Sunday, March 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Letters to the editor

Newcomers have worn out the old-timers

I have read a number of articles recently with a similar theme as "Seattle (N)ice" (Feb. 13); how Seattle natives are unfriendly to newcomers, despite our friendly, polite outward appearance. The majority of these articles are written from the point of view of the Seattle newcomer and, therefore, are not fair to us lifelong and longtime Seattle residents.

People who haven't lived here since at least the 1980s have no idea how much Seattle has changed in the past 15 years. Prior to 1990, Seattle was a small city with a unique personality, highlighted by an appreciation of the natural beauty around us. We were a sensible city, not a flashy one.

The change began around 1990. Seattle's unique culture had developed a form of music that would take the world by storm: Grunge. Seattle had also fostered the growth of the most dominant software company the world had ever seen: Microsoft.

People around the world began to hear about our little town. All of a sudden Seattle became "a place to be." Money magazine named us the "Best Place to Live in America." The streets of Seattle were paved with gold, and masses of people began to move here.

At first, we Seattleites were welcoming to the newcomers. We invited them into our circle of friends and our homes. But the newcomers kept coming and coming. Soon we were overwhelmed. It felt like an invasion. And they kept coming.

Then Seattle began to change.

By the mid- to late 1990s, all anybody could talk about was their stock options. Seattle roads became filled with Mercedes, BMWs, Land Rovers and Hummers that were bought/leased to impress. Pre-1990, the most extravagant car anybody owned was a sensible Volvo station wagon, which was serviced by Oddvar in Ballard.

Small, single-family homes with unique architecture in Magnolia, Ballard, Queen Anne and West Seattle were ripped down and replaced with generic monstrosities and six-unit townhouse developments. Farms on the Eastside were cleared and replaced with five-acre lots including 4,500-square-foot McMansions, four-car garages and sport courts.

All of a sudden, many of our friends and family were priced out of the housing market. They couldn't afford to live in the neighborhood in which they grew up. If you didn't have a job with stock options, you were doomed to "drive until you qualify." Our teachers, firefighters and police officers were forced farther and farther out of the city.

It's like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; the newcomers come here to experience the late-1980s Seattle way of life (as depicted in "Singles"), but their arrival in overwhelming numbers changes the magical Seattle characteristics that created that culture. Their very arrival dooms the culture they want to experience.

So just because we don't fulfill some newcomer's deluded fantasy of having a "Friends" or "Sex in the City" type of life, is it really fair to blame the people of Seattle or should we blame the brainwashingly efficient marketing of television sitcom producers?

Is this provincial thinking? Maybe.

Is it fair to blame newcomers for our plight? Probably not.

Is it "sour grapes"? Perhaps.

Whether or not the feeling of blaming the newcomer is valid, it doesn't change the fact that the feeling exists. Perhaps Emmett Watson was voicing not only his own opinion but the opinion of many Seattleites.

So please be sensitive and look at it from our viewpoint. We're friendly people, but the constant influx of newcomers to Seattle has drained our pool of welcome feelings. Their arrival has drastically and permanently changed our city, and not necessarily for the better.

There's little we can do to stem the tide that is sweeping away our beloved Seattle of yesterday. But we don't have to be happy about it.

— Mike Mihalik, Seattle

Wear those red pants proudly

I loved "Seattle (N)ice" (Feb. 13) and felt so validated. I am a transplant originally from San Diego and a woman of color who has found Seattle an extremely tough nut to crack (Brazil nuts would be easier to open and tons more friendly, in my opinion). I have lived here now almost 12 years, and I always qualify the fact that I am a transplant from California and not a Seattleite (I never want to be considered someone who is from Seattle; sad isn't it?).

Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this article: You captured so eloquently my thoughts, feelings and experiences here these past 11 ½ years; if it were not for my elderly mom and most of my family residing here, I would have moved away long ago. I will definitely check out Julie Martin's mixer group, and if you have any contact information for Gabriel Tevrizian, please pass along my contact information below: red-pant-wearing people of Seattle unite!

