Tech Addiction Is On the Rise In Seattle—But Why?

Photo by Hayley Young for Seattle magazine

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Seattle magazine and was produced in collaboration with Crosscut. A full version of this piece is available at Seattle magazine’s website. 

Laura and Dave Johnson* had always known that their older son, Eric, was different than other kids. Diagnosed with severe ADHD at a young age, Eric was smart, sensation-seeking and focused—the kind of kid, his mother says, who has “a brain for coding,” and is “smart in a way that we don’t understand yet.”

If he wasn’t racing his mountain bike downhill, he was bouncing parkour-style off the sides of downtown buildings or watching television with an intensity that unnerved his parents. “He could watch TV all day long,” says Laura Johnson.

Then, like most of his peers, Eric discovered video games—Mario Kart, Splatoon (a third-person game in which players splatter each other with ink), The Legend of Zelda. After that, Johnson says, things were never the same. Unlike most kids and adults who play video games, Eric, now 15, didn’t seem to have an “off” switch. By the time he was in middle school, games were all he could think about. It was like the games were doing the same thing for him that mountain biking did, Johnson says. “He likes that tactile [sensation] and he needs his brain to go fast and he needs feedback from something.”

The Johnsons live in a comfortable brick Tudor in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood. There’s one TV in their house and just two computers: a desktop in the basement that Dave uses for work and Laura’s laptop. The idea that video games could become a problem, much less an addiction, was completely alien to them. Over time, though, they began to realize that their son’s fascination with games and other screens resembled an addiction. “He rushes through other things if he knows there’s ‘game time’ in his future,” she says. “And that ‘game time’ is on his mind [until] he gets it—regardless of what we are doing.”

While gaming—or tech—addiction is uncommon (and the label “addiction” remains controversial), Eric is not alone. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, estimates that between 5 and 12 percent of young adults show signs of gaming disorder; a 2017 paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry, meanwhile, put the number at less than 1 percent of the general population.

Games (and social media such as Instagram and Twitter) have an additional characteristic that makes them habit-forming: They provide that kick of dopamine at unpredictable intervals, providing an incentive to stay glued to the screen.

The jury is still out on whether tech addiction is more prevalent in places like Seattle, where a higher-than-average number of people work in the tech industry, but anecdotal evidence suggests there could be a correlation. Hilarie Cash, the founder of a Fall City–based inpatient tech addiction treatment program called ReStart, says that when she started treating people for gaming disorder, back in the mid-1990s, most of her patients were adults working in the tech industry; today, she says, many of her clients have parents who work in the industry and who “tend to be very surprisingly oblivious to the impacts of screens on child development.”

Experts generally agree that too much screen time can inhibit kids’ ability to focus, develop social skills and engage in activities that don’t produce an immediate reward the way screens do. Cash also points to school districts in large, highly connected cities that, she says, have “drunk the Kool-Aid and are trying to get tablets and computers in the hands of every student, even in elementary school.”

In recent years, there has been significant interest in recognizing gaming disorder as a formal diagnosis, spurred largely by an international uptick in people seeking treatment for the disorder. Last year, the World Health Organization officially recognized gaming disorder as a condition in its International Classification of Diseases, and the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has recognized “internet gaming disorder” as a “condition for further study” for possible future inclusion in what’s often called the bible of psychiatry. The state of research remains in its infancy, however, and experts disagree on everything from the best course of treatment to whether compulsive gaming should be classified as an “addiction” at all.

For the Johnsons, their attempts to curtail Eric’s obsession with gaming began by trying to restrict his access to technology. They established boundaries, one after the other—no games until he’d done something creative, or no more than an hour of gaming a day—but Eric broke every rule. “I tried so many different scenarios,” Johnson says. “No boundaries ever worked. Nothing ever worked.”

Over the course of Eric’s seventh-grade year, this “very smart, very savvy…fascinating” kid transformed into a person his parents barely recognized—a kid who spent all his time “speedrunning” (playing through games as fast as possible) and throwing fits when his parents tried to restrict his access to games. “He would run away,” Johnson recalls. “He jumped out of the car once while it was moving.” After the Johnsons took away his smartphone, Eric stole money from his brother, who is three years younger, got off the bus on the way to school and bought a second phone. (Then, when they took that phone away, he did it again.)

