Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 12, 2005 Places to live: Seattle.

While on the road, I often imagine what it might be like to live in the places I pass through. Someday Iíll decide to be a normal person again and live somewhere, so I have to figure out where. I have a short list of places that seem possible. Very short, really. New York City holds

positions one, two, and three. Boulder and Austin are the other two candidates. Sometimes I wonder why Iíd really consider anyplace other than New York. But then I remember the cost of housing, the problems of parking the van, and the impossibility of kayak storage, and I doubt whether New York is the right place for me, for all that it is the standard by which I measure all other places. I have friends in Boulder and Austin, and they are interesting, compatible towns with good politics, good coffee, lots of free wifi, and so on. Austin is too hot, Boulder doesnít have enough water, but theyíre both on the list.

Lots of people I know are gravitating to the Pacific North West, though, so I figured I should check out Seattle and Portland as places to live. But how to go about that in just a couple of days?


My approach is to walk around the cities, look at people and housing, poke around stores, take a lot of pictures, and try to put the pieces together like a puzzle, to get a sense of neighborhoods and the kinds of people who live and work in them. Sometimes I use the web to check my impressions against what others say, to learn more about the issues stirring up the city, or scope out the cost of living. I read items in the visual cityscape and consider what they say about the community that put them there, or that let them stay there. Sometimes thereís a disconnect between what the community seems to be now, and what its residents or merchants or local government are trying to turn it into, and both are important to if I want to understand the place. Of course itís mostly reading a language that I donít know; often I donít even recognize that something is a statement with meaning. Just as when I listen to, say, Portuguese, I might catch some words, but most of the time I canít even identify in the flow of the speech. And I certainly donít understand the slang or the jargon.

But I try.


So I took a ferry from Bainbridge Island to downtown Seattle at ten in the morning, along with a few late commuters and tourists. Two men were playing Irish music on the boat, standing in a sheltered area with stunning acoustics. One played the fiddle, the other the flute. It was delightful and unexpected. They were playing for themselves, not asking for donations. A few people listened; a man in a business suit reading his newspaper, a family of tourists with two small blonde girls who ran around the deck shrieking like seagulls (very convincingly, too), a slim bearded man who gazed enthralled. Perhaps they are professional musicians and rehearse on the boat because the sound resonates so nicely. Or perhaps they have day jobs doing some thing else and liven up their trip to work with their own music.

The ferry puts in near Pike Place Market, which must be the biggest tourist destination in Seattle. I guess it could be a fun place to explore, but I didnít see a

whole lot of produce or meats or cheeses there. Plenty of crafts and trinkets, lots of imported junk, lots and lots of bars and restaurants. Perhaps the people who live nearby go there for groceries, but I kind of doubt it. And the bellowing of the fish merchants, which is almost as famous as the market itself, has been advertised by the city for so many decades that by now itís just a show for the tourists. After all, what real local market has a website as slick as this one?


I walked north paralleling the waterfront and found myself in a neighborhood called Belltown. It is a blend of old and new offices, a few warehouses, and a lot of new or renovated residential buildings, restaurants, and bars. My eye was caught by a group of small cottages raised above the sidewalk and surrounded by what was clearly a community garden. The garden had a formal sign stating that public access was restricted, followed by a neighborly explanation that we were welcome to visit and that the formal notice was just a legal requirement. A man working in the garden explained that the cottages had been built around the turn of the 20th century, and were worker housing typical of the period. One of the three cottages was a community center, and the other two were made available to writers or artists-in-residence. They looked like delightful places to live. And the whole place looked like a small venture by a few dedicated people who wanted to build community cohesiveness in the midst of the wave of trendy new

development around them. A later google search found the Belltown P-Patch website, which seemed to confirm this hunch. The fine print at the bottom of the site said it had been created by someone on his trusty computer over his Saturday morning coffee. I can just imagine him, a bearded man in Birkenstocks, shorts, and a faded t-shirt with garden dirt under his fingernails, clicking away on his laptop in one of Belltownís trendy coffeehouses, anxious to blend the charm of the cottages with the very different charm of the up-and-coming neighborhood, where he can walk to work, drink freshly roasted coffee in the morning and local brews in the evening, and dig in the garden onweekends.

