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An intermission in Seattle: Obama politics, job losses and Bob Rennie

January 24th, 2009 · 15 Comments

Sorry to disappoint those of you who thought I’d gone dark because I was in the midst of a deep investigation. Instead, all I’ve done is escape to Seattle for a couple of days — always a great way to get a new take on cities, people, art and the economy.

It’s been great to eavesdrop on people at the tables next to us and listen to the passionate talk about politics. (What, you don’t eavesdrop? What’s the point in going out if you don’t do that?)

At Cafe Campagne near Pike Place Market, the young woman at the next table was going through her whole trip to Washington to see Obama get inaugurated, detail by detail, to an older female friend. (“And when Mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said, ‘To go to Washington for the inauguration,’ she burst into tears.”) We just had to interrupt to get a few more details — was it hard to get a place to stay (she camped on a friend’s couch), what was the security like where she was (there wasn’t any), what was it like (amazing). We let them eat in peace when she started talking about her upcoming wedding, who the bridesmaids are going to be and the rest.

Then, the next night, at Dinette, the two men next to us talked non-stop about the CIA and terrorist attacks and U.S. failed foreign policy over their choucroute and duck confit with cherry sauce and pureed parsnips.

(For my foodie readers: Cafe Campagne sucked, fake French food for tourists; Dinette, on Capitol Hill, was lovely, definitely recommended.) 

They don’t have an Olympic village hanging over them down here, but it’s not fun. The headline yesterday was that Microsoft is laying off 1,400 people, the first-ever layoffs for that company. Today, it’s that Starbucks is shedding another 1,000 on top of previous layoffs. When I was at Starbucks this morning, a guy buying the paper commented to the barista, “Don’t worry, you’ve still got your job.”

At least one local company is doing well: Costco, which is based in Issaquah (who knew?), where apparently sales of luxury items are up. Just another tiny part of our contradictory economy. 

House prices are down, people are having trouble refinancing their mortgages with skittish banks, but the New Homes section is still running pin-up pictures of condo projects with eerie B.C. references. One, in Issaquah (shades of Spy magazine, how that name keeps popping up) refers to the houses as having a Whistler-like quality. And there, I see, is a familiar Vancouver name: Bob Rennie, being quoted about a condo project in Ballard (one of the several gentrifying neighbourhoods down here outside the central core) that he’s marketing. “This is the fastest-selling project in Seattle, and, quite possibly, in the United States,” says Rennie. “This is the time to buy and they are choosing Canal Station.” Apparently, 80 per cent is sold. Ah, some things never change.

Although sales statistics in New Homes sections can’t always be trusted, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are selling, even though condo sales in Vancouver have dropped dead. The problem in Vancouver, it seems to me, is that prices rose so high and then the market collapsed so fast that no one wants to buy because they’re not sure any more what a reasonable price is. Adding to Vancouver’s problems, construction costs skyrocketed, in part because the province and city were awash in Olympics-related projects. Contractors had their pick for their last few years, more than Seattle contractors would have had.

Seattle never achieved Vancouver’s craziness. I remember when we came here a year and a half ago on a house exchange, we stayed in the nicest section of Capitol Hill, a neighbourhood filled with meticulously cared for grand old homes. When we asked a neighbour there what they would sell for, she said, as though she wanted to break the shocking news to us gently,” Oh, they would be at least a million dollars.” We just laughed. At that point, that’s what nice houses on the east side, in neighbourhoods that still have crack shacks and street prostitution within walking distance, would sell for.

Although their house prices are down too, they’re down from less dizzying heights than what Vancouver achieved.

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