Over the course of Eric’s seventh-grade year, this “very smart, very savvy…fascinating” kid transformed into a person his parents barely recognized—a kid who spent all his time “speedrunning” (playing through games as fast as possible) and throwing fits when his parents tried to restrict his access to games.

At their wits’ end, the Johnsons sought advice from Ann Steel, a counselor who specializes in gaming addiction. Following her advice, they sent Eric to a wilderness camp on the Olympic Peninsula—an increasingly common, if still unproven method of treating kids whose gaming or screen time starts to negatively impact their lives—shortly before his 13th birthday. On his final night before he left for camp, Eric stole his mom’s laptop and stayed up all night surfing the web, like someone getting a last fix before going to rehab. After 10 weeks in the wilderness, Johnson says, Eric “did seem clearer in his head.” On the other hand, the day after he returned, he broke Johnson’s windshield.

Last year, after doing more research about its options and hiring an education consultant, the family sent Eric to Cherry Gulch, a therapeutic boarding school outside of Boise, Idaho, that offers individualized education and treatment to kids struggling with various issues, from grief to ADHD to digital addiction. Johnson says her son is doing well. After a year at Cherry Gulch, she says, “his growth has been huge. The most growth we’ve had in his 15 years of life.”

Still, it’s unclear what his parents will do when Eric graduates from Cherry Gulch this summer, and how they’ll keep him from slipping back into his old habits when he returns. He’s just coming to terms with the fact that he has an addiction to gaming and screens, Johnson says. “He isn’t quite at the acceptance phase.”

The notion that it’s possible to be addicted to video games, or any type of technology, has gained mainstream acceptance in recent years. Like gambling—the only behavioral addiction currently included in the DSM—video games seem to trigger some of the same chemicals in the brain as alcohol and illicit drugs, including dopamine, the so-called “reward neurotransmitter” of the brain. But games (and social media such as Instagram and Twitter) have an additional characteristic that makes them habit-forming: They provide that kick of dopamine at unpredictable intervals, providing an incentive to stay glued to the screen.

Think of it as a lab experiment, says Christakis. “If you try to condition a rodent to push a lever when a stimulus comes, and they get a reward every time, it doesn’t create an obsession,” Christakis says. Make the rewards unpredictable, and the rats are “much more likely to become compulsive. The reward could come at any second, and they might miss it if they aren’t paying attention.”

Gaming also gives people something of value that they may be missing in their lives—whether a person is a smart kid craving stimulus and mental challenges, like Eric, or an adult who lacks a sense of accomplishment in life. Alok Kanojia, a Boston psychiatrist who specializes in gaming disorders and says he was once addicted to video games himself, says, “People will play 40, 60, 100 hours of World of Warcraft”—a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO, in which people cooperate and compete with each other in real time— “and they derive a sense of value out of it. You may feel like you’re no one in the real world, but you’re someone in the game.”

Read the rest of this story at Seattle magazine.

How Backyard Cottages Could Help Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

Photo by Hayley Young, Seattle magazine.

Of all the proposed solutions to Seattle’s homelessness problem, the Block Project is surely one of the most audacious. But one Seattle family is giving it a try, opening its heart—and backyard—to a homeless man. And more than 100 families are waiting in the wings.

In most respects, Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum are the owners of an ordinary Seattle home: a modest green bungalow with a small garden in the planting strip, on a quiet street of single-family homes on Beacon Hill. Walking by, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it.

The surprise is in the backyard: a tiny, ultramodern wood-frame home occupied by a formerly homeless man named Robert “Bobby” Desjarlais. It represents one organization’s utopian vision of how Seattle can make a dent in its homeless problem.

The story of how this small structure came to be in the owners’ backyard, and how Desjarlais came to live here, begins about two years ago. That was when architect and activist Rex Hohlbein began pitching a new idea: What if one person on every block in Seattle built a tiny house in their backyard to house a single homeless neighbor?

Hohlbein’s organization, Facing Homelessness, works to break down the boundaries between housed and homeless people in Seattle; its slogan, “Just Say Hello,” exemplifies its belief that the first step toward fixing homelessness is decreasing the social distance between people who have housing and people who don’t. Last year, he pitched his plan to a group of about 30 Seattleites at the Cloud Room, a bar and coworking space on Capitol Hill. At the end of his presentation, Hohlbein asked how many of those in the room would consider volunteering for his experiment. Not a single hand went up.

