Five Cities for a Fresh Start: Seattle
This is Part 5 of Five Cities for a Fresh Start. Each week, we've featured another American city ready for motivated and creative people looking to move. Click here to read the series' Introduction.
Last week, we showed off our own home base with Austin, Texas, fourth in the series and the furthest south by far. For this fifth and final city, we're swinging far to the north—and finally over to the Pacific Ocean, where the mountains, sea, and forest combine around Seattle, Washington—Emerald City and home of the Mariners and Microsoft.
0. Our Preconceptions (for Full Disclosure)
We've imagined Seattle in much the same way we've imagined the Pacific Northwest in general: having the same relaxed, Pacific vibe as California, but minus all of the loud sunshine and occasional gawdiness (and with forests and mountains instead of desert and palm trees). We knew Seattle had a reputation for being rainy. We also knew that it had a reputation for being a coffee-shop, grunge-rock, sort of hipster-y place. But, more informatively, we've known a few people from this area over the years, and they all tend to speak of the Pacific Northwest in peaceful terms: as a place where you can relax, settle in, and—if you want to—be happy never to leave.
1. What's its story?
As Americans commonly do, we'll skip over the 4,000 years of native settlement in the area and skip straight to George Vancouver, who first noted the place in 1792 during his expedition of the Pacific Northwest. The first Americans would settle in 1851 and begin the city's historic reputation as a boom-bust town, one that rose and fell quickly with new industries.
Because Seattle is located near plentiful natural resources, the city consistently had a demand for unskilled labor during its earlier years, which fueled the timber industry and then the gold rush (though more supplying miners than mining themselves). Around the beginning of the 20th century, they experienced a brief shipbuilding boom, then switched to planes when Boeing was headquartered there. Though Boeing would eventually relocate, Seattle remains a city of contemporary professional prominence thanks to Microsoft, who moved into its headquarters there in 1979; other giants such as Nintendo of America and Amazon would follow suit.
2. How many people are there, and how do they look overall?
Seattle proper has about 685,000 people, but the metro area swells considerably to about 3.7 million. Seattleites are about 70% white, 15% Asian, 8% black, and 6% Hispanic. The median age is 35—young enough to still have vibrancy, old enough to tame the excesses. The place does seem to be fairly friendly to older people, with about a third of the residents being over 45, but there are still plenty of young people.
3. What's the place like? How's the weather?
Seattle has a reputation for being rainy, and in some ways that's fair—for instance, it's true that it's cloudy about three quarters of the time here, and it's true that Seattle often gets more than 150 days of rain per year. But some of that reputation is overblown; most of those rains are very thin, and usually Seattle is bone-dry during the summer months.
There's a sense in which Seattle gets to "have it both ways," with the perks of both the warm Pacific coast and the cooler northern latitude. The mountains to the north protect the city from Arctic winds, while the mountains to the west protect it from Pacific storms. The summers are dry and very mild while the winters, however moist, are also very mild. By the same token, it never fully commits to winter and never fully clears up—leaving some with the impression that it's intractably gray.
4. How much does it cost to live there?
The Pacific Northwest may be a slower, sleepier place than California, but that doesn't make it cheaper—at least not in Seattle. The cost of living index for Seattle itself (city limits) is 154, meaning life in Seattle costs roughly 1.5 times what life costs in an average American place. Utilities are pretty cheap, but housing is especially expensive at roughly 2.5 times the national average.
It's still not as bad as San Fran or New York City, but there's a reason housing is so damn expensive in those places, and the same basic Econ 101 reasons apply in Seattle: high demand and limited supply. It's made tougher by the fact that cities like Seattle, NYC, and San Fran are geographically limited by water, meaning they can't spread out like Austin or Denver can—meaning city-center becomes a higher premium. And it's made yet tougher if the city in question is like Austin, whose rapid growth causes price inflation in some places—Seattle, having experienced some growth booms in recent years, has that factor to weigh as well.
5. How educated are the people, and what do they do for work?
As it turns out, all of the cities on our list are fairly well-educated—or at least, the country's power players tend to be accounted for. We started out thinking Denver's 35% with college degrees was impressive (and in absolute terms it is), then three other cities beat it: Austin, D.C., and now Seattle, with a sturdy 53% of citizens holding a 4-year degree or greater.
In part, this high level of education—and per the above, relatively high affluence within the city—can both be explained by the surrounding industries, largely tech and engineering, which draw both local graduates (UW is one of the best public schools in the country) and educated professionals from around the country.
6. What's there to eat and drink?
Being a coastal city, Seattle is one of the two places on our list for fresh seafood—if you want the whole variety from fresh-caught fish to oysters to clams and everything in between, you're in the right place. And true to the stereotype, Seattle is crammed with coffee shops—not just Starbucks, which was founded here in 1971, but all manner of local roasteries as well.
Besides that, it's worth noting—both for eating out and for the grocery store—that Seattle is an excellent place for access to high-quality, organic, and regionally- or locally-sourced foods. Consistent rainfall, temperatures that rarely frost, and a mild summer lend themselves very well to local agriculture.
7. How are the people?
As always, it depends upon exactly where you're standing within the city—but it probably won't come as a surprise that the people are a bit moodier here. The perpetually cloudy weather tends to attract, if not create, a slightly more somber and pensive sort of person; combine the weather with the relatively high education level and it would make sense.
Seattle is not like Austin, where people are perma-casual, friendly, and out for a good time in the sun. Seattle might be better for a small-circle person, someone who gathers people inside over common interests; by nature those aren't as quick and easy to find, and true to form, Seattle isn't the best place for meeting lots of people quickly.
8. What's within driving distance?
Like Denver (the first city in our series), Seattle banks heavily upon its local value—unless you're flying out of SeaTac, there isn't a ton within easy reach. Portland is about 3 hours to the south and, if you're willing to cross into Canada, Vancouver is about 3 hours north. Unless you're a serious road-tripper, that's about all that's within reach—because the next cities even arguably within a day's drive (at 12 hours each) are San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
9. What do you get here that you don't get anywhere else?
There's one special perk Denver had that totally skipped our minds, and Seattle has it, too. Obviously, if two cities on our list both have a perk, it wouldn't usually be called "exclusive"—except that these two cities are perhaps the only major cities in America where you can find this perk. What is it, you ask?
Marijuana. There. We said it. That may not be for everyone, and it's a perk that has its drawbacks, to be sure—but if you do care about it, it's like being a coffee drinker and hearing about one of the only cities in the country where coffee is legal.
We won't be naive, like you can only buy things in stores—but there is something special about a place that has a unique freedom, that has something that other people literally cannot buy. We may as well mention that the local industry of it has some nice spin-offs, like confections—best damn chocolate bar we've ever had.
10. What's the final word?
Seattle isn't as simple as a rainy, miniature New York or a somber San Francisco, though it's headed that way: it's got the important players, it's got the educated people and professional talent, it's pricey and relatively cultured, and it's overcast in a way that New York and California seldom seem to see. But it's healthier than both places, at least in terms of its balance—if you're a high-powered pro but you expect a little more sanity from the world, you ought to give Seattle a look.
You might call Seattle's overall climate "fair" by another name: it can be dreary, rainy, and even chilled much of the time, but at least it's made up its mind about that, and it's temperate—and at least, for one stretch of the year, the sun lights up Emerald City and the gloom is washed away for everyone to come outside.
Coming Up Next Week
We'll be pausing briefly next week for a feature on vacation, then returning the following week with the conclusion to the series (and some bonus features!).