The Disappearing Rich People
Will the current recession and our recent e-failures turn Seattle into a ghost town wracked with poverty? Emily White reports from the Elliott Grand Hyatt, Seattle's newest four-star hotel.
The woman I buy the magazine from looks at the cover and nods her head. "Money!" she says. "People say it isn't everything, but maybe it really is!" With her thick African accent, her hair in perfect cornrows, and her red, red lipstick, she is a vibrant sign of life in the hotel's mostly deserted lobby. Aside from her there are a few security guards standing around, some slightly giddy concierges chatting at the check-in desk, a man sitting in a lobby chair on a cell phone tearing at his hair.
The Elliott has been open since July; its cheapest rooms cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300, and its most expensive top-floor suite costs $3,000 a night. A hotel built with "the corporate traveler" in mind, it was meant to compete with the Four Seasons for the wealthy globe-trotter who drops $400 without blinking. The builders spared no expense--there's a de Kooning sculpture in the entryway, and Chihuly glass shimmers everywhere. But like the rest of the country, the Elliott is in trouble. There is no one checking in, no one on the elevator, no one in the hotel's four-star restaurant. The super-rich traveler that the hoteliers envisioned is a casualty of the dot-com bust and the post-9/11 fear economy. The Elliott waits for the super-rich to show up, like a decked-out girl waiting for a date who never arrives.
Located on Seventh and Pine, the Elliott is an outgrowth of the Convention & Trade Center; it's the place the world leaders could have stayed during the WTO, if only it had existed. The Elliott guarantees that you do not have to leave the shelter of the hotel to attend your convention; you do not have to brave the street, where all manner of rioting and anarchy might be taking place. The interior is decorated in what has come to be called Northwest Style: natural materials, wood and marble and glass, a low-lit, log-cabin ambience, framed maps on the wall, Kenny G in the background. The Hyatt chain, which owns 49 percent of the Elliott, trumpets its new acquisition as "friendly, spacious, cosmopolitan, and effortlessly at the center of the high-tech revolution." On the lobby's shiny coffee tables, there are photograph books celebrating Seattle's water-edged beauty. The books advertise a dream of the city and an airbrushed version of its history.
The story of Seattle and of the world has changed since the Elliott was conceived, and it's clear the rich tourists this hotel was meant for are disappearing. In the August 24 edition of the Puget Sound Business Journal, a slowdown in tourism was already being documented. "Inhospitable Times," the headline read. The writer, Brad Broberg, described a "cold wind blowing through the nation's lodging industry." This was due to the dot-com bust and the end of what Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance" in the market. And this story appeared before September 11, before long, sweaty lines at airport security checkpoints, daily airport shutdowns and evacuations, fear of anthrax in airline sugar packets. They occurred before we started to see planes as missiles. By November 6, the Journal was declaring--in an article about the Elliott by Luke Timmerman--"you couldn't have picked a worse time to open a luxury hotel." Money magazine declares that the hotel industry is "bracing for one of the worst years in memory." According to The Seattle Times, the Elliott has cut 80 of 400 jobs, and they've recently slashed room rates to as low as $165.
Money disappears, and what is left are the ghosts of money. The Elliott is full of ghosts. Like an abandoned town after the gold rush, it's a place built for a population that has vanished. In a different time there might have been noise, life, moguls getting drunk in the bar, but now there's so much silence it's positively eerie. It feels like something died. And in a way, something did.
What does it feel like to spend the night in a ghost hotel? It feels creepy. I know because I spent one night at the Elliott recently, courtesy of The Stranger. I checked in on a rainy Tuesday afternoon when a small Microsoft conference seemed to be the only thing happening in the hotel. On notice boards in the lobby, conference-goers were directed to OEM seminars and MapPoint discussion groups; long refreshment tables filled a side hallway where the 50 or so attendees could mingle, checking out each other's name tags.
As I wandered around trying to decipher the Microsoft acronyms on the notice boards, a uniformed blond woman approached me. She looked alarmingly like Tipper Gore.
"Are you with Microsoft?" Tipper asks.
"No," I answer, smiling stiffly.
"Oh?" she says, her voice taking on a sheen of accusation. "You're just cruising the lobby then?"
