Shortly after former Seahawks owner and Vulcan chairman Paul Allen’s death last week, Seattle City Councilmember Ksahama Sawant made the following Facebook post:
This was, to put it lightly, not received well. Sawant has drawn the ire of Seahawks fans and mainstream columnists, for both the timing and content of her post. As a Seahawks fan and, well, not-so-mainstream columnist, I wanted to weigh in with what is maybe a counterbalancing view of this comment.
First though, as a Seahawks fan, let me give Paul Allen credit. Allen’s wealth kept the Seahawks in Seattle. He hired Pete Carroll, ensured the team drafted Walter Jones, and jammed out after the team won the Super Bowl. I love the Seahawks, and it would have crushed me as a kid if they had left. Allen gave me some of my favorite memories. Allen’s wealth also funded cancer research. It led to scientific breakthroughs and the rediscovery of the treasures of the deep. His wealth funded the arts and endowed large cultural institutions in the region. That he also owned fancy yachts is a symptom of the inequity of capitalism, but is hardly a great sin. As billionaires go? Paul Allen could have been a lot worse (see: Bezos, Jeff).
That said, Allen’s wealth also reconfigured Seattle to conform to a mental map of the city that disproportionally benefitted a small subset of the region while neglecting a large portion of the area’s residents. His work with Vulcan is perhaps the most important spatial transformation that Seattle has undergone since the Denny Regrade, making Allen Seattle’s equivalent of Robert Moses. Like Moses he was unelected, and like Moses, he reshaped the area while privileging an image of the city seen from basically a bird’s eye perspective. This was true of South Lake Union when he proposed the Seattle Commons, and only more true when he developed the area into Amazon’s campus. It is not Allen’s fault per se that he was allowed to act as the de facto city planner of a wide swath of the city, but he was, and he leveraged his vast wealth to make choices that disrupted a lot of lives.
The most vulnerable populations in this city have suffered as a result of Allen’s massive interventions. The gentrification caused by the recentering of the tech industry to the spatial center of the region has led to massive waves of displacement and dispossession. The middle and lower classes of the city have effectively been shunted out of Seattle proper and into outlying areas. This spatial reconfiguration may not have been Allen’s intention in redeveloping South Lake Union, but it has been the effect of what he did. This could have been mitigated through progressive taxation. It was not in large part because of Paul Allen.
In this respect, Sawant was right: Allen funded anti-tax campaigns (including the opposition of I-1098 in direct conflict with the Gates family) that would have had a redistributive effect on the benefits reaped by those lucky enough to thrive over the past decade. She cited former Stranger writer Dominic Holden’s piece “Remember the Greediest,” which may be a relatively unfair characterization of Allen when compared to, say, Bezos, but speaks to his desire to control not only where the wealth he distributed went, but also the shape of the city he lived adjacent to.
Seattle is a profoundly and increasingly unequal city. And this inequality persists along racial, gender and class lines. Allen’s work with Vulcan inscribed these power imbalances in the spatial configuration of the center of the city. The people who lost out in the reconfiguration that created our new Seattle are angry and have every right to be angry because of systemic structures of power.
Which is to say that while essentially dancing on Paul Allen’s grave before he was lowered into it was gross, and I understand why people are mad at Sawant, I also understand why she and others are mad at Allen. Reading Sawant’s comment generously, she is attempting to give a voice to this anger, to preempt a hagiography of a man who wielded a lot of power and did so in the service of only a subset of the people affected by that power.
And to the large number of Seahawks fans out there who are really pissed at Sawant right now? I’d ask them to take a second and think of the relatively powerless to whom she’s giving voice. The Seahawks aren’t going anywhere thanks to Allen, but the powerless have been forced to relocate over and over again over the past decade within and outside of the city. I know how rough it would have been if the Seahawks had lost their home; consider sympathizing with someone giving voice to people who have lost theirs.