The richest people in Seattle–a very long time ago

Holding onto a fortune can be a lot harder than amassing one. It’s an old saying, uttered long before I became New To Seattle. But I’m going to offer you some hard proof of this proposition and make it extremely local.

Thanks to Forbes, we have the names of the half-dozen richest Seattleites today. That’s because of the famous Forbes 400 list, published annually each fall since 1982. In Seattle the fattest cats are Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Craig McCaw and Howard Schultz. You all know that. There’s nothing like a billion-dollar-plus net worth to make you a household name within the 1%, at least among your neighbors in the other 99%.

Arthur Denny, about 1890, two years before he was declared the  “richest man” in Seattle and Washington State (via Wikipedia)

But I also can give you a list of the locally fattest cats a long time ago. How long ago? How about 1892? That’s barely 40 years after the first gringos arrived from Illinois and just three years after Washington became the country’s 42nd State.

That roster numbers a dozen. But here’s the really interesting part. As near as I can figure, no descendants of that 12 today sit on the Forbes list or anywhere near it. Indeed, you’ll know some of their names only because they adorn Seattle streets, buildings, bike paths and in one case an entire  suburb–but not because their heirs possess fabulous world-class wealth anymore. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

A ranking where Seattle just became No. 1

Okay. I sucked you in with a teaser headline. But that’s what happens in the blogging world to get traffic. Otherwise, you’d be over at YouTube watching video of the latest presidential campaign gaffes, which, I readily admit, are extremely entertaining. However, since I’m New To Seattle, you expect essays about the place where I now call home, even if the material is as mundane as rainy-day car washes or how local history repeats itself. My middle initial of P does not stand for profundity.

So here goes. As of last month, Seattle has the highest sales tax rate* of any big city in the country. You probably noticed the asterisk. That’s because there’s a tie. The 9.5% charged when you buy stuff in Seattle is the same rate charged in Chicago. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Are certain Seattle charities in line for a visit from the IRS?

Those of you who regularly visit this space probably know I have a day job as a Senior Editor at Forbes. I started work at the business magazine a quarter-century ago, a long time before becoming New To Seattle.

Among the topics I write about in Forbes are nonprofits. Last month, I authored a long story about how certain charities play accounting games valuing the medicines they send overseas. In particular, they take deworming pills,which fight intestinal parasites in humans, that can be purchased on world markets for 2 cents a pill and put them on their accounting statements for as much as $16.25 a pill–an 81,000% mark-up. This ploy involving mebendazone and albenzadole makes the charities look bigger and more financially efficient to would-be donors than they really are.

If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because I peeled off the not-inconsequential Seattle angle into a post here, which you can read again. Two Puget Sound-area faith-based charities that are among the country’s largest of any kind, Crista Ministries in Shoreline and World Vision in Federal Way, handle a lot of deworming medicine. World Vision had lowered its valuation from $10.64 in earlier years to $2 a pill–still way too high, in my opinion.

But Crista, a charity conglomerate that has retirement homes, schools and radio stations, stuck to $10.64 for most of its pills. Because of that ridiculously high valuation, deworming medicine accounted for nearly three-quarters of Crista’s $85 million in contributions received. At Forbes, we marked down Crista’s incoming gifts to market price and took the nonprofit off our annual list of the 200 largest U.S. charities, which I edit. (A third nonprofit in Seattle too small for the Forbes list, Pilgrim Africa, also moves around a large volume of deworming pills.)

Why do I bring this up again now? Continue reading

Share on Facebook

In Seattle, car washes in the rain

Selling in the rain

Everywhere else I’ve lived–and that includes the environs of Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Albuquerque and Los Angeles–it was a “duh” moment. If it was raining–or about to rain–you didn’t get your car washed. Why would you? Even with wax, by the time you got home, your newly cleaned vehicle would be spattered silly from passing traffic kicking up road grime and you’d feel like a fool wasting the money. Knowing that, car wash operators simply shut their facilities and sent all their workers  home until the skies cleared.

Then I became New To Seattle.

Here, the car washes stay open in the rain, and–to my great surprise–seem to do a pretty good business. Today, it’s been raining since before dawn. It’s supposed to rain for another three days. I just got back from doing errands and spotted lines at all the car washes I saw. Every single one. Even the do-it-yourself places, where you pump quarters into a box and wield the brush yourself, had lines. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

History’s repeating loop in Seattle

The lead story in The Seattle Times: the city’s efforts to fix an infrastructure problem. There’s also material about the incumbent U.S. president running for reelection and his leading challenger, who both have Ivy League degrees. An article about foreign bloodshed. News about Belltown. Coverage of pre-season baseball maneuvering. And at the top of the front page, the newspaper’s prominent boast of quality news coverage.

