Seattle plastic bag ban creates City of Clutchers

Over the past few weeks I have seen what looks to me like the remains of broken eggs in the parking lot of several Seattle supermarkets, as well as an overall increase in unpicked-up dog poop. It strikes me these are unintended consequences of an environmentally motivated local law that took effect on July 1 generally prohibiting stores from providing flimsy plastic grocery bags.

I was out of town on the East Coast meditating about the legacy of founding father Thomas Paine when the law kicked in. Upon my return a week later I noticed changes in the habits of my fellow Seattleites. Many had begun bringing to the stores their own resusable cloth bags–and in one instance I witnessed, a suitcase with wheels–to carry out their groceries. But a large number simply gathered up their purchases and waddled to their cars–with, it seems, various degrees of success.

So allow me to bestow another municipal nickname. As I see it, the Emerald City has become the City of Clutchers. Continue reading

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Is the continuing rain dampening the Seattle psyche?

On Wednesday, July 18, the main story of The Seattle Times was about a series of thunderstorms hereabouts that caused minimal damage. I kid you not. The headline was “Rare show of power lights up Northwest.” The article was accompanied by an above-the-fold three-quarters-of-the-way-across-the-page color photo of a multi-strand bolt descending from the heavens upon West Seattle. (The web version I linked to simply does not do full justice to the print display.)

Thunderstorms–you know, the kind of wet weather with light and sound–are pretty rare around Puget Sound for climatological reasons I have no ability whatsoever to comprehend. I think this set of storms was only the second of its kind I have witnessed since becoming New To Seattle a year ago. The rarity of such events seemed to be the hook for the story (although I suppose a very slow news day cannot be ruled out, either).

But lead, stop-the-press prominence topping the front page of a major American newspaper?

To me, the subtext–and maybe the more significant but unwritten story–might be what the continuing rain is quietly doing to the psyche of the Seattle population. Continue reading

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Seattle’s love-hate relationship with its downtown waterfront

Downtown Seattle waterfront (via City of Seattle)

Over the year since becoming New To Seattle, I have been conducting an experiment. At random, I asked people whom I encounter in Seattle neighborhoods to tell me when they last visited the downtown waterfront.

Almost always, the answer was to the effect of either not in the last year or “I can’t remember the last time.”

One woman told me she stopped visiting the Seattle Aquarium, which sits on a pier jutting out into Elliott Bay, because it cost too much to park ($12 for three hours at the top-listed garage on the Aquarium’s website). Another said there were just-as-nice places around Seattle a lot easier to get to. One person expressed fear about street crime, particularly at the northern end in Belltown.

So much for local perceptions of Seattle’s spiritual core, its raison d’être, the original economic engine. Continue reading

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Calling all behavioral economists: Stay in Seattle

Work of mischief-makers near the Route 520 Bridge   (via QFox13)

At the start of the year I wrote about how the re-imposition of tolls on the Route 520 Bridge, one of the two spans going east from Seattle across Lake Washington to the suburbs of Bellevue and Microsoft-land, is a terrific laboratory for behavioral economists. Those are the folks who study how psychology affects personal spending decisions, or, to put it a little less kindly, why people make so many stupid mistakes when it comes to their money.

In the case of Seattle, the issue concerning the bridge is how many  motorists would decide to avoid what is now a minimum one-way peak-hour toll of $3.59 (which sounds more like a gas gallon price) by driving miles out of their way to take the free Interstate 90 bridge or go around one end of the narrow 22-mile-long lake. Including the extra gas, vehicle depreciation and especially the value of one’s additional travel time, the “free” routes cost several times more.

Nevertheless, from what I, New To Seattle, can tell, a large number of drivers have fled the Route 520 bridge, which is formally named the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge-Evergreen Point. These motorists seem to focus solely on the tolls, ignoring all the other costs, although some may be deriving pleasure from simply sticking it to the state no matter what the personal expense (that’s the psychology part of behavioral economics). The extra driving has helped make things on the roads even worse in Seattle. A new study just ranked the city the country’s fourth most traffic congested big city–up from 12th last year, before the tolls.

