American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
February 2016

ASA in the Emerald City

Jerald R. Herting, University of Washington
Jennifer McKinney, Seattle Pacific University

A Washington State Ferry makes its way across Elliott Bay under the watchful eye of the Space Needle

A Washington State Ferry makes its way across Elliott Bay under the watchful eye of the Space Needle. Photographer: Howard Frisk

We welcome ASA to Seattle in 2016. The Association was last here in 1958 when the city was leaving behind its label as “Gateway to Alaska and the Orient” to become the “Gateway to the 21st Century,” theme of the 1962 World’s Fair. Since then Seattle has grown from a city of about 560,000 to a city of 670,000 with a metropolitan area of more than 3.6 million. It has also changed its official moniker to the “Emerald City.”

Since 1958, Seattle has also moved from primarily a one-industry town (Boeing) to an international city steeped in business and technological innovation as well as the home to Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Zillow, Nordstrom, and Starbucks. Seattle has its corporate giants, but it also has its local small start-up entrepreneurial, even frontier, spirit. In late August you will find Seattle and surrounds to be quite pleasing, with the sunniest skies you have ever seen (unless it rains) and great views of the Cascades, the Olympics, and Mt Rainier (if they are out from behind the clouds). You will also find a Seattle that is building and moving, on the forefront of change and making history, yet losing some ground and generating problems, contradictions, and protest along the way. We hope the planned tours and local sessions capture these movements. Below we illustrate some key features and spotlights of Seattle you are likely to discover outside of the convention hall.

Neighborhoods: Housing, Diversity, and Dramatic Change

Seattle felt the economic downturn of 2007-08 but not as dramatically as many urban areas and has recovered faster than other urban locations. Population growth in Seattle proper was 10 percent between 2010 and 2015. And the boom seems likely to continue, with Amazon alone projected to expand and house an additional 50,000 employees. This has placed pressures on the many neighborhoods that dot Seattle’s hills and valleys. In 2014, Census data revealed that Seattle saw the steepest rent increases of any major U.S. city—an 11 percent increase in the median rent from 2013. The city’s median house price of $525,900 is more than seven times the city’s annual median income. Many neighborhoods are gentrifying and changing their ethnic, racial, and economic composition and, in general, what is new is mostly expensive and what is old is being purchased and made expensive.

Seattle’s topography lends itself to different neighborhoods. There are communities on hills (Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill) and communities in valleys (Madison Valley, Rainier Valley). Seattle is about 30 percent minority, with the largest group being Asian (about 13%). It has a historical presence of Japanese and Chinese from the late 1800s/early 1900s and is home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the country. The African American community in the Central District grew primarily due to the migration streams in the post-WWII era and more recently African refugees have been arriving from Somalia and elsewhere. Seattle is home to one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States, zip code 98118 in the Columbia City neighborhood, and has a school district with a registration of over 129 languages. It is a city of old and new migrant streams.

The Environment, Sustainability, and Food Movement

Seattle is lush and green. In August the local choice for recreation may be kayaking and paddle boarding in Lake Union and Lake Washington or hiking in the Cascade or Olympic mountains. Seattleites enjoy their outdoor spaces, helping the city and surrounds be on the cutting edge of sustainability in the urban environment. The Mayor’s office and the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment launched the Equity and Environment Initiative to insure a strong social justice commitment to environmental improvements/sustainability. Seattle is ranked fifth by The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy for policies and programs advancing energy efficiency. The recently completed Bullitt Center is considered the greenest commercial building in the world and is only tied to the city’s water system because of the fire code. Seattle passed a plastic bag ban in 2012 to stop the flow of nearly 292 million plastic bags into the Puget Sound. Retailers are prohibited from distributing plastic carryout bags to customers and consumers must bring their own bags or purchase paper bags for five cents to carry out store purchases. Recycling and composting is ubiquitous, easy, and the mandated by law.

Another feature of green Seattle is urban farming. P-Patches (starting from the north Seattle neighborhood Picardo Farm in 1973) abound across the city (over 80 patches) where local neighborhood residents obtain a plot of ground for community farming and community engagement. Gardens not only feed their specific tenants but in 2014 alone, P-Patch gardeners donated almost 41,300 pounds of produce to area food banks and feeding programs. In addition, larger urban farms such as the Rainier Beach Urban Farm provide work for homeless teens and food for local community shelters. Local food movement and production are also key features of local eateries and Seattle-made craft products. This includes small craft or micro-distilleries that use local leftover produce from nearby farms and fully run their operations on a zero waste, renewable energy agenda; developing new venues for local farmers to distribute and sell their produce in markets across the city (beyond the Pike Street Market); and supporting community kitchen programs that bring communal cooking to shelters and immigrant communities.

Labor Movement

The growth and change has brought both economic well-being and inequality. The newer technology industry employers are nearly all non-union entities, yet Seattle and the state of Washington have a long history of strong labor movements. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 represented the first large-scale general strike in the U.S. and the 1999 WTO anti-globalization protests were not unsurprising given Seattle’s labors activism. In November 2013, the small suburban city of SeaTac (just South of Seattle) passed Proposition 1, authorizing a $15 minimum wage policy phased in over several years; after surviving a lawsuit filed by business groups, the policy went into effect in January 2014. Current labor organization among Seattle’s fast-food workers have created the 15Now campaign to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and the Seattle City Council expanded a $15 minimum wage policy to be met by 2017 or 2020 depending on the size of employer. Seattle has also passed legislation guaranteeing paid sick and family leave to city employees.

The above are just a few of the current activities and actions in the local area. We have left out much more…. that Seattle has a vibrant music and arts scene and is the home of Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Macklemore; that Seattleites are obsessed with views, that there are corner stores selling marijuana; that a pleasant end of the evening is a half-hour ferry ride back and forth between Bainbridge Island and downtown; and that there are likely, once again, plenty seats available in August at the Mariner’s baseball games.