Today’s paper? Sure. But I’m also describing the one from exactly a century ago, January 26, 1912.

Since I am still New To Seattle, I only know about the city’s past from what I read. So I thought it would be interesting to take a long view and see what’s changed. With a Seattle Public Library card, one can call up on a home computer just about any old edition of The Times. I opted for precisely 100 years ago. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Snow buries Seattle’s image, too

When Chicago gets socked in by snow, it’s big national news and people get worried. If New York receives a blast, it’s reported far and wide as a serious event that could harm an important economy. Even a frost in Florida gets insane coverage about what it might do to the orange juice supply and everyone’s health.

But when Seattle closed down for three days last week from an unusual combination of snow and freezing rain, a lot of the media world’s reaction was …


Snow wimps: Seattle is shut down by first real snow of the season,” read a post on the Los Angeles Times website (followed two days later by “Seattle heads back to what it knows best: rain“.) “Slippery in Seattle,” The Washington Post said. Sniffed a posting on Time magazine’s Website, “The totals that people are freaking out over are hardly impressive by Northeast standards.”

Media-wise, poor Seattle couldn’t catch many breaks, and certainly little sympathy. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Shoveling snow in Seattle: “You must be new here”

The second snow storm to hit Seattle in five days–and, unlike the first one, real–dumped about six inches where I live. It’s already being called Snowmageddon. Breaking out my trusty old snow shovel, last used maybe a decade ago, I started clearing my sidewalk. A couple walking along in the street, where vehicles had flattened the snow to some degree, took note. “You must be new here,” the man laughed as I flung aside yet another load of the white stuff.

As I am New To Seattle, that was a correct surmise. Here’s mine. He meant Seattleites are not in the habit of clearing their sidewalks after a snowstorm so that pedestrians don’t have to–like this fellow–walk in the street.

Later, driving–carefully–around Magnolia, the neighborhood where I live, maybe one house in 25 seemed to have the makings of a cleared sidewalk. That means 24 in 25 did not. Several nearby residents have told me they don’t even own a snow shovel.

Yet this is a town that prides itself on “Seattle Nice.” Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Bracing for Seattle ‘snow’: Armageddon with a smile

As I type this, Seattle–or at least its media–is in a near panic bracing for what is being described as the first “snow” of the winter. I use quotes because the likely accumulation of falling crystalline water ice–yes, that’s the scientific description of snow–seems to be minimal in most places that aren’t on top of mountains.

That hasn’t stopped the media–especially TV and radio–from acting like Armageddon is upon us. But Armageddon with a smile. For one example, click here and then go to the video to watch the glowingly beaming weather lady on last night’s KING-TV Channel 5 broadcast. The sunny countenance sort of gives the lie to any notion that the station thinks Seattle is in for a hard one. Can you imagine someone smiling so much reporting about an impending tornado, or a looming tsunami?

Since I am New To Seattle, this will be my first local snow event (should it comes to pass). Whatever the outcome, I expect to be highly entertained by the media hype. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Where they’re from: the meaning of Seattle death notices

For several reasons, I was struck by the death notices section in The Seattle Times on Sunday. One reason was its size: four full pages. I counted 94 notices–nearly double the 55 in the much-larger Sunday New York Times. Judging from the listed dates of death, this may represent a several-week accumulation of passings over the holiday period.  Still, since death notices are paid classified advertising ($120.84 per column inch of type on Sundays), this is welcome revenue for the paper, which dearly needs it.

Besides the earnest efforts to recount the lives of loved ones, another reason was the use of photos. Again by my count, 54 of the 94 death notices–nearly three-fifths–carried a photo of the deceased, most of them in color. One notice actually had two photos. I find such an extensive use of images endearing, but in my experience unusual. For instance, in Albuquerque, a city similar in size to Seattle where I lived for 12 years, only 18 of the 70 death notices in the Albuquerque Journal‘s Sunday edition this week carried a photo. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

For whom the bridge tolls: a Seattle lesson in behavioral economics

Route 520 Bridge across Lake Washington

In 1979, near the end of my first decade as a journalist, I had occasion to write about yet another of life’s many anomalies. For Philadelphia’s Evening and Sunday Bulletin (like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, now deceased in print). I described the slightly bizarre habits of motorists faced with a differential in tolls. Crossing the Delaware River separating New Jersey, they had a choice.  For 39 cents (with a monthly pass), they could whisk across the sleek Betsy Ross Bridge, an eight-lane span newly built by the local port authority and soaring above the crowded river below, rarely having congestion even at peak times. Or for a dime, they could choose the ratty Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, an aging four-lane drawbridge a few miles to the north run by a rival governmental agency and possessing an annoying propensity to open at rush hour’s height, creating massive traffic jams and endless delays.