But hey, behavioral economists, don’t leave town yet! The state is whipping up yet another petri dish for your professional scrutiny. Continue reading

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Far from Seattle, Thomas Paine shrine lacks common sense

Every so often, I leave my New To Seattle venue to visit some place else. I am writing this in New Rochelle, N.Y., not because it has New in its name–that’s strictly a coincidence–but because I have in-laws here. As it happens, they live in a New York City suburb very near a shrine to the man whose writings are credited with triggering the big event that happened 236 years ago this very week on July 4, 1776.

But I have to tell you, from the standpoint of historical geography it ain’t much of a shrine. That’s because nothing of real significance happened there.

Thomas Paine Cottage in New Rochelle, N.Y.

I am referring to the Thomas Paine Cottage, which I visited for the first time this week after passing by it for decades. It’s perhaps the last tangible vestige of the English philosopher and revolutionary (1737-1809) who came to America in late 1774 and within 14 months published “Common Sense.” That was the best-selling manifesto for freedom so persuasive and fiery the Second Continental Congress borrowed large chunks of its logic when fashioning the Declaration of Independence just a few months later.

Why am I so down on this tribute to a man listed among the country’s Founding Fathers? Let me list some reasons: Continue reading

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The other museums of Seattle

Look, just about every big city has a big art museum. Seattle is certainly no different; the Seattle Art Museum downtown is a major institution. And there always seems to be a museum focusing on the environment, like the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington (named after one of Seattle’s richest residents in 1892). Moreover, a lot of populous places have an exhibition hall devoted to transportation, like the famous Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in South Seattle.

But seriously, how many cities have a museum devoted to pinball machines? Or large shoes? Or even just bizarre junk? Yes, Seattle has all these. You won’t find them in many tourist guides, allowing me–celebrating my one-year anniversary as New To Seattle–to expand your knowledge of what I consider to be a slightly quirky city. Continue reading

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Another curious fundraising pitch in Seattle

Those of you who follow this space know I sometimes write about Seattle-area fundraising pleas that to me don’t pass the sniff test. Sometime it’s a spot I hear on the radio. Other times it’s a telephone call, either from a person or a cleverly programmed interactive computer. The problem is usually not with the cause itself but with its financing or disclosure. After digging around I discover that little of the requested cash gift reaches anyone in need and most of it–in one case, 99.6%–goes to executive salaries, overhead and especially fundraising costs.

The other night, sitting at the New To Seattle world headquarters, I received a call that I would classify as another variation on this odorous theme.

The caller–a real person this time–said he represented  “King County Police Union Local 519.” (Seattle is in King County.) He asked for a non-tax-deductible contribution to support a child protection program called “My ID Club.” He described that as an endeavor that produces free laminated photo ID cards for young kids that could be tucked into, say, a backpack or bicycle helmet and provide quick contact information should a child be injured or found after getting lost. As though he was reading my mind, the caller added that “89% goes for the program; only 11% is overhead.”

Okay, I said I would be happy to review any written literature he sent me, but he said mailings aren’t used so as to cut printing and postage costs. He gave me a link to a website–kingcounty.myidclub.org–and said he would call back after I had a chance to look at the online information.

I haven’t gotten that promised return call. Which is probably a good thing for the caller. Because my poking around has now produced more red flags than a veterans day march in Moscow.

Continue reading

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Back to the future, in Seattle trash

As I have learned since becoming New To Seattle, the city fancies itself a progressive, forward-looking place, especially when it comes to trash and recycling. How far ahead of the curve? Take a close look below at the highlighted material on the screen shot I just took. It’s a page on the city’s Web site where you can find out what kind of trash is being picked up at a given address on a given day:

Assuming a month/day/year format is being used, the page was “last updated” three weeks before next Christmas.

Maybe someone is already thinking about covering for future time off.

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Monumental Seattle

I have this theory that you can tell something about the collective nature of a city by its monuments–the statues, public art, grave stones, and other outdoor objects that people can look at and ponder. Like all big cities, Seattle has no shortage of them and, thanks to dedicated public funding for artwork, actually might have more than the average. Approaching my one-year anniversary of becoming New To Seattle, I’ve had a chance to gaze at many of them.

