Welcome to Seattle--Now Go Home : California Emigres Meet New Hostility in Idyllic Northwest

Mt. Rainier wears a permanent skirt of smog. Developers are turning the Seattle suburbs into a replica of Orange County.

And every time there's a multivehicle smashup on the Evergreen floating bridge, commuters trapped in their cars reach the same silent conclusion: It's the Californians!

The natives have held their tongues about these matters until recently, because Seattle residents are famous for their good manners.

But now, casting politeness aside, Seattle has become the first city to rebel against the Great California Yuppie Migration.

Californians who have used their recent real estate windfalls as tickets out of the increasingly claustrophobic Southland have been called equity exiles, equity emigres and equity refugees. But now, they'd better prepare to be called equity aliens.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have joined the California-to-Seattle migration in recent weeks has wandered smack into a barrage of accusations that "sun-bleached barbarians" are polluting the once-pristine Emerald City.

Words like plague and scourge have been applied freely to immigrants like Jim Friswold, who moved his family north from Yorba Linda last month. Friswold predicts the California-bashing "will get worse before it gets better."

The snubs, reminiscent of the early '70s "Don't Californicate Oregon" campaign, reached another transplant before she even left her California home. After reading about a Seattle newspaper columnist's campaign aimed at keeping out Californians, Neota Bradley almost canceled her move, even though her husband had already arranged a job transfer from San Francisco.

Bradley ultimately moved, but she took precautionary measures, such as having her California license plates replaced with Washington plates immediately upon arrival.

Relocation specialist Mindy Sitton of Coldwell Banker in Seattle said she has talked at length with potential immigrants about the new anti-California attitude here.

"It's scaring a lot of people," she said.

Even tourists from California apparently feel they need to take steps to stave off persecution. A Seattle newspaper columnist reported seeing this hand-lettered sign in the back of a van bearing California plates: "Just Visiting. Don't Worry."

Seattle, of course, is not the only place receiving disaffected Angelenos trailing U-Hauls. California migrants are relocating nationwide. But it sometimes seems as if there's a direct pipeline from Los Angeles and the Bay Area to the burgeoning new communities on Seattle's Eastside--towns like Bellevue and Kirkland.

What Seattle has going for it are: jobs--unemployment here is at a 20-year low; mountain and water views galore; and just enough trendy, high-tech familiarity to make the place comfortable for Californians.

In contrast, a transplant who chooses Spokane or Walla Walla, for instance, is unlikely to find espresso served in convenience stores.

Just how many California emigres have relocated in Seattle is a matter of wild speculation in the Northwest.

Based on Internal Revenue Service data, state office of financial management statistics say 22% of all newcomers to Seattle are from the Golden State; that figure has remained steady since 1975.

But some newspaper accounts have declared the California-to-Seattle exodus a flood, based on figures from moving companies and other sources.

Real estate agents report that as many as 90% of their recent sales are to Californians, who see as a real bargain the King County August median home price of $99,000 (which agents say will get a buyer a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,500-square-foot house in a modest middle-class neighborhood).

It's fair to say that, even if an equal number of immigrants are coming to Seattle from states other than California, the Californians may be having a bigger impact with their conspicuous real estate wealth and equally conspicuous life styles.

The first wave of immigrants, especially, seemed to alienate natives with shows of excess. They came waving cash, flashing tans and generally crowing about having caught the golden ring.

Now, the conquering hero stance is out, humility and discretion are in. The new immigrants don't talk about money if they can help it.

Bradley said she and her husband, John, make a point of saying they have made a decision to own only one car: a 17-year-old VW square-back.

When people say to her, "I suppose you find our city cheap," she emphatically declares that she does not. She adds for good measure: "I wear blue jeans from Montgomery Ward and we go out for pizza maybe once a week. I think we'll fit in real well."

Groveling for acceptance is a price the Bradleys are willing to pay in exchange for their new-found views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains from their $180,000 West Seattle home. At night, the well-lit car ferries churning across the sound look like floating candelabra, Bradley said.