To put it bluntly, Tacony-Palmyra stuck it to Betsy Ross. The former handled nearly six times as much traffic as the latter. This was so even though for almost all drivers, the 29-cent savings in toll was more than spent in extra gas, let alone car wear-and-tear and time. Tacony-Palmyra operators were well aware of how much their business model was based on stupid customers. As one bridge official candidly told me with a smile, “They don’t know how much they spend to save it.”

So for me, being New To Seattle, it was a little déjà vu as I watched the re-imposition of tolls last week on the Route 520 Bridge–excuse me, the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge-Evergreen Point, as it officially is named so as to distinguish it from all the other Governor Albert D. Rosellini bridges elsewhere. The Lake Washington crossing connects Seattle and the city’s eastern suburbs. Like the Philadelphia area, motorists have a choice–actually, several choices. They can use the world’s longest floating bridge and at peak times pay $3.50 (adjusted for inflation, about triple the 39-cent tariff in 1979 for the Betsy Ross). Or they could add about seven miles to their route (roughly double the Delaware River detour) by going south and taking Interstate 90 across Mercer Island for free. Or, depending on start and end points, they could go around the northern or southern end of the lake. This would be toll-free, too, although adding as much as 20 miles and a half-hour to a trip. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

From Seattle, the mountains are out–or in–or somewhere

Mount Rainier “out” from Seattle (photo USA Today)

“The mountains are out.”

Since becoming New To Seattle last summer, I have learned this is Seattle-speak for “It’s sunny.” I hear the phrase over and over, although recently a whole lot less. The annual gathering gloom of winter is snuffing out such landform glimpses on any regular basis until what I have been advised will be late spring or even early summer.

This alternative description for climatological clarity has bounced around Seattle for a long time. You can find it in Seattle media stories about the weather. This morning, my Google search for “mountains are out” and “Seattle” produced 12,100 hits. The expression and the prevalence of its local usage are striking enough that another recent immigrant like me adopted it for the name of her own let-me-tell-you-about-Seattle blog. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Crime-wise, Seattle is a tough town, at least for property

Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its semi-annual report on crime in the United States covering the six months before I became New To Seattle last summer. It’s always fun to paw through the city-by-city stats, even more so since that’s something the FBI says it doesn’t want you to do:

Comparisons lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction.

Okay, I plead guilty to not having a degree in criminology or sociology or anything that might qualify me to go on a TV talk show and pontificate about the problems of society. But that doesn’t mean I can’t peruse the numbers, maybe discern some patterns and provide my two cents. After all, like you, I helped pay for the stats.

So here’s what I did. Since Seattle has a population of 609,000 and cities are different than suburbs or rural areas, I looked at all the reporting cities with populations between 400,000 and 800,000. You know, a peer group. That puts Seattle right in the middle. I found 25 such cities, ranging from Omaha (pop. 409,000) to Austin, Tex. (790,000).

My conclusion: Seattle is a lot easier on people than property. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Seattle police ruffle a lot of jaywalker feathers

Earlier this year, a Seattle police officer was brought up on administrative charges he punched someone he had stopped for jaywalking in a distant southeast corner of town near Lake Washington.  Here’s how TV/radio station KOMO  just described the outcome: “The case was ruled excessive, but a clerical mistake sent the disciplinary notice to the wrong officer, and by the time anyone noticed the mistake the 180-day deadline had long since passed.” Case closed.

Now I don’t know which is worse: The cop allegedly slugged someone for insufficient reason, the powers-that-be couldn’t get his name right on the paperwork–or Seattle police consider jaywalking a major law enforcement priority.

But it’s become pretty clear that Seattle cops are cut from a different cloth, even by the sometimes rough-justice standards found among the constabulary forces of the United States. I’m hardly alone in this opinion. Just this morning, the U.S. Justice Department in “the other Washington,” as the nation’s capital is called out here, released a long-awaited report that stated, “Our investigation finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force … as well as serious concerns about biased policing.” The 67-page report specifically lists (on page 10, if you’re looking) jaywalking among the minor offenses that prompted “repeated uses of excessive force” by police.