Seattle has to be right up there when it comes to quirky monuments. Foremost among them, in my judgment, is the one shown across the top of this blog: the Fremont Troll. That’s an 18-foot-high sculpture on N. 36th Street of a one-eyed ogre clutching a Volkswagen Beetle seemingly snatched from the Aurora Bridge passing overhead through the Fremont neighborhood. Fashioned by four Seattle artists, it was unveiled on Halloween 1990 near the height of the “Californians Stay Away” movement, which is probably why that VW has a Golden State license plate. My, how times have changed: Seattle is now dependent upon relocating Californians to shore up sagging property values.

Lenin statue, Fremont, Seattle (via Wikipedia)

Three blocks to the west, at Evanston Avenue N. and N. 36th Street, stands what is one of the only statues in the U.S. depicting Vladimir Lenin, the murderous Bolshevik revolutionary behind Communism and the Soviet Union. Salvaged from Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communist rule in 1989, the 16-foot-high bronze sculpture was bought by a Seattle-area resident for $13,000 in 1993 and shipped here. Politically and culturally, the Fremont neighborhood fancies itself cut from a different cloth. To me its placement is oddly appropriate for another reason, since, as I have written here before, the Fremont section is named after a murderous war criminal from California. Continue reading

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Is Seattle still overreacting about string of killings?

Gunman Ian Stawicki in a Seattle coffee house after fatally wounding four (security video via Seattle Police Department)

Back in late February, I opined here that Seattle political leaders were overreacting in response to an increase in the number of murders for the 55 days of the year to date–seven compared with two for the comparable period of 2011. Yesterday’s killing of five by a nut case who then took his own life has brought the murder count to 21, more than the 20 recorded for all of last year.

It’s very sad, of course. But I don’t really see any reason to change my view that this is little more than a statistical blip, and that Seattle remains on balance a pretty safe big city when it comes to personal safety.Without minimizing in any way the awful effect on any victim or family, the numbers are still small.

Even if this rate continued, the city would end up the year with 50 murders,  far less than the 69 murders recorded in 1994. That would be about eight murders for every 100,000 residents, roughly the same rate as Denver. Here culled from the Internet are some big-city murders-per-100,000 comparisons from 2011: New Orleans, 52; Baltimore, 37; Hartford, Conn., 27; Philadelphia, 21; and Chicago, 16. Two cities with lower rates: New York City, 6, and Portland, Ore., 4. Continue reading

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Signs in Seattle of …. what?

One of my early posts after becoming New To Seattle last year concerned what struck me as the city’s extremely poor public signage. I considered the situation the worst I had seen since I lived three decades ago in Cairo, Egypt.

My essay was about street and traffic signs that didn’t help people get to where they wanted to go, like the unreadable street sign to the right in Ballard. But I now realize the problems with mass written communications in Seattle are a lot broader than that. Much of what I see does have the effect–undoubtedly unintended–of conveying a fair amount of humor, if only of the “What were they thinking?” variety. Witness my first and second posts about a billboard near the Fremont Bridge.

Here are some additional examples–with more pictures, of course. Continue reading

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The devil in Seattle’s suburbs: a tiger on the loose!

Sightings like this in Pierce County? (via Wikipedia)

Last month, I described Pierce County, immediately to the south of the county containing Seattle, as the West Coast equivalent of Long Island, N.Y.  That’s the suburban stretch of land running east from New York City so full of strange doings that The New York Times once ran a long magazine story entitled “The Devil in Long Island.” My post described Pierce County’s many bizarre murders, assorted other outrages and weird stuff, including the capture of a loose wallaby.

Now, if reports are to be believed, there’s a loose tiger. Right now!

As I type this, the Tacoma News Tribune and other media outlets are quoting the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office as saying a “Bengal tiger” is on the prowl. The sheriff’s office–several members of which, it should be noted, were recently convicted of perjury–got calls from witnesses in east Pierce County near the town of Puyallup, about 30 miles south of Seattle.

Authorities are rushing to the area while ordinary folk are rushing to Twitter. The hashtag @Puyallup_Tiger is trending with purported animalistic postings like, “I don’t care how hungry I am.. I’m not eating dogs… Or arbys.”