But Hohlbein didn’t give up, and today, the project he started with his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, also an architect—now known as the Block Project—has more than 100 homeowners on its waiting list.

It has taken time for the Block Project to get off the ground—so far, just the Beacon Hill home is complete, and another is under construction in Greenwood. But Hohlbein hopes that once the project starts to gain acceptance, it will be possible to expedite the construction process so that those 100 homeowners can host Block homes of their own, and be followed by another 100, and another.

Currently, each home is funded by contributions from Facing Homelessness donors and built with volunteer labor and materials. For the future, Hohlbein envisions the basic components of each tiny home—essentially, four walls, a roof and a large window—being constructed off-site and then trucked in for quick assembly. For now, though, construction can take many weeks.

The homes themselves are all designed to be energy-independent and eventually water-independent as well, with composting toilets and subsurface irrigation. “We’re not just giving people shelter; we’re also putting them into the most advanced home on the block,” Hohlbein says.

Hohlbein predicts that as neighbors and the city become aware of the project and its potential, the psychological barriers to taking the program citywide will start to fall, much as they did for other sharing concepts, like Airbnb.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue. We don’t have to create compassion—I believe that’s there already in each and every one of us. We have to create a connection.”

For the Block Project, creating that connection starts with involving the surrounding community in the process.

Hohlbein has designed the Block Project process to begin well before the construction of a home. One of the early steps is for potential hosts to reach out to every neighbor on their block to let them know about the project, address concerns and answer questions.

Does the Block Project allow residents to use illegal drugs? No. Participants sign a legally binding contract that prohibits illegal drug use in the houses. Will a violent felon or sex offender be moving in next door? No. Insurance requirements prohibit it. What happens if there’s a problem? Each resident will have a case manager through a local service provider, and if an issue becomes truly intractable, the resident can be asked to leave. Do they pay rent? No. Facing Homelessness owns the homes and does not charge rent.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue.

After a series of one-on-one conversations and a community meeting, neighbors have an opportunity to formally object to the project; if even one person on the block objects, the Block home won’t be built. The idea isn’t just to get community buy-in, Hohlbein says, but to turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs”—people who say, “Yes in My Backyard” and actively pitch in to make the Block Project work. A psychiatric nurse, for example, might agree to be a contact in case a resident who suffers from mental illness has a crisis, or a neighbor who owns a masonry shop might offer a part-time job to someone who always wanted to become a mason.

By creating contacts between formerly homeless people and neighborhood residents, the thinking goes, the Block Project will inspire people to think about homelessness in a different way—as a challenge they can do something to address, rather than someone else’s problem to solve.

“People need to have their lens corrected,” Hohlbein says. “Whenever someone who initially voiced fear or concern learns about the larger social good, or they learn the actual answers to the questions that they have, almost across the board, every time, it goes away.”

Bobby Desjarlais’ 125-square-foot home includes a small porch.

The first volunteers who stepped up to test this utopian vision were Sherman and Tenenbaum. They had spent years walking past tent encampments on their way to work and wondering what they could do to help. The backdrop was the 2016 election and news that hate crimes were on the rise.

“We were feeling like this was just not the world we wanted to live in,” Sherman says. Then she heard a presentation by Hohlbein about the Block Project at the firm where she works, FSi consulting engineers. “This [seemed] like an opportunity to push back against that a little bit and support something that makes the city more compassionate and caring—all those things that felt like they were in short supply,” Sherman says. (FSi now provides pro bono support to the Block Project.)

Sherman still remembers rehearsing how she would talk her husband into hosting the first Block home in their backyard. “Dan and I are pretty private, and sharing space is kind of a big deal for people who are introverted, so I was preparing the speech in my head,” Sherman says.

Colleen Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.” 

As it turned out, she didn’t have to do much convincing. “I got about two sentences into my spiel, and Dan said, ‘Oh. We should do that!’ That was the entire conversation.”