Continue reading

Share on Facebook

I officially live in ‘Metronatural’ Seattle–with my clothes on

I’ve learned a lot about my new environs since becoming New To Seattle six months ago. As visitors to this space know, it’s been a steep learning curve. I’ve had to cope with street signs that aren’t legible, polite drivers who are inept, incessant advertising for Vitamin D, mass phobia about the weather, political campaigns where truth is a complete stranger and, of course, the complex rules for recycling trash.

Space Needle in 2006

But I may have to take back one post in August questioning whether anyone in Seattle has a sense of humor. Why? I just learned that for the past half-decade there has been an official marketing campaign branding the place where I now live as the “Metronatural” city.

It sounds like I moved to some kind of giant nudist camp–maybe even, given the new terminology of gender delineation, one that somehow embraces confusion of the sexes. Of course, that wouldn’t be believable; it’s too cold most of the year here to wear just a birthday suit.

How funny is that?

Metronatural is the intellectual property of Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau–the same image-molding folks who felt it necessary to mount a defense of Seattle weather. The bureau paid a consultant $200,000 for the Metronatural brainstorm and obtained a federally protected trademark stopping charlatans like, say, Cleveland or Oklahoma City from usurping the same amorphous sentiment. The mayor issued a formal proclamation. Although though the word was painted atop the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant (see photo), Metronatural was mainly used in tourist and convention promotions aimed at East Coast and overseas markets. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Seattle-area charities turned 2-cent pills into $10.64 pills

Usually in this space I inflict upon the world my perceptions about being New To Seattle. But in this post I’m going to highlight a long story of mine with interesting Seattle-area connections that appears in the new (December 19) issue of Forbes magazine, my main journalistic day job since 1987.

The Forbes story is about how deworming medicine improves the physical health of poor people abroad as well as the financial appearance of charities at home.  As you might imagine, since it’s in Forbes, a business magazine, the story deals with a lot of catchy financial angles. To read the story in its entirety, click here. Trust me, you won’t be bored.

The online headline: “Donated Pills Make Some Charities Look Too Good On Paper.” The more punny headline in the magazine: “Magic Pills, Magical Accounting.”

The highly effective deworming pills, mainly mebendazole and albendazole, fight intestinal parasites that can cause starvation and death. The story is about how some charities around the country accept donated pills that can be bought on world markets for 2 cents each but then put them on their books for as much as $16.25. The 81,000% mark-up makes the charities seem bigger and more financially efficient than they actually are. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

How youth soccer explains Seattle

In 2004 journalist Franklin Foer wrote How Soccer Explains the World, a book that attempted to detail, well, how soccer explains the world. Critics generally found the work, which linked the planet’s most popular sport with, say, genocidal massacres in the Balkans, both entertaining and absurd. “Foer’s book is such an eccentric, fascinating exposé of a world most of us know nothing about that his inability to prove his central thesis seems almost irrelevant,” reviewer Joe Queenan wrote in The New York Times.

But to my thinking, Foer clearly was on to something when he used soccer as a prism through which to examine non-soccer aspects of society. As it happens, I’ve been refereeing youth soccer since 1998. The first six years were in New Mexico  and the next seven in Southern California. No reason to stop just because I became New To Seattle last summer.  I’m now finishing up my 14th season, with another 30 or so matches under my belt in several leagues around Seattle.

So, coupled with my 16 moves across the country and abroad over 40 years, here is my humble effort to outline some ways of How Youth Soccer Explains Seattle.

Decaying civic infrastructure  This may come as a surprise to soccer fans, but there is no requirement in the Laws of the Game that soccer goals have nets. Which, judging from some city-owned Seattle fields I’ve been on, is a good thing. I took the picture to the right before officiating a recent match at Queen Anne Bowl. The netting, as you can see, was a little dodgy. I’ve seen better-looking spider webs.  To me, there’s a clear linkage with the city’s faded street signs as well as the potholes on city streets throwing my poor nine-year-old Subaru Forester more out of alignment every day. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

L.A. weather suddenly looks pretty good to folks in Seattle

It’s happened to me five times over the past six days. I casually mentioned to someone that I am New To Seattle, having moved here last summer from the Los Angeles area. What happened next each time: (1) a startled look of astonishment on the face of that someone, followed by (2) comments along the lines of “Gee, why did you move here?” or “Wouldn’t mind a little L.A. sun right now.”

I should add that these encounters all took place in climatologically unpleasant out-of-doors venues:  falling precipitation under sunless skies amid gusty winds and temperatures in the mid-40s. (Several occurred around soccer fields where I spend a portion of my weekends refereeing youth matches.)  Yes, the legendarily long wet cool winter of darkness is starting to descend upon Seattle, and the locals seem none too happy about it.