— Lisa M. Taylor, Seattle

Not really a lonely planet

Your article ("Seattle (N)ice, Feb. 13) was hilarious and amazing! As a New Jersey transplant, I've lived here for six years and all I can say is thank you for articulating what I've always known but never been able to precisely put my finger on as astutely as you have done in your article. Recently I was talking about this with my buddy Roger (also a transplant from New Jersey), and we decided what was missing in our social life that every single person on the East Coast has, whether you're a retired school teacher or a fashion model: big groups of laughing friends. You do kind of learn to put your ebullient personality in a box while you live here. And before you know it you're in a public place, staring into a PowerBook, e-mailing friends in other states, iPod earphones of garlic around your neck. That was me last night at Victrola. The scary part is when you don't realize there's anything wrong with it. You brought me back to my senses!

Warmly (and I'm not just saying it),

Scout Colmant, Seattle

Like paradise, but with missionaries

I want to send heartfelt thanks for your wonderful piece, "Seattle (N)ice" (Feb. 13) in the Sunday Times magazine.

The piece rang so completely true to my experiences here for the past two years. I, too, was dazzled, initially, by the orderly and polite routine that Seattle presents to the outlander. But I soon became aware of the chilly barrier that frustrated all attempts to move beyond it. My experiences here took the minor, antisocial loner part of my character and grew it full bloom. I have become convinced that there is something in the Seattle consciousness that is so afraid others will like it, that they will do anything to get you to leave, but in the nicest, most passive-aggressive manner possible.

Seattle culture is like the people who sat in the front row in school. Always perfectly polite and prepared for class. Always, "right in their places with bright shiny faces." After awhile you just want to pour a bucket of mud on them.

I also really appreciated the quote from the man who said, "There's no sexual energy here at all." I've lived in every West Coast city, and nowhere have I experienced a town so utterly de-sexualized and stiflingly provincial.

The most frustrating part is, of course, that there is so much to like here. It's like living in paradise, after the missionaries came and ruined the place.

— Dennis Norwood, Ballard

Churches offer friendship

My wife and I just moved to the Seattle area from Orange County Calif. We arrived on Jan. 1 and both started new jobs on Jan. 3. Our experience indicates that the Seattle freeze may only be intermittent.

During our house hunting trip in December, we selected a church to attend — a church that just started a couple of months ago called "Sanctuary" that meets in the Greenwood area. In a short time, through serving together on a variety of church projects, we have about 30 good friends. Maybe people are looking for friends and community in the wrong places?

Each year in Orange County, people vote on the best places to meet others and find friends through the local newspaper. Every year the top three places are local churches. The heat from authentic Christian community can melt any freeze!

— Gary Kingsbury, Shoreline

Join the club

KUDOS for your article about "Seattle's Social Dis-ease" in the Feb. 13, Pacific Northwest magazine. You exactly captured the feeling newcomers have.

Do you know about Newcomers Club? That is yet another way for people to get acquainted and make friends, but the target is for a different group than young singles. The Newcomers Club of Greater Seattle is celebrating its 50th anniversary in March, at the College Club. Unbelievable that a club could be around 50 years and be such a secret. (Someone once told me that anything worth knowing about in the Puget Sound area is found out about only by word of mouth. Seems to be true. Another aspect of Seattle's chilly side?)

Newcomers, as a national organization, was formed primarily for wives of executives and military officers who were transferred a lot. Our chapter is open to any woman who has moved, even within the area, and wants new friends. (We have one member who lived in Edmonds for five years and made no friends. When she moved to West Seattle she found out about Newcomers and is one of our more active members now.) We have women who range in age from 30+ to 80+, from Kent to Everett and east to west. The women come from all over the world: we have members from many states, Canada, England, Indonesia and China. We come from many backgrounds with different interests and economic levels. Many of us have lived in many, many places. All of us are interesting!

What seems to be lacking in other get-together groups is something for older folks. Almost without exception every retired person I've met who is new to the area is here because of children/grandchildren. It feels particularly hard for retirees to make new friends with similar interests. (Although according to your article, it isn't any harder than it is for young folks.)

Without Newcomers I wouldn't have survived living here the past four years. Every single one of the many friends we have made here we met through Newcomers. (We gave a party last year and 70 people came.) The organization has a monthly meeting, lunches, a Couples' group, a gadabouts group, hiking and all sorts of games groups. We have fund-raisers and charity events. And we have a bond that we can't forge with anyone else who hasn't lived outside of Washington.