Another recent arrival--who asked not to be named because "I don't want to be punished even more"--said she did not attend a block party in her new neighborhood for fear the conversation would get around to real estate and she would be forced to reveal that she recently sold one house in San Francisco and bought seven in Seattle.

Although she has taken pains to keep a low profile, she thinks her neighbors have still managed to identify her as one of those obscenely fortunate equity aliens.

"You feel the animosity, you really do," she said.

With rumors circulating that local employers are throwing away resumes from Californians, some newcomers try to conceal their California affiliations. The former San Franciscan, who was born in Prague, relies on her Eastern European accent to get her off the hook. When people ask "Where are you from?" she tells them "Czechoslovakia."

Victims of the equity exile backlash attribute the recent rash of antagonism to a single anti-California crusader, Emmett Watson, a 70-year-old columnist for the Seattle Times, responsible for the keep-Californians-out campaign and much of the anti-California rhetoric in vogue in the city.

Watson, a Seattle native, is a well-known character around the Pike Place Public Market, a waterfront landmark where he lives and works. He's easily recognized with his unruly white hair, and--as some of the offended newcomers have noted--a somewhat sour expression that suits his crusty persona.

He explained that he has written columns opposing growth in Seattle for almost 30 years, beginning long before the current crop of Californians rolled into town and took offense at his tongue-in-cheek tactics.

His keep-Californians-out tirade brought down a storm of protest unequaled by anything in his career, Watson said. He was accused by readers of being bigoted, racist ("I didn't know Californians are a race," he wrote later), discriminatory and downright cantankerous.

"Had the decision been left up to Emmett Watson," one letter writer said, "I doubt we'd have a Statue of Liberty greeting the tired, huddled masses."

Ignoring his fish and chips in favor of cigarettes and coffee, Watson said the Californians missed the joke.

"They just came in in the middle of the movie," he said, adding that he was only kidding when he suggested the city levy "a stiff head tax" on California immigrants.

And neither was he serious, he said, in proposing that city officials monitor the habits of new arrivals by fitting them with the sort of electronic ankle bracelets worn by convicted criminals.

But for all of Watson's insistence that the columns were in fun, others detect genuine venom lurking behind the gibes of Watson and others.

What, then, is provoking the rage?

One factor is that Californians are an obvious symbol of out-of-control urban growth, something that has been on the minds of Seattle residents in recent months.

Once admired as a city that had managed to preserve the beauty of its natural setting, Seattle has increasingly been plagued by the very woes that the equity exiles hope to flee: crime, smog and traffic.

The newspapers are carrying stories about gangs and drugs; the city's art museum recently had to bring indoors some ancient stone camel sculptures, which were decaying in the pollution. Then in May, after acrimonious debate, Seattle voters passed an initiative to limit downtown growth.

Because of several strategically placed bridges, which are too narrow to handle commuter loads, Seattle's traffic problems are actually worse than those of Los Angeles, many locals say. Commute times average 25 minutes, though an hour is not unusual; a national traffic engineers group recently rated Seattle the sixth most congested city in America, and a local paper suddenly launched a commuter column.

Another explanation for the antagonism toward Californians has to do with money. Sudden wealth--the kind you get from winning a sweepstakes or from selling a house in Los Angeles these days--inevitably inspires resentment. Seattle residents "act like we're all millionaires," said one California transplant.

In an example that might trigger raging envy in just about anyone, the Czechoslovakian previously mentioned bought a $200,000 home in San Francisco 11 years ago. When she decided recently that she wanted to leave the Bay Area, which she no longer found friendly or charming, she sold her home for $870,000. Selecting Seattle for her new home, she proclaimed to an incredulous real estate agent that she had half a million dollars to invest in property.

There's something about a young single woman with only a dog to share her lodgings who can buy a hillside home with a view of Lake Washington--and six other houses besides--that's just bound to irk people who slave away to meet the mortgage on a single abode.

The Seattle newcomer is inoffensive and even apologetic about her unexpected affluence. Being a land baroness "is not what I wanted," she said. "I don't consider myself wealthy. I'm not a wealthy person."

But she said she has overheard people complaining about the California invasion up the coast as far as British Columbia. When her car broke down recently, she said, a tow truck operator took one look at her California plates and said he couldn't help her: "Take it back home where you brought it from."