I guess in my thrift-store coat I don't look quite up to par for the Elliott; I do not fit into the illusion they hope to create. Still, I am a little freaked by Tipper's hostility, the way she appears out of the blue like this, questioning my motives. I get defensive. I tell her, "No, I am NOT cruising the lobby, I am staying here." I say this with some vague pride of ownership--after all, the room is paid for, it is mine for the night, which gives me the inalienable right to mope around the lobby spying on people. Suddenly self-conscious, Tipper backs off, seemingly embarrassed. I am embarrassed too, and I suppose part of me knows she's right. I clearly don't belong here. Only people who wear Microsoft name tags belong here.
I take the elevator to my room on the 20th floor. It is a spacious corner room that looks east toward Capitol Hill. I can see the freeway and, beyond that, a glimpse of Lake Union. Directly across from me there's a round tower of apartments, and the buildings are close enough that I can see people in the windows. There's a man on his deck trying to light a cigarette, a man dancing for another man who sits on a couch, a girl pacing and talking on the phone in a bathrobe. Many of the apartments are empty and dark. Directly below me I can see the ceiling of the white skybridge which crosses Pine at Seventh, part of the Convention Center's hideous architecture and the surest sign we have that Seattle might one day be as ugly as Orlando. I marvel at the skybridge, which ruins the sky--it has been an obsession of mine since the moment it blocked the light of downtown a couple of years ago. It is such a phenomenal mistake, such an indisputable example of butt-ugliness, it's almost wondrous.
Although my room is a bottom-of-the-line Super Saver, it's very posh. The bed is ultra-comfortable, the beige bedspread festooned with beige pillows. In fact, the whole room is a strange, fleshy beige color, the color of foundation makeup. There are window shades which can be operated by a switch at the bedside, a variety of lotions in the bathroom, a deep bathtub which fills silently and a toilet which flushes silently. On the fancy wood desk a magazine for tourists lists restaurants and sights to see in Seattle neighborhoods. In this magazine, the whole south end of Seattle is left out: there is no mention anywhere of Beacon Hill or the Central District. In fact, there is nothing south of downtown on the map. I interpret this as part of the hotel's illusion, in which you forget about the other classes and races, forget about the noise of difference, and soak in the warmth of exclusive four-star luxury.
I hang out in my room awhile, watching the five o'clock news. On a consumer segment, travelers are urged to take to the road if they're still afraid of flying. At the height of cocktail hour I board the elevator with a bit of hope: I am headed for the upstairs lounge, which has beckoned on the elevator directory like a secret. Maybe there is something going on here, and I have yet to discover it. But when I get to the 25th floor, the lounge is not opened yet. It's still under construction.
Disappointed, I ride the elevator back down to the lobby, where the restaurant is located. The bar menu offers high-priced comfort food: $13 enchiladas, $8 mac & cheese. The bartender is handsome and suave and offers a wine-tasting sampler. Next to me a group of four Microsoft employees gossip after a seminar. They're carrying clipboards and shiny boxes of MapPoint software. They speak in a distinctive dialect: OEM, functionality, office modules. The women are blond and athletic, their hair pulled back efficiently, no makeup, serious Ivy League types in combed-cotton polo shirts. They seem like women from articles about Women Who Have It All. The men are also athletic and slightly dorky, their voices raising up a little high as they talk about the swiftness of the program, about who is in which product group, who is the new product manager. The women are cool while the men are excited, sucking down Bloody Marys and tipping their stools precariously backward.
The most remarkable element of the restaurant is the lopsided staff-to-patron ratio--it's roughly four-to-one. Waiters, waitresses, and busboys drift around purposeless, looking nice in stiff trousers, clean shirts, and smooth haircuts. The staff are dressed the part, like understudies waiting to be called to the stage, but in the meantime there's nothing for them to do. So they huddle in heavy discussions, really getting to know each other, sharing detailed recaps of movie plots to alleviate the feeling of purposelessness and entropy.
I will visit the restaurant numerous times: in mid-afternoon, at happy hour, late at night. It will always be sparsely populated. If the idle waitstaff at the Elliott are worried about their jobs and their tips, they're not alone. All over Seattle upscale restaurants are struggling to stay in the black; even Cafe Campagne has offered a recession menu. In March, Stars Bar & Dining in Pacific Place filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; when it opened in '98, The Seattle Times called it a "see and be seen place" for a "sophisticated crowd." Now Stars sits empty, and its assets have been liquidated. Places serving $15 pot stickers and fusion cuisine and ice wine are emptying out--the money of the mid-'90s disappears, and along with it the desire for a certain kind of meal. The expensive meal is one of the first desires to depart as fortunes shrink. When people are going broke, the illusion of shrimp on a bed of mango salsa falls away, and what is left is some fish and some fruit, often not enough to really fill a person up.
Like upscale restaurants, upscale hotels depend on the creation of an atmosphere of romance and possibility; the light needs to be low enough to hide the lines of an exhausted face. At the Elliott, the voices of the staff never rise above a certain decibel level; staffers speak in a murmuring, reassuring tone which is meant to convey something like security or safety. The mirage of safety shimmers on the surface of the low-lit interior. Pretending everything is fine is part of the act. But it's a hard act to keep up, especially when history presses in from the outside. No matter how smooth the staff at the Elliott came across, beneath the façade I sensed an irrefutable anxiety.
That evening at the bar, I eventually grow tired of eavesdropping on the Microsoft employees, and I ride the elevator to my room. At no point during my entire stay at the Elliott do any other passengers board the elevator with me; consequently I come to see the elevators as private rooms. I call housekeeping and order a bucket of ice (no ice machines here; they're too evocative of a cheap motel). The ice man arrives almost at the moment I hang up the phone. A few moments later someone calls to make sure the ice man has come. Like the waiters in the restaurant, the housekeeping staff seems bored and slightly jumpy, unaccustomed to having something to do.
In the huge bathtub I stare at the plumbing fixtures. These fixtures are the only sign in the room that something is a little off. They are installed haphazardly, along crooked lines, as if the workers installing them were in a rush--a hurry to get the hotel built before the class of people it was built for mostly ceased to exist.
The Elliott is a reminder of a dream of riches, a dream from which we have recently been rudely awakened. In their literature, the Elliott publicists write about a hotel "effortlessly at the center of the high-tech revolution." It's the high-tech class which the Elliott hoped to cater to, and the vanishing of this class is a key to understanding its current emptiness. More than anything, the Elliott wanted to be the playground of dot-com multimillionaires. Not the old-money types who might frequent the Four Seasons, but new-money white boys who read Wired and Fast Company, 30-year-olds accustomed to DSL lines in every room. Of course, both Wired and Fast Company have seen precipitous declines in advertising in the past six months, and the dot-com multimillionaire is now widely understood to be an endangered species.
In an attempt to understand what it feels like to be part of this vanishing breed, I interviewed a 32-year-old dot-com multimillionaire, a man who has recently seen many of his peers go down in flames. Living on Queen Anne in a house in a state of constant renovation, he is currently worth $10 million. Although he has been on the inside of the dot-com crash, his fortunes (from Microsoft and a wireless web company) have remained intact. He agreed to talk to me on condition of anonymity, so I'll just call him Mr. Multimillionaire.
From Mr. Multimillionaire's perspective, what happened in the tech boom and bust was exactly the same thing that happens at the craps tables in Vegas. Stockholders grew rich on paper, and they did not sell their stock because "no one wants to leave the table on a winning streak." Hypnotized by the endless proliferation of their luck, people began to spend money they had won, but which they had not yet collected from the house; they began to saunter around with a "cockiness and swagger which they leached off the older generation." The older generation--Mr. Multimillionaire is referring to people like Allen and Gates and Glazer--had already made their money, and they knew the risks of the tech game. But many of the newcomers scoffed at the idea of risk, and their egos became untethered as the numbers on paper climbed upward.
Mr. Multimillionaire saw through what was happening as it was happening; he knew "the MyLackeys, and Amazons for that matter, did not have any sustainable intellectual property that could create sustainable fortunes." Even as he was sitting in Belltown restaurants with guys who believed they would be rich forever, he knew that sooner or later the bubble would burst. The house would deal a bad hand. Mr. Multimillionaire was one of the few who left the table on a winning streak, and he sold his Microsoft stock at a relative high point; many of his peers weren't so lucky, and waited far too long to turn in their chips for cash.
While he's currently worth $10 million, Mr. Multimillionaire's fortunes were once as high as $30 million. He is careful now, and although he will never be completely broke, he might one day suddenly have several million dollars less on paper. So he watches his back. I ask him if he knows people who have gone completely broke.
"Yeah, sure," he says. "But the thing a lot of people are dealing with is that they have money, but they don't have 'fuck you' money anymore." "Fuck you" money, he explains, is cash which could free you enough to be able to quit your job whenever you wanted, to retire at 35.
"The difference now is, people aren't throwing tantrums in board rooms anymore. They're scared, and they're trying to hold onto their jobs."