Thank you again for your article, and thank you for letting me expound on what has made me appreciate my new friends. To contact the Newcomers Club of Greater Seattle send an e-mail to

— Dee Busch, Everett

Patient but not friendly

This was a good story. Many details right on spot. I would argue that Seattle folks are not friendly, they are polite. Big difference. I don't find citizens particularly warm here, just unbelievably patient. It is a pity that casual exchanges at the checkout counter or waiting for a bus are not valued. I theorize that five friends are assigned in the first grade in Seattle. If you lose them all through attrition, too bad.

I would never live anywhere else. Natural beauty, perfect climate, tolerant and diverse community. But making friends here is way too hard. After seven years, I have only four true friends. I certainly cherish them.

Thanks for the article. I'm sending it to my family "back home" so they realize I wasn't exaggerating about how lonely it can be here at times.

— Deborah Perkinson, Seattle

Seattle both nice and friendly

Not only is Seattle nice, the city and its people are kind, polite, warm and friendly. I have lived here for eight years and haven't seen any "ice" this article talks about. When we moved here, we were immediately befriended by a work colleague and her husband, and we actually did things together. Our neighbor ended up becoming one of our best friends who we talked to about personal things on a daily basis, not just superficial things on an occasional basis. Months after we arrived here, I was invited to a party where I met a few nice people. All these years later, those few nice friends are still in my life and have multiplied into scores of friends, all the way from close friends to acquaintances.

Yes, I have had plenty of people flake out on me like the article says, but don't you need to meet and talk to a lot of people before you find that good friend you want to hang out with? Many times when I went to nightclubs, parties or community functions, I realized later that it was me who was being cold and not the other person. Once I started warming up and being an nice as everyone else, I found making and keeping friends was quite easy. I have traveled to a lot of cities in the U.S., and I beg to disagree with this article. Seattle is by far the nicest and friendliest city in our country.

— Michael Arnold, Seattle

'It's fine by me'

"But the dichotomy most fundamental to our collective civic character is this: Polite but distant. Have a nice day. Somewhere else."

This may be a problem for "those not from here," but it's fine by me. I am from here and get darn tired of being told that my solitariness is a "problem." People not able to cope with being alone should come here with someone — simple, eh?

Now go the heck away and let me get back to what I was doing, which was enjoying not being burdened by your insipid, mindless chitchat.

— Sue Montgomery, Native Washingtonian and 36-year Seattle resident, Seattle

Breaking into the cliques

Thank you for your article on the cliquishness that prevails in Seattle. It's high time this phenomenon got exposed, admitted and discussed. But one thing you fail to mention is it's not just a matter of Seattleites versus outsiders. I was born and raised here and feel the same way as the people you interview, who hail from New Jersey, California, even Argentina. It's really a matter of those who belong to cliques versus those who don't — regardless of where they come from. In that sense, it's even more like high school than you suggest.

— Benjamin Lukoff, Seattle

Feeling frosty down South

As someone born and raised in Seattle, and now unfortunately living in Alabama I found the story of "Social Dis-Ease" interesting. Upon moving to the deep south (Boeing) I was expecting or at least hoping for some of that Southern hospitality. After 15 years I'm still waiting.

We've had many southern families over to dinner, but only two return invitations. Church is the No. 1 one social and other activity here, and, believe me, if you're not one of them forget it. Trust me, getting the cold shoulder at a church activity is really a strange feeling.

Unfortunately it also extends to my children's social life, because most 'play dates' are set up by parents who are friends my kids get maybe two a year. My son went two years straight without getting invited to a birthday party, this despite the fact that his entire class was invited to his birthday and also a Halloween party. My daughter is very social and will even ask people if she can go over to their house. Alas, she too gets no invitations.

I don't think it is just one part of the country that is unsocial, I think it has more to do with busy lifestyles and not wanting to add anymore to your plate. After if you grew up somewhere and have a good social group you don't feel the need to add more into the mix.

— April Davis, Huntsville, Ala.

The 'politely rude'

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Julia Sommerfeld for your right-on version of Seattleites.