Getting from that initial conversation to move-in day turned out to be a slower process. To find its first resident—and in recognition of the fact that Native Americans experience homelessness at rates that vastly exceed their representation in the population—the Block Project turned to the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that provides culturally appropriate services and assistance to homeless and low-income Native Americans. (All Block Project residents must come to the project through an organization that provides case management. Besides the Chief Seattle Club, Hohlbein says, the project is working with Mary’s Place, The Sophia Way and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.) Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk says the group vetted a number of people, but decided that Desjarlais—a member of the Cree Tribe and a Canadian native who had been homeless for more than a decade—would be an ideal fit.

“He’s just one of the most wonderful people, with crazy amounts of joy and love for people,” Echohawk says. Tenenbaum and Sherman clicked with the 76-year-old Desjarlais right away. “I remember saying to Kim that I had a really good feeling about him,” Tenenbaum says. Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.”

Desjarlais did not want to be interviewed for this story—the couple says he has been overwhelmed by media attention—but he did allow a tour of his house, which is tidy and feels much larger than its 125-square-foot footprint. Inside, a tiny bathroom is separated by a curtain from a cleverly designed living area with a cooktop and refrigerator, built-in shelves, and a pull-out bed and desk. Outside, there’s a locked storage space and a small covered porch that looks out on the couple’s compact backyard—a peaceful space filled with sunlight, flowers and one slightly grumpy cat.

Sherman says one of the biggest things she’s learned in the six months or so of sharing their space with Desjarlais is how many things people with stable housing take for granted. “When Bobby first went into his house, we’d taken all this time to make everything perfect and all cute and arranged and homey, and he walked in and the first thing he said was, ‘Wow, pillows! I haven’t had pillows in 10 years! I’ve had to sleep with my coat and my shoes as a pillow,’” Sherman recalls. “And for some reason, I guess because that’s something that I completely take for granted, that really got to me emotionally—the idea that something as simple as a pillow can really impact the quality of your life.”

Although all their neighbors supported their plan to host a formerly homeless resident in their backyard, Sherman and Tenenbaum say that the Block Project’s vision—a network of neighbors pitching in to welcome Desjarlais and help him be a part of the community—hasn’t quite panned out. “Most people on our block haven’t been super involved,” Tenenbaum says.

Nor has Desjarlais drastically changed his routine; he still goes to the Chief Seattle Club in the morning and hangs out with his friends downtown during the day. In other ways, though, his life is completely different. He quit drinking and has gotten his diabetes under control. He gets to sleep in past 6 in the morning. And, of course, he has a home—one where, Tenenbaum and Sherman say, he is welcome to live “forever” if he chooses. Unlike many programs that offer housing to the homeless, there is no expectation that participants in this program move on to other housing.

Even after six months, Sherman says, “Bobby will send us a little text message every morning saying, ‘I can’t believe I slept so well—I slept until 7 a.m. and now I’m having cornflakes for breakfast.’ After living in a shelter where he was in a room full of 150 snoring men for so many years, just being able to sleep well has been a real luxury for him.”

At press time, the second Block home was still under construction, in the backyard of a house in Greenwood owned by Dave and Visala Hohlbein, Rex Hohlbein’s sister. On a recent weekend, volunteers swarmed the property, hand-digging a trench for a sewer line and stapling VaproShield to the exterior of the structure. When it’s complete, it will house a formerly homeless man named C’zar Carter, who is currently staying in Sherman and Tenenbaum’s basement.

It will, of course, take more than two Block homes to make this project a success, and more than one of these small houses on every block in Seattle to house the estimated 12,000 people in King County who lack a permanent place to call home. But elected officials who have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the homelessness crisis welcome all potential solutions—particularly those, like the Block Project, that rely on donations rather than government subsidies.

City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who has advocated for the Block Project and calls Hohlbein a visionary, says she sees the project as part of a “silver buckshot”—rather than a “silver bullet”—strategy for addressing homelessness. But she’s realistic about the financial and psychological challenges the project will face in scaling up to anything approaching Hohlbein’s vision.

Homeowners across the city will have to accept the idea of having formerly homeless people as neighbors; the Block Project will have to figure out how to pay for dozens or hundreds of tiny homes, which cost about $40,000 each for materials alone (though some materials are likely to be donated). “The fact is that we’ve got to work within a system and with neighbors who are saying, ‘We don’t want those people in our neighborhood,’ which is very discouraging,” Bagshaw says. “And that is what Rex is changing.”

