Tourists who come to Seattle in 2019 looking for a hint of the grunge mecca of the ’90s are in for disappointment. I’ll admit that I’m not really from Seattle, but Bainbridge Island, a rural hippie haven 30 minutes from Seattle by ferry. My best friend in high school worked at a gift shop frequented by tourists over the summer. Sometimes, just to humor them, she’d play a Nirvana song over the speakers and they’d marvel in Southern accents that they really do listen to grunge over here.
When I was growing up, escaping to the city was a way to hold on to our sanity and experience a bit of excitement before returning to the safety of suburbia. But over 15 years of shopping trips and concerts and dinners in the city, I watched Seattle warp into the late capitalist nightmare it is today. Microsoft and Amazon cast looming shadows over the landscape. Thousands of homeless wander the streets. Housing prices are skyrocketing and gentrification creeps over neighborhoods like some kind of toxic mold, pushing low-income residents further and further out of the city.
We’ve seen a similar process take hold of San Francisco, too. And like Seattle, San Francisco was once a flourishing city of the arts, the center of the 1970s counterculture. Today, the artists have been replaced by tech bros and billionaires. It’s now hardly even possible to imagine new cultural movements originating in these cities. Sure, in Seattle, Sub-Pop records is still clinging on for dear life, and the KEXP radio station defiantly gives airplay to independent, experimental music. But the underground is gone.
Maybe in the streaming era location isn’t even a prerequisite for success anymore. A producer from Sweden can meet a singer from Cincinnati online, and they can collaborate on a song without ever meeting face to face. Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t matter so much anymore.
Yet there’s something to be said for the impact that a city’s arts scene has on residents. It’s not just artists who benefit from living in close proximity with each other. Affordable concerts, theatre productions, and even art gallery shows increase quality of life for urban residents. I imagine that Seattleites in the ’90s, even non-musicians, thrived off the creativity in the air, the sense that they were at the epicenter of something big. They were probably proud that their humble city was giving the Los Angeles music scene a run for its money.
Now, as the billionaires are buying up acres of Pacific Northwest land in preparation for the coming apocalypse, Seattle pride seems to stem from our status as a liberal safety buoy amid the political chaos. Like any large, coastal city, we’ve got the necessary progressive credentials, not to mention a passionately environmentalist governor (RIP Inslee 2020). But despite all the breweries and farmers markets, that innovative spirit is missing.
Two summers ago, I visited my extended family in Germany. My cousin, a freelance dancer and one of the coolest people I know, was renting a beautiful old apartment with two other roommates in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Berlin. The city has a legacy of artistic influence that continues to this day. It was shabbier than Munich, littered with brutalist communist-era architecture, but as vibrant as ever.
Hipsters of every nationality lounged in coffee shops and overpriced brunch spots. Posters for music festivals were pasted on every flat surface. It was like an artistic utopia populated only by attractive, talented people under the age of 30. Yet even Berlin is suffering from rising housing prices that will slowly but surely put an end to its renaissance.
Seattle is only a data point in an overall trend. As cities become more expensive to live in, poor residents are driven to the outskirts, and downtown becomes a playground for the ultra wealthy. While rich people love their opera and art museums, it’s just not possible for grassroots arts movements to spring up in these environments anymore. It seems that the internet is the final frontier for independent artists, the only place that they can operate for cheap—for now.
Featured Graphic by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor