With riches comes an identity crisis; Seattle: The city is recovering from the WTO mayhem, but embarrassment lingers.


SEATTLE -- There's trouble in the soul of Seattle.

In the ringing of cell phones, the beeping of expensive car horns and the bleeping of e-mail, some denizens of this once sleepy seaside oasis that now harbors the instant millionaires of the Internet Age can hear the sound of community spirit lost.

"We have world class-itis," said Eric Pollard, a merchant in the city's funky, 93-year-old Pike Place public market.

Seattle's retail center, a few blocks south, has physically recovered from the mayhem of five months ago, when protesters and police made a spectacle of the World Trade Organization talks. Cash registers are overflowing with the dollars of techies and tourists.

But embarrassment over the brutal clash lingers. And this city, once better known for its modest Scandinavian settlers with their fleets of fishing boats, is in the throes of an identity crisis.

"For some reason, Seattle has this self-esteem problem in that it has to prove itself to the world," said Pollard, who heads a lobbying group of Pike Place Market merchants and residents. "In reality, what made Seattle charming is we didn't have to prove anything to anybody."

Before the 1990s, Seattle was a peaceful place, as mellow as its beautiful surroundings and as unpretentious as the middle-class families who flocked to its fishing waters and to its jobs at Boeing. It was a northern haven for hippies and political activists, where the locals touted the rainy climate to scare away the hipsters from Los Angeles. And it was known for excessive politeness -- no jaywalking or honking at stoplights.

But fueled by the explosive growth of Microsoft -- and the sudden millionaires its stock options created -- Seattle of late has become a boom town of real estate bidding wars and clogged traffic, thrust into an international spotlight that made the WTO debacle in December all the more glaring.

The numbers tell part of the story of the region's changes. The number of multimillionaires in the area -- excluding assets such as cars, boats and houses -- grew 80 percent, from 10,000 to 18,000, from 1998 to 1999. Nearly 400 homes sold for $1 million or more in the past year, 75 percent more than in 1998.

For some here, the WTO demonstrations -- which led to the police chief's resignation, $20 million in downtown damage and major embarrassment for Mayor Paul Schell -- and the recent dive of Microsoft stock were a necessary pricking of the city's bloated ego, burdens that, though unpleasant, brought Seattle back to substance.

"I think it was a positive thing," Coe Geideman, a magenta-haired bicycle messenger, said of the WTO protests as she sipped coffee at a downtown cafe. "People need to step back or wake up."

Defenders of the new golden age point to another set of figures: 33 members in the local United Way's "million-dollar roundtable"; a new symphony hall downtown; a burst of new nonprofits and foundations established by the affluent young who are eager for their money to make a difference.

Dick Moessner, a 10-year Seattle resident, has seen several sides of the boom. He went to work for an online magazine, only to find the company had shaky underpinnings. Now he wraps fine chocolates at Teuscher, a downtown coffee and candy shop, and contemplates his next move.

Despite his rocky experience in the online world, Moessner thinks the new money has been good for Seattle.

"I think some of the longtime residents, the granola heads, think the town has gone to hell, and the soul is gone," because of the superheated economy, Moessner said. "But the town's a lot better than it used to be. It used to be pretty backwater. The money brings more art, more theater."

And covetousness. Ryan McCafferty, 28, experiences the new economy in the fine, handmade shoes he sells at a posh downtown boutique to highfliers his age who drive up in Porsches and Ferraris.

"They'll be talking about their summer houses, and I don't have any house," he said. "It's hard to cater to it, because it makes you want it."

As chief executive officer of Corbis, a provider of Internet images based across Lake Washington from Seattle, Steve Davis knows well the ups of the new world. He has tried to give back, becoming active in the past few years in the United Way of King County.

But he also is a longtime local resident and acknowledges that discomfort has accompanied the boom.

"There's no question that it's not been a completely pretty picture," Davis said. "I think there is some backlash happening, where people who haven't been touched by the Internet phenomenon directly are saying, 'Wait a minute, only one part of the region is benefiting from this.'"

Economically, downtown is recovering from the WTO damage with the help of visitors to the nearby convention center, said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Joncas acknowledged that the WTO clash was a black mark on the city's gilded image. But she said it brought out Seattle's spirit in the form of families who came downtown afterward, armed with bottles of spray cleaner, volunteering to help remove graffiti for shopkeepers they didn't know, she said.

"Our challenge is to keep the Seattle in Seattle and still embrace the change that comes," Joncas said.

But in the far corners of the public market, merchants simmer over damage they suffered during the WTO crisis, damage that might seem small to others but is hugely important to them.

Pollard, who runs an herbal apothecary called Tenzing Momo, has a claim against the city for $3,000 worth of lost incense. "Nobody wants tear-gas incense," he says.

One of his employees says she was struck in the mouth by rubber bullets trying to get home from work. Waiters lost a week of income. Purveyors of fish and produce found their wares ruined by what the police sprayed. Several merchants are filing lawsuits, and a class-action suit is being considered.

City Council President Margaret Pageler can't answer their grievances. But she says the fact that the market group is still around to make noise is the best evidence that Seattle really hasn't changed.

"That's part of the Pike Place Market culture, to be both fearsomely independent and also complain that government doesn't do anything for them," Pageler said. "That's part of Seattle culture ... and that spirit is alive and well."

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