24 Jan

What newcomers need to know about Seattle

The other day, I was asked “I’m new to Seattle. What do I need to know?”

It’s a tough question to answer. There are a lot of things that are worth knowing. But as a Seattle native, it’s hard for me to figure out what to recommend. I asked some folks on my BBS to suggest a few things, and I’m come up with a few more on my own.

So, here (in no particular order) are some things newcomers need to know about Seattle.

1. Don’t tell anyone you’re from California, if you’re from California. (This was suggested by a Californian — thanks Chris!) Well, it is true that Seattleites are not impressed by “…back in California” talk. If things are really better back there, we don’t believe it. It is better to try to fit in with Seattle ways and save the California reminiscing for when you’re among fellow Californian expats.

Now, how do you look like a native?

  • It’s “Pike Place Market”, not “Pike’s Place.” You could just call it “the Market”, sometimes.
  • Don’t call our freeways “the 5,” “the 405”, etc. Dead giveaway. We drive “I-5”, “I-90”, and “405.” If you need to use the definite article, use it with “the floating (or 520, or I-90) bridge,” “the viaduct”, or “the West Seattle Freeway”. (Thanks to Karen for contributing this suggestion and the next.)
  • Don’t bother with an umbrella. We know that rain won’t hurt us and we won’t melt. And besides, if we had to carry an umbrella around that often, we’d just lose it anyway. Wear a waterproof jacket, and consider getting it from REI.
  • Don’t jaywalk. Seriously. Who’s that standing on the corner of a deserted street at 2am waiting for the walk light to come on? A Seattleite. Why? Because the cops here have nothing better to do than to give jaywalking tickets.
  • Dress informally. Seattleites aren’t into pomp and formality; supposedly we use irons on our clothing less than residents of any other major US city. With few exceptions, we underdress. (Ignore this rule if you are having dinner at Canlis.)
  • Don’t complain that you can’t get decent pizza/barbecue/Mexican food here. In some cases, the food you want is here — you just have to search for it. In others, well, maybe not — but I bet good Seattle-style food wasn’t easy to find where you came from, either. We have good seafood and Asian food here — try it out!
  • On nice days, you will see Mount Rainier. Call it “the Mountain.” (Not to be confused with a certain radio station.) As in, “Oh, look. The Mountain is out today.”
  • Learn about a few random aspects of Seattle pop culture to throw into a conversation: J.P. Patches, Seafair hydro races, the Young Fresh Fellows, the (Queen Anne) Blob, the Kingdome.
  • Queen Anne Ave. N, where it goes up the really really steep south slope of Queen Anne Hill, is “the Counterbalance.” The origin for that name is a streetcar fixture that dates well before my time and yours, but the name is still around.

2. Avoid commuting at all costs. Let’s say you have a great job offer… in Auburn. Unless you want to move to Auburn, you don’t want the job. Trust me. Seattle is a great city, with the exception of the traffic. Plan your life in such a way that you can avoid traffic, and everything will be great.

2a. Driving across town (E-W) is usually more of a pain than going N-S. Allow more time for a “horizontal” trip. Especially if you are taking the bus.

3. Visitors to Seattle often claim that Seattleites are cold and distant. In a sense, this is true. Seattle, traditionally, has a huge civic case of Asperger’s syndrome: socially distant, uncomfortable with public display, uninterested in fashion, geeky, honest to a fault. (A study a while back involving purposely lost wallets showed that Seattle is perhaps the most honest city in the USA.) And many long-time Northwesterners are uncomfortable with the sort of “friendliness” one might see in other parts of the country, where it seems everyone will talk to you out of the blue. (Perhaps it’s the taciturn Scandinavian strain in our population.) But this does not mean Seattle is an unfriendly place. It’s just shy. You might have to take the initiative to make friends with people a little more than you would elsewhere.

4. Further traffic advice: rush hour here is about 12 hours long. During that period, avoid 405 and 167 — the Devil’s very own freeways!