I have been waiting 25 years for someone to write an article about this town. I always described the people of the city as "politely rude." Then I blamed it on the weather, and then I thought maybe they just don't like to do anything, so I spend my energy taking trips.

There is no open-door policy, and you don't get invited unless it involves a gift. I had four parties last year and never was invited to one by anyone else. I always thought it was me, now I know it is not! The culture of this city is very hard to get into. Everyone always talks about how beautiful it is, that's because its the only conversation that is left when you are alone. I am still looking for a group of misfits. So do you know anything about groups for women reaching 50 that does not include yoga and the tennis club? I was actually looking forward to turning 50 thinking I would make friends when I joined the red hats!

I appreciate you candor and wish you great success. You have no idea how many people you have touched with your article.

With warm regards, and you are welcome in my home anytime,

— Pam Wilson, Shoreline

Native doesn't miss the chill

As a second-generation Seattle "native" who no longer lives in the Northwest, I was grabbed by your article on Seattle's iciness. It wasn't until I met my husband (who is a global nomad having lived in England, Canada, Southern and Northern California before arriving in Seattle) that I was confronted with what the author calls the "Seattle Freeze."

My husband had lived in Seattle for more than six months but confided that I was the first person he'd met who was actually from the city.

Through him I met a number of other new transplants and at the same time began a job at the University of Washington. Like Jodi O'Brien mentions, faculty members from all over the world often remarked about how difficult it was to meet people.

I still blush when I remember a conversation I had with a new professor who confided she couldn't even find someone to give her a ride to Target (she didn't have a car yet). I didn't get the hint and just thought, "Well, that's horrible." I didn't offer her a ride or ever make the effort to socialize with her outside of work. I liked her, but it just didn't even occur to me.

When my husband and I moved to Long Beach, Calif., about six years ago I was immediately overwhelmed by how friendly people were. Not just polite, but actually friendly. I didn't always know how to respond. Case in point: I had just begun surfing and was at an art gallery show. An acquaintance introduced me to a woman who had also recently begun surfing. She asked for my number, and I gave it to her. The next day there was a message from her asking if I wanted to surf that week. I was shocked. "Isn't that weird?" I asked my husband. "That girl called me!"

I almost deleted the message, thinking that anyone who would call someone they didn't know was desperate or psychotic. My husband just looked at me with disgust — "She just wants to surf with you." Embarrassed, I called her back and ended up surfing with her at least once a week for the next several years. She continues to be one of my best friends.

Why is Seattle such a difficult place to make friends? I'm not sure. I know that for me I made most of my friends when I was still in grade school and junior high. Never having to put myself out there to meet new friends meant that I didn't empathize with newcomers who didn't have a choice. Had I moved to Seattle instead of Long Beach I'm sure I would relate quite well to them now.

Is Seattle's reserve a byproduct of Nordic-Asian social communication and the history of a transient population? Maybe. I'm a pretty typical Seattleite. My grandparents emigrated from Norway and Denmark in the early 1900s, and my grandfathers worked at various times as fishermen, loggers, and sailors. They were blue collar, Scandinavian, and reserved. As young men they spent large portions of time in Alaska and working outside of the city. Maybe this contributed to a general distance in the way people interact (but this doesn't explain the same iciness in women — wouldn't they learn to depend on friends and neighbors during their husbands' lengthy absences?).

In the six years since I left Seattle, there are about a million things that I desperately miss about it, but the social reserve isn't one of them (and the whole "you must not be from Seattle" — um, OK — isn't either). When my husband and I recently contemplated moving home I realized that my biggest source of trepidation was just this attitude.

— Kristin Mehus-Roe, Long Beach, Calif.

Where fear prevails

The "Seattle (N)ice" story only touches the tip of the iceberg. What made Seattle a warm, friendlier town is now missing not only for singles, in the dating scene, but in general, in all the basic manners encountered daily.

This town is not full of "Californians," if you're looking to point a finger, but full of truly scared individuals who believe in a computer culture mentality and don't believe anyone else exists out there that can't be found or communicated with totally by impersonal ways, i.e.-e-mail, instant messaging, voice mail, any way but face to face.

By setting up an insulated safety zone, communicating quickly and non-intimately, it makes them feel that may be impenetrable, or they feel invincible and can't get hurt or show who they truly are.

