3,600, with offices above the Lake Washington Ship Canal on a strip shared with Google, Adobe and Getty Images.

Tableau employees collect on the company deck each June to watch the Solstice Festival revelers. Fink, the company’s chief marketing policeman, said the neighborhood’s oddity kept employees fresh.

” It’s inspiring and interesting ,” Fink said. “Remembering you are part of a bigger world is a good thing.”

Florida, a prof at the University of Toronto, said in a recent phone interview:” The reality is we have this heightened competitor for space. We have all this land and all these suburbs and rural areas, but tech companies, creative people and affluent people all want to crowd themselves into the same limited number of spaces .”

The Seattle indie band Death Cab for Cutie described the crush between the corporate and creative lifestyles in their latest single, Gold Rush ๐Ÿ˜› TAGEND

Outside a bar near the record store

That have been condos for a year and more

And now that our haunts have taken flight

And been replaced with construction sites

Ben Gibbard, the band’s leader, told NPR recently:” Seattle has been transformed into an almost unrecognizable city over the past 15 years with the tech boom, specifically the rise of Amazon and the other carpetbagging tech firms .”

The city is being steadily remade, as well-intentioned glass blocks replace repurposed industrial spaces. A great, green build complete with solar panels and a state-of-the-art rainwater catchment will soon replace most of a block not far from the stretching of tech that includes Tableau. Offices and shiny new retail spaces will replace a marijuana dispensary faced with a psychedelic mural and a neighborhood haunt, Stone Way Cafe.

A painted dame at the 30 th annual Fremont Solstice Parade. Photograph: Grant Hindsley for the Guardian

The coffee-and-laptop crowd packs the cafe each workday, typing away under artwork by Seattle’s surviving starving artists. The keyboard clacking is replaced most evenings with music from musicians with big aspirations and small crowds.

The surrealist painter and comic artist Rhodora Jacob, whose run has hung on Stone Way’s walls, discoveries a mixed blessing in the boom. The street scene was ” more Patagonia and yoga pants nowadays than band shirts and vintage”, and its artists had adapted, Jacob, who uses the pronoun “they”, said. Commercial and fan art sold well, they noted, probably because of” the boom in tech culture and geek-chic lifestyle “.

” I do long for the years pre-Amazonia, but I continuing to be love and appreciate my city ,” they said recently.” There’s a lot to love and if you want to create there are many outlets and groups in Seattle that will welcome you with open arms .”

The rapper Draze’s Seattle has fared worse than Gibbard’s. Gentrification had already remade the Central District- long the center of the city’s black cosmo- by the time dislocation became the talk of white Seattle.

” Once it starts to affect white people, then you have people caring ,” Draze said.” When they can’t afford to live, then it becomes a problem .”

Draze lamented the lost black neighborhood in The Hood Ain’t the Same ๐Ÿ˜› TAGEND

What I’ve heard Brooklyn ain’t the same

Harlem ain’t the same

All around the world

I see the same, same, same

Florida, the urban studies expert, said that displacement shadowed in-city growth, in part because wages for service workers remain painfully low. Thus, Florida said,” our cities are becoming one-dimensional by socio-economic class “.

Low-wage workers were pushed out, he continued, while artists, designers and musicians tended to earn just enough to hang on.

That has been Kringen’s experience. Amazon circuitously helps pay her rent; she models for an art school that does events on the corporate campus. She told me that she enjoys the “cushiness” of it. The streetside shanties and homeless tent cities- the plainest evidence of those left out of Seattle’s boom- sit badly with Kringen. She told me that she feels lucky her meager income- art simulate doesn’t pay well, even for Amazonians- is low enough that she qualifies for public assistance.

” I guess ,” she said, “that’s my survival strategy.”

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