Such incidents have led the immigrant to wonder if the teasing, until now mostly jovial, will grow more vicious.

Sitton, of Coldwell Banker, said she believes the backlash will get worse if housing prices keep increasing. The influx of Californians "is driving our real estate prices up terribly and those of us who live here and haven't bought yet can't afford to buy," said the agent, who finds herself in that very situation. She owns a $90,000 home in Beaverton, Ore., and cannot afford to buy in Seattle.

Not only are locals being priced out of the market, but housing developers specifically are courting California immigrants by creating neighborhoods that will make them feel like they never left home, said Bob Simmons, a former Californian who reports on urban growth for KING-TV in Seattle.

The trend in the Seattle suburbs is toward sprawling developments complete with artificial lakes, golf courses, riding rings and $250,000, 3,000-square-foot, look-alike homes with workout rooms and three-car garages. It's known as the "Bellevue French" style.

"It's unavoidable that people are going to be upset and angry and heartsick when they see this sort of change coming," he said. "The result is going to be the disappearance--fast--of anything identifiable as Northwest culture."

While the distinctive Seattle character and environmental purity are being worn away, some California newcomers are determined to be part of the solution to those problems.

Ann Rosenthal, an artist who lived in a downtown Los Angeles loft before moving to Seattle three years ago, said she thinks the California contingent might be even more intent on preserving Seattle than locals are because they have already seen firsthand the ravages of urban disintegration.

"We know what it's like," she said.

In the name of protecting her adopted city, Rosenthal said the first question she asks of fresh arrivals from California is: "Do you recycle?"

Bradley is equally determined to show Seattle that Californians can be a positive influence.

"In San Francisco, I didn't feel I could make a difference," she said. "We're not here to buy and sell and build and tear down. We're here to make it better because we always want to be here."

It almost seems as if columnist Watson--the Luddite of Puget Sound, as one Californian called him--might have been eavesdropping on Bradley, Rosenthal and other earnest, preservation-minded Californians in recent weeks.

Because the man who was ready to clamp Californians with tracking devices only weeks ago has now proclaimed that he will admit Californians to his city after all--under certain conditions.

By his decree, newcomers must face south each morning, bow to the land of smog and sun from whence they came and recite a poem patterned on Desiderata, that idealistic anthem that once hung on countless kitchen and commune walls.

His version is called "Seattle Dryrotta":

Go placidly amid the volcanic ash and remember what peace there may be in car-pooling. . . . You are now a child of the Northwest, no less than the slugs and the clouds; you have a right to be here.

ADAPTING TO THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE Some guidelines for fitting into the Puget Sound life style: Lose your California license plates Lose your tan Don't run over the bicyclists Don't use an umbrella Don't be rude Don't jaywalk Learn to say "Yah, sure. You betcha." Source: Steve Johnston, Seattle Times HELP FOR CALIFORNIA-BOUND SEATTLE FOLKS Lots of Seattle folks move to California each year. Because Californians, especially in the southern part, spend most of their lives in their cars, there are some rules of the road a Puget Sound driver should know. 1. The speed limit is 55. But not on the freeways. The speed limit on the freeway is however fast you can go. The 55-mile-an-hour speed limit applies to residential streets and sidewalks. 2. Do something in your car other than drive it. Californians see driving as quality time and not to be wasted. They talk on their phones, read books, fax letters to their mothers and commit themselves to their hair. If they see you watching the road, they will know you are a dweeb. 3. Only one person to a car. The California Rules of the Road call for one person per vehicle. Nobody, but nobody, has more. If you have to take the wife and kids some place, have them get in the trunk. 4. The lane bumps are for motorcyclists. I know you are saying, "Aren't the lane bumps there to let you know when you are going to another lane?" Yes, in the rest of the country. But in Southern California, motorcycle riders drive on the bumps. It's not unusual for you to be going 70 and have a motorcyclist squeeze between you and the car next to you by staying on the bumps. Don't look startled. You can hear them coming. Source: Steve Johnston, Seattle Times

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