This used to be a town of reserved, yet friendly people, and once you entered the circle of friendship, they were true blue and loyal, people you could count on, trust, know like family. In the past few years, especially, the past four, boorishness, time-wasting politeness and outright arrogance, is more the attitude. I think they do this so others keep their distance, and because they have had no human contact outside a computer screen. Let's face it, everyday encounters are difficult — one has to be polite, civil, able to talk cohesively and intelligently, so why bother? Hurry up and get out of my way so I can go back to the safety of my environment where I can communicate in the only way I know that I'm comfortable with.

I make my living in the service industry — offer consumers a chance to sit face to face with an award-winning jewelry couture designer allowing them the opportunity to create their dream piece. I do six to 12 shows a year to meet people, especially potential brides.

At the shows, I'm usually slammed with people congregating around my booth, telling me just how exciting, how different my pieces are. Yet, if I ask to follow up with them, I get total shut down. I just don't understand then why the false buildup and phoniness and taking all that time to do so. And being there in person, displaying live goods, able to answer and offer services, 99 percent of the people ask — "Do you have a Web site?" I'm at the point where I don't want to do the shows or talk to the attendees, as they aren't truly looking for the services I can offer, because it takes human contact, the act of sitting face to face and talking and exploring intimacies to help develop the look they may seek. Yet they'll settle for a ready-made catalogue item because they don't have to be involved.

They usually aren't happy doing this as they aren't getting what they truly desire. Yet a few years ago, they were. There was no phoniness, no pretentions, the enthusiasm truly was genuine. They realized the service, the quality and the gratification that having a custom couture piece of jewelry as being unique.

Now, the consumer and citizen of this city leaves a lot to be desired. They say they all want service, concern, the sense of feeling important and being treated with respect, same issues as in dating. Yet when it is offered to them, they'll poo-poo it and run.

I'm now realizing that it isn't me, rather it's them. They are intimidated by exactly what they are looking for, because they have no idea how to respond. It is so easy, whether you're dating or shopping, to be genuine and sincere and not expect miracles in seconds, allowing the natural progression of time to manifest what it is they're looking for. But since this culture, especially in this area where computers are the norm for conducting all aspects of living, whether dating, shopping, looking for movies, ordering food, allowing you to remain segregated from all external human contact, it truly enables people with no manners or concerns for others to flourish. And by being a phony, and by dealing and surrounding themselves by like minded individuals, instead of growing and seeking the best for themselves in all aspects of their life, they'd rather belittle and trivialize the ideas or feelings that are outside their comfort zone.

So what's the easiest thing to do in life? It's a lot easier to always say no, and be negative than to think for a minute, realize what the potentials could be, how much better it can make their life. But theirs is a new mentality that prevails in this city today, which is a total shutdown of new and different ideas or exposures that threaten to change their sense of normalcy, which is a total lack of intimacy, and perhaps how unlazy they may have to become to attain it.

Ho-hum. No wonder the skies are so gray here — blaseness and fear prevail. What made this city great, the people who weren't afraid to think outside the box, the people who valued individualism and uniqueness, the people who strove to make Seattle unlike other big cities, have disappeared and the new leaders(?) aren't the visionaries, the friendlies. Rather, they are scared, frightened, unthinkers who will make this the most unfriendly city in the States. We need to embrace more fondly not the Bill Gates' but the Bubblemans of this city who bring joy, a smile, a certain charm and civility that is quickly dying and being replaced by a true Steppford wifish sense of realism.

— Daniel Shames, Seattle

Attempting to thaw in Germany

Everything you wrote is so true! The further I read, the more I thought, "Oh dear, yes that's me." I am dealing with the flip side of the coin; I am a Seattleite no longer living at home. I live in Berlin, Germany, where Berliners are dedicated to living in a community and network of friends and acquaintances, where people you meet at a party really do call, and where long-lost acquaintances call up to schedule a night out.

I'm trying to open up and, as they say, recognition is the first step. My saving grace is that my German husband, whom I met during his exchange year at the University of Washington, knows my background and can put up with it!

Again, thank you for your story. I very much enjoyed reading it, despite the fact that the long-term social implications of the "Seattle Freeze" are rather disconcerting.

— Beth Coffey, Berlin

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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