Sherman and Tenenbaum have more modest goals—to house one person, and “put the idea in people’s heads to think of different solutions,” as Sherman puts it. Tenenbaum adds: “A lot of people want to help. They want to do good things. And I’m all for huge amounts of spending and government assistance. But there also need to be ways for people to express their need to help.”

“It feels better to be doing something than doing nothing,” Sherman says.

 

Does “Our Best” Leave Black Girls Behind?

This piece originally ran in Seattle Magazine

In 2012, only 57 percent of African-American boys graduated from high school in Washington state, compared to 73 percent of their white counterparts.

The achievement gap for young black men goes far beyond their graduation rates. Nationally, African-American boys are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white boys, and are three times as likely to be suspended. In Seattle, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as white boys to be referred to special education, and these students in general fall far behind their white counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores to seventh-grade math proficiency to graduation rates. In 2015, 56 percent of white Seattle Public Schools graduates ended up going to a four-year college; just 30 percent of black students did the same. This achievement gap has lifelong ramifications; nearly 70 percent of young black men who drop out of school will end up in prison, and one in three black boys will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

“If you look at discipline data or graduation data or just regular third-grade test data, you’ll see just a huge discrepancy in the gaps between black males and their counterparts,” says Dwane Chappelle, director of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

The achievement gap between black and white boys has been documented for decades, but the emphasis on programs targeted at improving the outcomes for black boys is a more recent phenomenon. Last year, after the City of Seattle’s first Education Summit, Mayor Ed Murray convened a 32-member advisory committee to come up with recommendations to close the gap. This year, to help accomplish this audacious goal, Murray organized a Youth Opportunity Cabinet, which includes African-American city department heads, such as Chappelle and Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development, and announced a new initiative focused on improving young black male achievement, called Our Best. (“If they are given resources that others take for granted, our young black men are our best,” Surratt says.)

The city has allocated $300,000 for the first year of the program (with few details on exactly how the money will be spent), which is modeled after former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, but aimed at boys and youth between the ages of 14 and 24. A good portion of that money will support a one-year pilot project, which began in July, to double the number of black male mentors, by providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs; the money will also fund a new special adviser to the mayor on young black male achievement.

Mentors, Surratt says, can give black boys the kind of positive role models they may be lacking in home or at school, and from experience can provide lessons on how to cope with challenges. “It’s not a cultural deficiency model,” says Surratt, referring to a model that says young black men are broken and need to be fixed. “It’s an asset richness model”—one that takes the assets that already exist in the African-American community and puts them to work guiding young men who may be struggling into responsible adulthood.

Our Best also includes a new mayor’s council on black male achievement, with the goal of increasing the number of black boys who graduate high school; providing young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful,” well-paid employment; and reducing the percentage of young black men entering the criminal justice system.

While the city’s renewed focus on young black male achievement is both admirable and necessary, some worry that male-focused programs like Our Best leave black girls behind.

Black girls are six times as likely as white girls to get kicked out of school—a racial gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between black and white boys.

Like those of their male counterparts, black girls’ reading and math scores are at or near the bottom level, and four in 10 black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason. Black girls who drop out may suffer greater economic consequences than black boys, largely because the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts. Black girls are also far more likely to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for black men and $41,500 for single white women.

Moreover, black girls experience harm at school that the standard “achievement gap” yardstick simply fails to measure, such as sexual violence, suicide, harassment and the consequences of single parenting, says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum and a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University.

“There is a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy,” says Crenshaw. Much like health research that for many years only used male subjects, the data available on African-American student achievement is largely centered on outcomes that primarily impact boys, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a feedback loop that leaves girls out. “It’s not just one gender that’s struggling, [but] the conversation up ’til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys,” says Crenshaw.

Proponents of Our Best say they’re aware that girls face specific challenges that boys don’t. “We all know that our young ladies need support as well,” Chappelle says. But, he says, “We have to get that infrastructure in place first, and then we will be able to provide the young ladies with support, too.” Supporters of Our Best also insist that by helping young men, the program will benefit young black women as well, by fixing systems that hurt everybody when they’re broken.

“The intent is that if you fix a demographic that is clearly doing statistically the poorest, you are in fact fixing the institutional problems for the other demographics as well,” says City Council member Bruce Harrell, an Our Best proponent. “In fixing a lot of the institutional practices that work to the detriment of young black males, I think young black females and even others will reap the benefits.”

