A night or so ago, I ran into and had conversation with DJ Explorateur at Nacho Borracho, a bar and restaurant that, for me, conveniently shares an intersection with the Capitol Hill Station (my place is five minutes away from the Columbia City Station). The conversation lasted two drinks, and during the first one, Explorateur, who regularly DJs at Nacho Borracho (though not that night), said something that caught my attention and provided one more piece of evidence in a trend I began noticing late last year. The thing Explorateur told me is this: Knife Knights—the musical project of genius Seattle artists Ishmael Butler and Erik Blood (currently based in LA), both repped by Seattle label Sub Pop—kicked off their tour in Tacoma, at the McMenamins Elks Temple. Not Seattle. And the current tour does not include Seattle at all. This was just shocking to me. No Knife Knights show in the 206? "Yeah," Explorateur replied. "I had lots of friends [in Seattle] who drove down for the show."
"We didn’t book this tour, my man," wrote Erik Blood when I e-mailed him about this anomaly. "We’re planning to play Seattle soon, but honestly, that Tacoma spot was amazing and it’s not that far away." Can you hear that tone in Blood's words? Something has clearly shifted in the way Tacoma and Seattle are perceived at the level of the arts. My point: As the arts are in decline in Seattle, they are clearly ascending in Tacoma. And if this trend continues, it's not impossible to imagine a situation where the latter effectively becomes the center of the region's arts.
To makes sense of this transition, I propose connecting two events that, when considered together, present a frame for organizing the current development: Seattle moving away from the arts while Tacoma moves toward the arts. Both events happened in the same year, 2018. The first is Seattle City Council's decision to repeal the head tax; the second is Tacoma's passing of a tiny increase in sales tax that will boost the city's arts funding by $5 million. What connects these events, and how can they help explain Seattle's cultural decline and Tacoma's rise? The tax for the arts is obvious. There will simply be more money for artistic productions in Tacoma. But the death of the head tax is not so obvious, or its implications are indirect.
What became clear when the city killed a head tax that would have reduced homelessness in the city is that Amazon will basically shape all aspects of the city's culture, which includes economics, planning, and the arts. When it comes to the last, it's very well known that Amazon, like the present mayor, maintains an attitude of indifference (if not contempt). As has been well established since 2008, Amazon is "notoriously stingy" when it comes to supporting the arts. This culture of indifference persists to today. Indeed, a major and justified worry among small-scale artists in Queens, when HQ2 was planned for Long Island City, was the negative impact Amazon would have on that arts community. The e-commerce giant—which gives little and demands huge tax breaks from the same public purse that helps fund the arts—would have driven Queens's arts community to extinction.
We are in the midst of this extinction-level event right now in Seattle. We have mediocre arts funding, an affordability crisis that has no solutions in sight, and a mayor whose imagination would, if placed in one's mouth, taste as exciting as a rock.
But here is the thing Tacoma, you may attract artists and build a robust creative community of painters, filmmakers, dancers, and musicians. But can you, when your fortunes change and property values begin to rise too sharply and corporations start determining directly your city's policies, remain faithful to these artists and their very specific (and almost always unprofitable) system of needs? As Samuel Stein points out in his new book Capital City Gentrification and the Real Estate State (he reads from this book on May 18, as part of Red May), the history of neoliberal urbanism has been to use artists to form what planners call "lifestyle amenities" to attract the rich.
Arts need a boost? As the city gets more expensive, it ceases to be a place where artists of all sorts can live, and therefore loses some of the vitality that makes it appealing in the first place. At the same time, artists can be useful in the gentrification process, doing the hard work of loft conversion and gallery opening, only to be kicked out when rents rise. Artists are on both sides of the gentrification fight, and can therefore be played by politicians seeking to beautify their luxury developments.
Though Tacoma doesn't offer cheap living anymore, there is still a big difference between costs there and costs here in Seattle, which no longer has any room or tolerance for the unfortunate at all. And in Seattle, the unfortunate are not just the homeless, but the bar/restaurant proletariat and artists and students, too.