From Belltown I continued north past the Seattle Center, a 72-acre ďcampusĒ of arenas, theaters, concert halls, museums, an amusement park, and outdoor spaces devoted to performances, sports, the arts, and other forms of entertainment. From the street, it looked like the converted worldís fair site that it is, and like an active tourist and homeless hangout. A look at the web made it seem more vibrant and less touristy, with tickets on sale for events ranging from sports matches to rock concerts to the ballet. The Seattle Center is a department of the city of Seattle, so perhaps it really is part of local life, even though it doesnít look it.


In any case, I bypassed the Seattle Center and headed up Queen Anne Hill, a steep hike through a quiet neighborhood of single family homes and small apartment buildings. Iím sure that parts of the hill are home to wealthy people in huge old houses with sweeping views of the water, but where I was seemed pretty middle-class. I was only on residential streets; I donít know where folks bought their groceries or took their dry-cleaning. It was nice, reasonably pretty, and fairly uninteresting. If I moved to Seattle, I donít think Iíd live here. Belltown is more likely, because itís more urban, less family-oriented, and closer to downtown. Besides, getting up Queen Anne Hill on a bike is a daunting thought.

My destination was Fremont, which a number of people had told me I would like. Itís supposed to be funky, artsy, full of great spots to hang out and cool people. Or something like that. I guess I didnít see enough of it, though, because I didnít catch its charm. Or maybe Iíve looked at too many places, and they all start to fall into types. I walked down a few streets in Fremont and saw lots of restaurants, an arts cooperative selling pretty and expensive things, an import store selling Indian clothes, beads, incense, African crafts, Balinese painted wooden creatures hanging from the ceiling, and the like. I thought that kind of store had gone out

with the sixties, but Iíve seen quite a few in the Pacific Northwest. There were a few coffee houses Ė including a Starbucks, of course Ė and a few bars. It seemed like one more neighborhood to classify. I no longer see them as unique.

Perhaps I need a new way to get a sense of place. Or perhaps place doesnít matter that all much. Anywhere I go, Iím likely to find some people like me Ė liberal, educated, urban. Well, okay, maybe not anywhere Ė I donít know that Iíd find people like me in Mitchell, South Dakota. But I do seem to find them in any sizeable city. If I take out ďurban,Ē I meet them every where else, too Ė in national parks, in small-town red-state used bookstores, in coffee houses. In any city of reasonable size Iíll find the kinds of stores I want Ė good coffee, yuppie groceries, an acceptable assortment of pretty things, used books. Iíll also find the other kind of stores I want, the functional ones Ė big suburban supermarkets, Home Depot, Borders or Barnes & Noble, Vanagon mechanics, auto parts stores, bike repair shops. Iíll find some ethnic neighborhoods where I can get Asian groceries, pho, Indian food, and maybe if Iím lucky Ethiopian or El Salvadoran food as well.

Perhaps when I want to settle down, figuring out where wonít be an issue. Iíll pick a place for a job, or for a person, or for some exceptional opportunity of another sort. Or perhaps Iíll just be someplace and decide I want to stop, so I will, wherever I happen to be. And once Iím there Iíll find the parts of the community that I like, and get to know the parts that I wouldnít have thought Iíd like. Perhaps I should stop looking at places from the perspective of what my life would be there, and instead just look at them for what they are, on their terms. Iím not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds good!


I did see more of Seattle Ė a bit of the University district (college-town like), then across the Ship Canal Bridge to Eastlake (another quiet residential neighborhood of single-family homes), then down to Capitol Hill (Iím sure Iíd be fine there), and back downtown to the ferry. Seattle seems like a fine place, though not really because of any of those neighborhoods. Itís a big city, itís full of people Iíd probably like, it has a lot of water all around, itís not hot. Of course I have never been there in the rainy season Ė most of the year Ė and the water is god-awfully cold. But I can put it on the short list, I think.

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