To me, the comments reflect the conflicted relationship that Seattleites have with their meteorological environment. They’re proud of the glorious summers, the clean air, and even the vigorous change of seasons–while obsessing about the inevitable result of that change. Back in July, my first full month here, I wrote in this space how struck I was by the number of people who warned me about what to expect when the days get shorter. Some people–bizarrely–even apologized to me, as if, I wrote then, “they worked for God or the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.” Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Bicyclists lose, boozers win in Seattle vote

A couple weeks ago, I mused in this space about my sense of a growing love-hate relationship between Seattle citizens in general and the bicyclists among them. Although I am New To Seattle, I perceived a bicycle backlash. The fault line, I thought, ran through a ballot proposal that would boost yearly car license fees by $60 with a portion dedicated exclusively for bike trails. Bicyclists without cars would pay nothing. The noisy, well-organized bicycle lobby here put on a big push for passage. But my gut instinct–gleaned solely from talking with average folks–was that the measure would go down.

Well, yesterday, the voters spoke (actually, they’re still speaking, since all voting is by mail and ballots postmarked yesterday are counted as they arrive at county offices). Loudly. They defeated the license boost by a whopping 60-40 margin. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s a landslide.

Does this mean that Seattle’s vaunted love affair with things green is starting to fade? Probably not. At the same time local voters opted in strong numbers against a statewide proposition that would have had the effect of banning expansion of light rail from Seattle across Lake Washington to the eastern suburbs. (Despite support for the prohibition in sparsely populated portions of the state, the measure seems to be going down narrowly.) Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Ballot propositions are just as nutsy in Seattle

Life is chock full of trade-offs. When I became New To Seattle last summer, I swapped the (almost) perpetual sunshine of the Los Angeles area for the (almost) perpetual gray of the Puget Sound area. But as part of the deal, I also thought I was leaving behind the famously crazy California system of voter referendums on inane, politically charged topics accompanied by big-money advertising campaigns full of outrageous omissions and deceptions.

Boy, was I wrong!

I just received in the mail (the way elections are conducted in Washington State) the ballot for the November 8 general elections. I’ve also been on the receiving end of various paid advertising pitches. All I can say is this: People in Seattle have no high ground whatsoever from which to make fun of California politics, as a number have done in my presence.

Getting the most attention is Initiative Measure No. 1183. This would close the network of state liquor stores that has a near-monopoly on the sale of hard stuff and allow sales mainly by retail stores above a certain size. The reason this is getting the most attention is the insane amount of spending by those who stand to win or lose.

To me, this is clear and convincing evidence that Washington State residents really like to get likkered up.

Think about it. There are only 6 million people in all of Washington State, barely half the population of Los Angeles County alone. Yet Seattle-area-based Costco Wholesale has spent more than $21 million in advertising–$12 for every likely voter–behind its effort to allow the customers of its 29 giant stores in the state the right to buy Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort. Out-of-state liquor distributors, who would lose a large amount of their business (Costco tries to buy direct from the source)  are pushing back just as vigorously, if not quite as expensively. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Poor Seattle: ‘Viadoom’ gets far less buzz than ‘Carmageddon’

When you’re a big-time city, things get a lot of attention in other places. Subway derailments in New York are big news elsewhere even if no one is injured. Mayoral elections in Chicago are widely reported, even when the predicted outcome is not seriously in doubt. We know the details about the construction sink hole in Boston known as the Big Dig and that city’s 17-year-long search for local mobster Whitey Bulger (brought down by a former Miss Finland who once was the sexy blonde cooing “Take it off” in those iconic Noxzema shaving-cream TV commercials). Last summer’s Carmageddon closure of Interstate 405 through part of Los Angeles for a bridge project got insane publicity around the world.

Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle

Poor Seattle. Part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, one of Seattle’s only two north-south freeways, is shut down for a full 10 days and the world yawns. Even the local nickname–“Viadoom”–hasn’t caught on outside of Puget Sound, maybe because it sounds more like a bizarrely named ED product.

The viaduct, which runs along Seattle’s Puget Sound waterfront, was closed Friday night so part of it can be demolished and replaced with a temporary road, which itself will be replaced when a tunnel is built someday. Like a giant treat, the road is scheduled to reopen on Halloween morning. Since I am still New To Seattle, I will leave it to others to debate the wisdom of a multi-billion-dollar tunnel project in the middle of an economic downturn, especially when ordinary maintenance on regular Seattle streets is so elusive. Continue reading

Share on Facebook