I just heard on the radio someone from the zoo in Seattle express doubt that there really could be a tiger on the lam in Pierce County. But the expert said it probably would be a good idea for residents to get off the street.

To me, New to Seattle, this is totally believable in Pierce County, although it may say as much–or more–about the mindset of the locals. As I wrote in April, the devil lurks in a lot of places.

UPDATE at 7:45 p.m.: A just-posted News Tribune story begins, “By early evening Thursday, at least three tigers were prowling around Puyallup.” I think this is the paper’s way of saying authorities now doubt there were any.

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What do so many no-solicitation signs say about Seattle?

No-solicitation sign on a home in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood

They’re as much a part of Seattle scenery as the mountains and the Sound–and maybe just as revealing. I’m referring to “no-solicitation” signs that grace the front of so many homes. I see them in every neighborhood I visit, sometimes on rows of houses at a time.

Over the four decades before I became New To Seattle last year, I lived in the four mainland U.S. time zones, more than a dozen residences. I’ve been in all 50 states. I can’t think of another city that literally screams “stay away from me” nearly this much. Continue reading

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Crosswalk rights in Seattle versus California

Since I became New To Seattle, I have been struck by the way Seattle drivers go out of their way to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks. Even if it is the law, I consider this an attribute of the local character. Believe me, it’s not that way in many other places across the country.

So in that light, consider the photo to the right I took on a trip this week to Southern California. It shows a sign posted at a pedestrian crosswalk in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, where I once lived.

The sign reads, “Caution Watch for Vehicles.”

When it comes to pedestrian crosswalk rights, California has pretty much the same law as Washington State. But clearly, someone felt it necessary to add an extra warning at one place in the Golden State.

I can just imagine the stink that would be raised in Seattle by a sign like this directed at pedestrians in a crosswalk rather than motorists. Another attribute of the local character.

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Different search engines see a different Seattle

When you think of Seattle, what do you think about first? The Space Needle? Grunge music? Starbucks? Rain?

Since I am New To Seattle, my perspective might be skewed.  So I conducted a little experiment. Borderline scientific, even. I went to some of the more prominent Internet search engines–yes, Google does have competition, even if it doesn’t amount to much–typed just one word into the search box and hit enter.

That one word: Seattle.

The engines all profess to deliver quickly what the customer really wants. So I confined my examination to the first search engine results page that came up. Paid ads–of which there were plenty–were ignored.

While there was overlap, I found some points of emphasis were, uh, interesting. Continue reading

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Seattle by the numbers

Seattle’s Space Needle (via Wikipedia)

Since becoming New To Seattle last year, I get peppered by friends across the country with all kinds of questions about my new city of habitual abode. Many of them seek quantitative answers. How big? How diverse? How rich? How expensive? How wet? How liberal? And the one I hear the most: What’s the real estate market like?

I even ask myself some of these questions.

So I thought I’d pull together some numbers for all to ponder. Much the information here comes from city-data.com, a commercial website that aggregates information from a variety of other sources. I can’t guarantee perfect accuracy, and some of the data sets seem to be a little old. Still, over the years I have found city-data.com to be, as the saying goes, good enough for government work.

Here goes. Continue reading

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Obama ‘endorses’ a mortgage broker in Seattle with a past

Now here’s something I have to think will be of interest to the White House–you know, the famous one in the Other Washington. A mortgage broker active in the Seattle market is currently running radio ads that include a lengthy sound bite of President Obama during a speech extolling the virtues of mortgage refinancing. The clip goes on and on. I keep hearing it on KOMO News Radio. You’d think Obama himself is endorsing the brokerage.

Hayes Barnard (via Paramount Equity Mortgage)

Which, aside from the fact that Obama has another day job and such things just aren’t done, would be quite a shock. Because the outfit, Paramount Equity Mortgage Inc. and its smooth-talking co-founder and president, Hayden D. (Hayes) Barnard, have, shall we say, a bit of a record in Washington State.  A little something about not playing fair with customers–and, believe it or not, running false and deceptive radio ads!