5. If you are used to a place that is sunnier in the winter (our summer, once it kicks in to gear, is generally wonderful — it’s just the rest of the year that is gray), you might need to take measures to avoid SAD. Sun lamps, getting outdoors when the sun does come out, natural-spectrum light fixtures, etc. Be pro-active about this if you think it will be an issue. It is very dark here in the winter. (It’s not just the weather; Seattle is further north than most other large US cities, and even some Canadian ones. The days are just darned short in the winter.) The good thing is, when summer gets here, it will be light out until almost 10 pm and the sun will be up at around 4:30am. If you like daylight, you’ll get it then.

6. If you are used to a place where things get done quickly, Seattle may annoy you. Here, we have the “Seattle Process” — where ideas are studied, and argued over, and compromised, and put up for votes, and studied again, yada yada yada, until we all get old and die and STILL don’t have a freaking rapid transit system. Yes, I am bitter.

In 1989 there was an earthquake in California that made everyone think, “hey, we’d better do something about our Viaduct so it doesn’t pancake like the one down there.” Then a few years ago we had our own big quake and again we thought “hey, time to do something about that Viaduct.” Notice that the Viaduct is still there exactly the same as before? Seattle Process. They have spent 15 years studying the damn thing. It will probably be 15 more before it is solved. Better hope you’re not driving on 99 when the earthquake comes. Sorry, I’m being bitter again.

…Anyway, I think there are a bunch more things I could post here, but I’ll stop at this. How about you? What would you add to this? Post your comments below.

3 thoughts on “What newcomers need to know about Seattle

  1. Howdy. Crawling outta the woodwork …

    I’d suggest that newcommers take the Seattle Underground Tour. It’s silly, but it’s a really great experience of the history of downtown, with the “seamstresses” and building fiascos and “enlightened self-interest” notion of what the frontier / gold rush spirit turned into. Plus, it’s got that whole Kolchak vibe …

    An observation is that, a long time ago to be sure, when I lived in Washington DC, the place most people call “Washington” to my continual annoyance, the kids I went to school with were confused when I said there were not cowboys and indians out here.

    There’s a lot of regional pride here, with competition between cities that other places don’t have. Something from Seattle is not as good as something from Tacoma to a person from Tacoma, and visa versa.

    Oh, in addition to the whole “DC” delusion the rest of the country is under, “Vancouver” is in my experience usually “Vancouver, WA” not “Vancouver, BC” … if you mean Canada, you’ll have to be more specific. Unless you’re not from here, in which case it’s the reverse.

    Oh, and to really fit in here: develop the habit of buying lots of outdoors equipment, and let it all collect dust in the basement. That doesn’t mean you won’t go into the woods, but if you actually took all that crap outside people would laugh at you. But, there’s this packrat thing going on … it’s not just outdoors equipment either, actually.

    It used to more of a sign of where one was from to confuse soda, pop and cola, when I was a kid, but that seems to have calmed down. I used to have problems ordering drinks when I’d swtich coasts because I’d forget this langauge difference. People would look at me strangely …

  2. Wow, haven’t heard from you in a while. 🙂

    Yes, I was going to recommend the Underground Tour as well. It’s great fun.

    But I disagree on the Vancouver thing; I know you are from closer to Vancouver WA than I am, so that might be why. If I say “I am driving to Vancouver this weekend” I mean I’m going to Canada. Because who wants to go to the other Vancouver? If I’m going down there I will just say “I’m driving to Portland” and then visit Powell’s while I’m there, stopping in Vancouver for a while.

    It’s POP here, but there are so many newcomers that this bit of dialect seems to be slipping away. Which is sad.

  3. If you want a nice boat ride on the Sound but don’t want to pay the cost of an Argosy cruise you can get a nice, cheaper ride on one of the state ferries. The Seattle-Bremerton run is a nice cruise.

    Likewise, if you want a cheap but nice view of the Seattle waterfront, have someone drive you north on the Alaskan Way viaduct. (see cautions above, however.)

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