Surratt adds, “Unfortunately, across almost every metric that you can imagine, every social, economic and health indicator, young black men are suffering the most, and so we wanted to tackle this part of the community first.”

Crenshaw, who criticized Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program for excluding girls in a New York Times op-ed piece, is less convinced, calling that theory “trickle-down social justice” that “doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did.”

Chappelle points to the fact that at least one school in Seattle that implemented the My Brother’s Keeper program, Aki Kurose Middle School, has since added an analogous Our Sister’s Keeper program for girls as evidence that the program will probably expand—eventually.

“Once we get Our Best down as far as young black men are concerned, then I would anticipate we would figure out a way to make sure that we are weaving in the support we need for our young black women, and also other young women of color who have historically been marginalized,” Chappelle says. The question is, how long will it take? And will it be soon enough to help the latest generation of young black girls who are at risk of falling through the cracks?

Little Free Libraries Feed the Mind; Little Free Pantries Feed the Hungry

A short piece I wrote for Seattle Magazine, about a cool, practical permutation on the Little Free Libraries that are in neighborhoods across the city. 

Walk through any neighborhood in Seattle and chances are you’ll come across a Little Free Library—one of those dozens of miniature lending libraries that invite neighbors to borrow books and leave volumes they no longer want.

Walk through Josh Pearson’s Squire Park neighborhood in the Central District, though, and you may stumble across our city’s first Little Free Pantry—an unassuming white box with a gabled roof and two shelves where neighbors can leave nonperishable food, bottled water and hygiene items for people in need.

Pearson, 32, came across a story about the original Little Free Pantry, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and thought, why not? “We live in such a diverse neighborhood, with so many different people at all income levels living within three blocks of us. It just seemed like something worth trying out.” Pearson says items turn over regularly, with packaged foods, water, deodorant and toothpaste in high demand.

Even his youngest neighbors are pitching in. “It says, ‘Take what you want, leave what you can,’ and there’s a little girl down the street who came by one day and wanted the applesauce,” Pearson recalls. “She came back the next day and left some Girl Scout cookies.”

A Proposed City Program Could Save Seattle’s Legacy Businesses—but Should It?

This article originally ran in the February issue of Seattle magazine

If you haven’t been to Husky Deli in West Seattle’s Alaska Junction in a while, don’t worry: It hasn’t changed much since the last time you were there. There’s still the same ice cream counter featuring flavors like Husky Flake, Almond Joy and spumoni; the old-school deli with classic made-to-order sandwiches; the shelves stocked with staples and an oddball selection of British treats—Hobnobs, Marmite and Kinder Bueno bars.

It’s the kind of place that may still exist in your neighborhood—an old-fashioned grocery store and gathering place, owned and operated by the same family since 1932, when the place sold chocolate-dipped ice cream bars to local schoolkids. Jack Miller, the deli’s apple-cheeked, barrel-chested paterfamilias, started working here as soon as he was “old enough to help make ice cream”—around age 6 or 7, he thinks. He took it over from his father (who took it over from his father) in 1975.

“When people come back to town after being gone, they come in here, because they want to see what’s still here,” Miller says. On 9/11, he recalls, “We were full—people came in because they wanted to run into some place where they knew they were going to see people they know, and Husky’s is that kind of place.”

City Council member Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, wants to make sure businesses like Husky can survive the rising rents and booming development that have doomed neighborhood institutions across the city—the Harvard Exit Theatre, Ballard’s Sunset Bowl, West Seattle’s Alki Tavern. Last November, Herbold secured $100,000 in the 2017 city budget (approved in an 8–1 council vote) to study the cost and scope of creating a “legacy business program,” to help “preserve businesses that contribute to the City’s unique culture and character and are at imminent risk of closure.” That includes businesses like Husky, which ranked fourth on a questionnaire Herbold posted on her council website asking, “What business do you fear will go away?” In that questionnaire, Scarecrow Video in the University District came in at No. 1.

“We need a bridge to our past,” Herbold says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”

The San Francisco program on which Herbold’s proposal is loosely based includes both a registry of legacy businesses and a dedicated fund (passed by 57 percent of San Francisco voters in 2015) to pay for direct assistance to historic businesses, along with financial incentives for landlords to keep renting to those businesses. Herbold says she doesn’t plan to propose a property tax in Seattle. Instead, she hopes to provide incentives and assistance to businesses through existing city funds. Assistance could include help from the city’s Office of Economic Development with marketing, relocation or complying with complex regulations.

