A Seattle native’s thoughts on Ron Judd’s “Seattle natives” essay

Image from Seattle TimesI’m sure those of you in the Seattle area have read the Ron Judd “primer for figuring out the Northwest native,” even though probably no one reads the Seattle Times any more. I must have seen it shared on my Facebook feed at least a dozen times the day it came out. The first time I saw it, I only had time to read the first paragraph or two, thought it looked promising enough, and clicked “like” on my friend’s page.

I’m glad I didn’t share it, though, because … and I can’t believe I’m writing this considering how much of a proud daughter of Seattle I am … I disagree with you, Ron. You’re coming off sounding pompous and elitist, Ron, and I can’t get on board with you.

I found much of your imagery familiar, soothing, calming, a siren song to my wet-footed Seattle soul. Salmon in our city streams (and on our plates) — yes. Watching for whales in Elliott Bay while crossing by ferry — yes. Our need for rain — yes. Our need for big full trees — absolutely (much to my husband’s chagrin when we have our annual fight over him wanting to plant deciduous trees in the yard and me wanting evergreens). Our inability to deal with the new norm of very hot and dry summer weather — though I think that must only apply to Seattle natives who are over 30. My 18 year-old son loves the hot weather and is used to it — and why shouldn’t he be? We had our first triple-digit summer when he was a newborn. This climate-changed Seattle summer weather is his norm.

But let me break down some of the biggest problems I see with the essay, and why I cannot let it speak for me as a local yokel:

“A regular diet of trouncing through the snow at Mount Baker, catching surf perch at Kalaloch and dozing in wildflowers at Sunrise — or just knowing that we could — brings perspective, and serves as a powerful common denominator.” 

The prose is lulling. The scene set is idyllic. BUT, these are places and activities that assume a level of privilege and economics that are not available to everyone, even those born in Seattle. I was born into a working middle class family. I have only been to the Mount Baker National Forest once in my life,from the Seattle Times and it was literally a quick toe dip in for a day excursion. I can honestly say that I have never been to Kalaloch or Sunrise — two places that are resort-like destinations that require leisure time, investment in gear, and money. I know he was just picking these three places as examples, but my point is not the locations themselves; my point is that to list any destinations and activities like this that require capital and commodities that often far outstrip what was available to the average lower- or middle-class Seattle family and say that these experiences are our common denominators as natives is elitist and exclusionary. This fairy tale life was not available to large sections of the city that were not lucky enough to be born in Overlake Hospital.

This pomposity runs rampant through the essay. Not everyone rows crew before breakfast. Not everyone drives Subarus. Clam chowder with a tomato base is delicious and I’ve been eating it since I was 4.

As an alternative, I would like to share some of my thoughts of what it means to be a native of the City of Seattle (I cannot speak for those who grew up outside of the city in places like Bellevue and the eastside).

For most of us over the age of 30, our families were drawn to Seattle by the military, Boeing, Weyerhaeuser/logging industry, or the maritime/fishing industry. This truly is a city built on blue-collar industry and all of us have family here because of it. We exist as Seattlites because of these industries. Sure, in the 80s some ancestors also built the tech industry, but what brought the Gates and the Allens to the Seattle area in the first place?

My grandmother came to Seattle after the war with her baby (my mom) because her parents and younger siblings relocated here to work in the Navy shipyards. My father visited Seattle with the military during Seafair Fleet Week in the 60s when he met my mom. I am a native of Seattle because of the military, like many, many of my friends and neighbors.

It’s true that all natives are linked to our natural bodies of water. Our life experiences have been shaped by water. Our city is shaped by water. We have a lot of water from which to choose, no matter what our economic situation is since they could all be reached by Joe Metro and a transfer slip. You could have your pick between saltwater on the sound or fresh water in a lake large enough to be an inland sea. And Lake Washington is accessible to everyone for swimming — luckily our public beaches far outnumber our private ones. We don’t need to drive for hours on end to the Olympic peninsula to catch surf perch; we all grew up catching those little perch with our hands or with a found bucket or cup while swimming at Madison Park or Seward Park or Matthews Beach, usually while watching the hydroplane races.