You can find the colorful details on the website of the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions. In 2009 Paramount, Barnard and two other executive owners paid nearly $400,000 to settle administrative charges the state brought a year earlier.  The allegations were incorporated in the settlement. One section, entitled, “False, Deceptive, and Misleading Advertising,” said that Paramount had run numerous radio spots in Western Washington making all kinds of claims that weren’t true, like that it was a bank. Continue reading

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Likkered up with an Amazon Kindle in Seattle

Back in September–when I was really New To Seattle–I wrote about the billboard pictured to the right. To me it was a little cheesy that the Foster School of Business, the famous, well-regarded B-school at the famous, well-regarded University of Washington two miles away, was promoting itself in the manner of Seattle-area strip clubs and fast-food restaurants.

I did allow that the sign’s position was clever–right where motorists would have to stop on Nickerson St. on the back side of Queen Anne Hill waiting for the oft-open Fremont Bridge. But I opined it was unlikely that such a long glance would trigger an imaginary car conversation like this:

Driver: Damn bridge! We’re going to be late!

Passenger: Hey, look at that billboard! Foster! Your ticket outta that sweatshop warehouse job with Amazon!

Driver: Yeah! Foster! Move over, Bezos!

Now, except for any of you who post comments, send private email or accost me on streets or soccer fields, I have no idea who reads this blog or whether it influences anything. However, this weekend I happened to pass by the Fremont Bridge. The Foster sign is gone! And its replacement mentions–Amazon! Continue reading

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Another day, another dodgy charity calls around Seattle

I’m not on anyone’s do-not-call list because those unsolicited pitches sometimes provide grist for my New To Seattle mill. Last week, I received a telephone call from a computer masquerading as a human on behalf of an outfit going by the name of United States Armed Forces Association. I called the computer Joe. After the call was over, I rustled up some documents. By my reckoning, only 25% of the money raised for anything I would call charitable. Some 75% went for fundraising and overhead.

Last night, I got another call asking for money. At least this time it was from a real human being. I’ll call her Jane. She was soliciting on behalf of something called the Kids Wish Network, out of Holiday, Fla. Jane explained the organization provides aid to children with life-threatening conditions.

I listened. Then I asked how much of the money raised went to fundraising as opposed to the kids. Jane said she could read me a statement about that–from 1998! Hey, I said, how about something a little more recent, like this century or even this decade? Jane said that’s all she had. I didn’t need data dating back to the Clinton administration, so the call soon ended.

Fortunately, I know how to find out this stuff myself. My source here is the KWN audited financial statement for the year ending May 31, 2011, that I located on the website of the New York State Attorney General. (The official Washington State charities website, run by Secretary of State Sam Reed, is not very informative and can be quite misleading.)

What I saw for KWN is not pretty. Continue reading

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All sex-story roads lead to Seattle

I’m still New To Seattle, but I have to think this has been a hotter few months than normal. And I’m not talking about the weather, either.

Today’s Albuquerque Journal–published in one of the many cities that I used to call home–has a story about a county commissioner there photographed with scantily-clad ladies in a red-light district in the Philippines. The shooter was Seattle photographer John Keatley, who said he was documenting sexual exploitation. You can see some of the photos on Keatley’s blog. The county commissioner, Michael Wiener, says he was just visiting family.

Janet Napolitano (Wikipedia)

Yesterday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (who, as it happens, grew up in Albuquerque) told a Congressional committee she knew of no other sex scandals involving the Secret Service, some of whose employees apparently had other things on their minds in Columbia besides protecting President Obama. But just a few hours later, Seattle TV station KIRO aired a blockbuster report about another Secret Service sexcapade a year ago in El Salvador. That boom you heard last night was the explosion from Napolitano’s testimony blowing up in record time.

Meanwhile, Washington State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna has taken a leading role nationally in going after Village Voice Media–which owns the Seattle Weekly–on charges its Backpage.com adult-services ad section promotes under-age prostitution and child exploitation.  VVM–run out of Phoenix by two brass-knuckle guys, Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey, I profiled for Forbes more than 20 years ago–says it has done nothing wrong. (In case you are confused, the Seattle Weekly is the local alt newspaper that last week didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize).

Want another Seattle angle? According to her LinkedIn profile, VVM General Counsel Liz McDougall, who has taken on the difficult task of defending the company nationally, still lives around here.

Thank heavens for that cooling Seattle rain.

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