David Campos, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member who spearheaded the legacy business effort there, says that in San Francisco, the main threat to historic businesses is rising rents: “A lot of these legacy businesses were not getting long-term leases, because the owners of these properties saw that they could make many times more money if they kicked them out and rented to somebody else.” The grants to property owners, which are capped at $22,500 a year, help make up the difference between market rent and what the businesses are able to pay; the grants to the businesses, capped at $50,000 a year, help businesses pay for ongoing operating costs, whether or not they stay in their original location. The program just started issuing its first grants.

One of the challenges of the legacy business project is defining just what bumps a business into the “legacy” category. San Francisco has grappled with this, without coming up with a definitive answer. Campos, who represents San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Mission District, says the case-by-case process is “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” with businesses chosen based on testimony from the community and a hearing before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective, though Herbold says, “It has to be something other than nostalgia. I don’t see this as being a way to a save every quirky little hole-in-the-wall business in town.” The point is to heed community input. “It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them.”

Jaimee Garbacik, a local author whose multimedia historical mapping project, Ghosts of Seattle Past, collects “the venues, restaurants, shops and institutions we’ve lost to development,” according to its websites, is a vocal advocate for Herbold’s proposal. The way to make sure “legacy business” isn’t just a synonym for “quirky dive bar” is to work with and survey neighborhood residents from all backgrounds and find out what matters to them, she says. “I would hope that a space with cultural significance to a specific community, including gathering places, historically significant spaces that don’t qualify for landmark status and businesses that offer specialized services should be distinguishable from somewhere that merely has niche flavor,” Garbacik says. And just because defining what counts as a “legacy business” is difficult, the city shouldn’t be dissuaded from undertaking the project.

Of course, not everyone is in favor of preservation for preservation’s sake. Advocates for housing development tend to be skeptical of proposals that would require preserving the buildings where legacy businesses are located, arguing that this will discourage new housing and serve as another avenue for neighborhood activists to stymie projects they don’t like.

One such skeptic is Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for local apartment developers. Sitting at a table at Joe Bar, a quirky little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on North Capitol Hill, he notes: “Whatever Lisa says, I know there are going to be people who use [her project] to stop development. It feels like another opportunity for people who want to monkey-wrench the [development] process.” And change, he says, is inevitable. Some businesses that fit into a neighborhood 20 years ago no longer do. “Small businesses are just hard to run, and sometimes the neighborhood changes and doesn’t support that business anymore. I don’t see how you’re going to put your finger on the scale and say, ‘Nobody goes to Café Whatever anymore, but there’s a group of people who want to save it, so let’s save it.’”

Ethan Phelps-Goodman, founder of the development-tracking website Seattle in Progress, spoke recently at an event curated by Garbacik about lost or threatened Seattle institutions. He agrees that small, community-based businesses add character to a neighborhood, but worries that the definition of that “character” will be determined by a narrow slice of neighborhood residents. “You can say that it will be a community-driven process, but we’ve seen repeatedly how without extreme care, open community processes are captured by the most engaged, connected and already privileged members of a community”—that is, the single-family homeowners who often show up to oppose new development already. Phelps-Goodman argues that the best way to keep small businesses viable is to create new mixed-use development that includes spaces for both old and new small businesses. “By far the most important thing we can do is address the shortages of affordable small commercial spaces that are the root of the problem,” he says.

It’s closing in on noon back at Husky Deli, and nearly every seat is taken in the small dining area. Miller, the owner, knows he and his business are in an enviable position. As owner of the building, he’s the master of his fate. His building will only be torn down for redevelopment if he decides to take that step. “We’ve got no plans to do that.” While redevelopment could mean a financial windfall, there are other important things—like making the kind of human connections his place of business fosters. It’s true even for newcomers to the city. “They start off eating at Chipotle and all the places that they know, but pretty soon they realize that it’s pretty cool to go to a place that’s been there a long time.” Herbold sees her proposal as a bridge to that kind of past—to a time when guys like Miller passed their businesses down from generation to generation, and everyone bought their ice cream by the cone.