SEATTLE — The coronavirus pandemic has been dubbed the “great accelerator,” for the way it radically sped up every movement and trend that was already going on. Take Seattle, and our persistent gaps between rich and poor.
Our city was already a living exhibit of tech-fueled inequality. The pandemic put that on supercycle.
When we went into 2020, the wealthiest 20% here made about 18 times more money than the bottom 20%. Only one year later, in 2021, that soared to 22 times more.
U.S. census figures show that the pandemic period was no crisis for some, as it rained money on the already wealthy. Incomes for Seattle’s top fifth of households shot up 16% in 2021, to an extraordinary average of $399,700. That makes us, by that measure, the third-wealthiest city in the nation (after San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.).
But incomes for Seattle’s poorest fifth fell in 2021, by about $700 per household or 4%, to an average of $18,149.
It means Seattle’s decadelong campaign against inequality suffered a setback. Maybe newer data from 2022 or this year will show some of the froth has been taken off the top, as tech has slowed a bit. But the data shows again how empty was that pandemic cliché: No, we were not all in it together.
Now, a new study involving Seattle suggests it may have permanently driven us further apart.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracked the cellphone movements of a million people in four cities, including Seattle. They compared how people moved about the city both prior to the onset of the pandemic and then after the lockdowns along with most of the social controls had ended, up through the end of 2021.
They found that all social interaction plunged in 2020, by 30% (which was the point, to slow the virus). But while movements of people have since recovered to pre-pandemic levels, people of different socioeconomic classes no longer go to the same civic places at the same rates as before.
In Seattle, this mixing of rich and poor in the same physical spaces is down about 15% compared with pre-pandemic. It means we no longer rub shoulders as much with people from different classes or backgrounds on the bus, in parks, in coffee shops or at gyms. (The study, published in the journal Nature, geolocated visits to an impressive 57,000 spaces in Seattle.)
In effect, we are stuck in a new post-pandemic socialization pattern. Where cities — which all the way back to the ancient Greeks were the great mixing chambers for democracy — are now more self-sorting and siloed, due to phenomena such as work from home and online shopping.
“It’s creating an urban fabric that is actually more brittle, in the sense that we are less exposed to other people,” said Esteban Moro, a research scientist at MIT and one of the paper’s authors. “We don’t get to know other people in the city ... to know other people’s needs. If we don’t see them around the city, that will be impossible.”
Ridership on Metro’s buses, for example, remains down by about a third from pre-pandemic levels. That’s as much as 150,000 fewer rides every weekday.
Although Seattle leaders are focusing on reviving downtown, the pandemic emptying-out down there is continuing. A new real estate report out this past week showed that downtown lost 900,000 more square feet of office occupancy in the past quarter, bringing the total over the past year to 2.6 million square feet vacated. More than 30% of offices downtown now are available to rent, while “more vacancy is anticipated,” the report from CBRE Research says.
It’s not just Seattle: The Eastside lost more than 700,000 square feet of office occupancy, “a peak unseen since the Great Financial Crisis,” CBRE noted.
All of this is the remote work reshuffle, which isn’t necessarily bad. (It could be great for the environment.) But it means that life in the city is becoming increasingly stratified — by neighborhood, work status, class.
“We see that changes like working from home, less exploration, more online shopping, all these behaviors add up,” Moro said. “We are not seeing each other at the rates we were before.”
In the study, Seattle remained more behaviorally separated post-pandemic than the other cities except for Los Angeles. (Boston and Dallas were also studied.)
I’ve noticed this siloing rising in my own life — especially since my family’s run through Seattle public schools ended during the pandemic. For all their faults, the public schools remain, for my money, the last best mixing mechanism for society (with Garfield High School being tops of all, in my humble opinion). Redoubling support for Seattle’s public schools, and actually attending them, is probably our city’s best hope for not turning into a series of gated communities.
The isolation researchers haven’t studied solutions to the problem, though they did suggest cities should try “ride free” experiments to kick-start broad use of public transit again.
Making things low cost as much as possible seems crucial. Last week’s baseball All-Star Game showed Seattle at its finest on the surface, but it’s a travesty that the average price for a seat was $639. A Seattle Times sportswriter photographed a regular gravel parking lot near the stadium that was charging $120 (plus taxes and fees, the sign said, which brought the total to $150.05 — the 5 cents being the coup de grace).
What kind of message do prices like these send? It’s one our city gives off daily in a thousand ways: It’s too rare for you here.
In contrast, kudos to the Bite of Seattle next weekend for having free admission. The festival’s back for the first time since 2019. With 500,000 expected at Seattle Center, I bet the cellphone mixing data will be off the charts.
People often wonder why Seattle’s wealthier residents can seem blasé about the more broken parts of the city. My theory is it’s because it doesn’t touch them. There’s the city of the streets and then there’s another city, of skyscraper condos, of highest-in-the-nation hotel occupancy, of placid villages well-served by broadband and Amazon Fresh trucks.
The founder of the homelessness street newspaper Real Change, Tim Harris, called it a few years back: “Seattle is not dying,” he wrote. “Seattle is splitting.” That was before the great accelerator splintered us more.
What if Seattle’s rich and poor not only aren’t mixing, but stop seeing one another altogether?
Forget red vs. blue. Just trying to keep Seattle a vestige of “one Seattle,” as the mayor likes to say, is going to be our city’s great challenge of the coming years.
Danny Westneat is an opinion columnist for The Seattle Times.
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