For a while at the beginning of the crash, Mr. Multimillionaire was an avid reader of the website FuckedCompany.com, the infamous online catalogue of failed dot-coms. Lately, though, he's had to quit reading it. "It started to feel morbid," he says. And there were so many fucked companies, the death watch became exhausting.
A few weeks ago Mr. Multimillionaire found himself in the Elliott eating dinner, and like me he noticed the way the place seemed eerily empty; a ghost town holdover from an era of irrational exuberance. For men like Mr. Multimillionaire, who can still afford to eat out, the restaurants are starting to seem lonely. Often he wonders what his peers could've been thinking, believing the money would keep flowing in and the tide would never go out.
Mr. Multimillionaire tells me one story that I can't shake, a story that works as an irresistible metaphor. It's the story of a guy--one among many--who decided he was so rich he needed his own plane. For a while this guy flew around full of his own fantastic future, on top of the world. Then his stock started to fall and fall, and lately every time Mr. Multimillionaire sees him he seems stressed out, wondering how he's going to make his plane payments. As far as this guy could see, he would be soaring forever, his life on paper always getting better and better, heading in an upward direction. These days the pleasures of flying in his private plane are undercut by the fear of a total crash, when he might lose control completely and fall out of the thin air of the upper class altogether.
The tech wealth of the '90s existed on paper, but it gave rise to an infrastructure in Seattle that is not made of paper, but of marble and glass and rare wood. The Elliott is part of this infrastructure; it is a hotel that was built with a set of desires in mind, and although by the time the plumbing fixtures were installed those desires were being transformed by fear, the construction moved forward. Like the Elliott, the condos in Belltown and the Tiffanys and Cartiers downtown are part of an infrastructure built for a money-burning era. The influx of cash came to an end. But not before it radically transformed the spaces of this city.
This transformation in Seattle's physical reality was one of the saddest things about the '90s; as the winning streak continued unabated, and the egos of the rich flew higher and higher, more and more of Seattle's old buildings were demolished to make room for condos and Northwest Style behemoths. Maybe if the economic downturn lasts long enough, all these upscale structures will fall into disrepair, and the hordes with their Super Saver coupons and thrift-store coats will, out of necessity, be allowed inside. The bar at the Elliott will come to resemble the old Rendezvous; hardcore rotgut will replace the wine-tasting menu. Or maybe the tech kids will invent something new and get rich again, but it's hard to imagine them ever being as rich as they were before, swaggering around after going public. A friend who has always been broke tells me she likes the way the city feels now, full of "For Rent" signs and furtive, broke white boys. My friend feels at home here in a way she never has before. She is no longer a poor person in a city full of rich people.
As the mood of the town shifts and the former outsiders begin to feel suddenly at home, the Elliott looms on the corner of Seventh and Pine, abutted by the evil skybridge and a few empty retail spaces. A week after my stay there, I revisit their lobby and loiter for a while. This time there is no Microsoft conference, but a small meeting of health professionals. They seemed harried, and their eyes have much darker circles beneath them than the eyes of the Microsoft workers. Again the lobby is mostly empty, and the staffers at the desk lean on the shining countertop, bored, shifting from foot to foot to keep their circulation flowing.
I approach one of the women at the check-in desk and tell her I'm with The Stranger, and that I'd like to talk about the state of the Elliott. She looks flummoxed for a moment, then she hooks me up with Doug Sears, the general manager and the hotel's designated press liaison. Doug has an imposing, football-player build and he wears a shiny suit and tie--he's clearly the man with the right spin. As he talks to me he suppresses a series of yawns. He tells me that the Elliott "mirrors the market," that things are not good, but surely they will get better. They seem to be getting better already.
It's Mr. Sears' job to downplay the impact of the recession on his hotel; he has the smooth quality of a professional pilot, promising that everything will be all right despite the turbulence. He seems to believe that soon everything will be moving in the right direction, this lobby will be buzzing with life, with happy rich people in expensive shoes. He tells me about how a baseball player rented the $3,000 room recently, and once a businessman rented it too. These rich people appear as signs that all the money is not gone, that perhaps the money will reappear. Like the developers who transformed downtown, or the mapmakers who left the poor neighborhoods out of the tourist magazine, he does not want to allow the losing end of the story into his winning narrative. But how long can he pretend? How long can you wait for guests to arrive before you have to wonder if they're coming at all?
Emily White is the former editor of The Stranger and the author of Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, to be published by Scribner in March 2002.