This is a very young city, so being a Seattle native means that you either witnessed a lot of firsts if you are over 50 (literally the birth of this metropolis), you lived through the social experiment of school busing if you are between 40 and 50, or you are part of the younger technological generation that is shaping the city today. Those of us in the middle group have very interesting (and good!) stories to share, but another day… Ron Judd is correct that we are shaped by our environment, but our environment is not just the forests of the national parks.

Perhaps one of the reasons that those of us over 40 lament the rapid changes we see in our city is because we are fully aware of just how young our city is still. While developers may see a 1940s building as having little value, we recognize that our buildings don’t get much older than that. Those buildings are our history — not as old as the historical sites being protected in cities such as New York and Chicago, but they are all we have.

The rapid growth of the city even in my lifetime has been mind-boggling. I remember how excited I was to see Seattle get a half-page in a history textbook when I was in grade school — I had never seen acknowledgement of Seattle as a city before. Seattle was so far removed from the rest of the country that we thought we were all alone up here. Even though I have now traveled all over the country (and the world), I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept that people living in one city could easily and quickly visit another city. My first train ride from Boston to New York blew my mind, and I was in my late 20s by that point. Growing up in Seattle, it took three and a half hours to reach the next city… and that city was only Portland (it takes two days to reach San Francisco by car, unless you have a screaming colicky baby with you in which case it only takes 16 hours. Speeding. With no potty breaks.).

There is a lot more to say on this subject, but I better wrap up this entry before I become long-winded like the original Times essay. Newcomers, here is what I wish for you to learn from me today in this moment:

1. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Please stop tearing down all of our buildings. They are the only physical links we have to our past.

2. Please stop telling me that I don’t use umbrellas. “Real” Seattle people use them when we have to walk for an extended distance. We just don’t bother if we are darting back and forth from the car or if it’s too windy. So please just stop.

3. Also, please stop telling the world that the only way to eat a hot dog in Seattle is with cream cheese. I don’t know who came up with that crap but it’s disgusting.

Ta ta for now~

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4 thoughts on “A Seattle native’s thoughts on Ron Judd’s “Seattle natives” essay

  1. Elitist is right. Way to welcome people, Ron. The “freeze” does exist. In twelve years, I’ve tried repeatedly to get to know our neighbors, but they continue to “freeze” us out. Finally just said, “to hell with them,” and we don’t worry about it. We find friends elsewhere.
    The other thing that noticed was that he lumped the Eastside and Seattle together. Wrong! Having lived on both sides of the water, I noticed the subtle differences. There’s a different mindset with people on the Eastside, as there is with people who don’t live within Seattle proper. To assume that these populations have the same set of values is presumptuous.

  2. Hi Jen,
    My name is David. I just started my own blog. Like you, I feel I have a lot (too much?) to say. I was born here in 1961, and my blog is about Seattle, my memories of it growing up, impressions of what it’s like now, and just about everything Ron Judd touched upon. I googled his article and also found the link to your post on the topic.
    Just thought I’d share with you that I very much enjoyed your response. I am currently composing a response myself that I will be posting soon. I love the irony, and you pointed this out, of a man born on the Eastside, obviously coming from a place of higher economic means that the world I live in, speaking for “all of us.” I think that’s what bothered me the most about his diatribe. Not the opinions themselves, but the irritating fact that he felt entitled to speak for all of us.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. I hope to read more soon!
    David

    • Hi David- Thank you for your thoughts and for letting me know about your foray into blogging as well! I look forward to following you… and to our future exchanges of what it means to be a “local yokel” these days when we are clearly outnumbered. 🙂 We may be ten years apart in age, but our experiences are probably a lot more alike than anything I may have in common with my 18 year old Seattle native kid.

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