Last winter, I knew something had to change. I’d been unsuccessfully looking for a new job for a year. I’d earned my certificate in user-centered design from the University of Washington but was unable to use it much in my current job. I’d even grown distant from my beloved Capitol Hill after a decade. I was aging out, sure, but the neighborhood had changed in well-documented ways. Even when I was 21, I wouldn’t have been happy to live in this weird new place full of high-concept, high-budget restaurants and sidewalks crowded with groups of vaguely malevolent people who triggered something deep in my lizard brain. When I first arrived in 2004, I’d rejoiced in particular at the the residents – throngs of beautiful, interesting people who I felt an often wordless kinship with. Minus that, I began to feel distant from everyone around me, and – worse – relieved when I made it through yet another crowd of dickheads to the safety of my own apartment once again.
Clearly, it was time to make a move.
I’d seen a fair amount of Seattle, but, like a lot of carless Capitol Hill residents, I largely stayed within its dense borders. If I was going to pick a new home, I was going to have to do some research. My friend Rico was similarly disenchanted with our neighborhood, and he’d been considering a return to Ravenna, where he’d lived several years before. My knowledge of the area was mostly from going through it on the bus, or tracing ever so close to its borders at Cafe Racer. We set a date to explore – late March, last year, in another life. The air was brisk and misty, the sky was overcast, and I was excited to set out to find part of the next chapter of my life.
Here’s one thing I didn’t know: Ravenna has a sizable park running through it, big enough that you can submerge yourself in the woods and lose the neighborhood around you. We started our outing walking on gently muddy trails, surrounded by hikers and joggers and those rugged Northwest dogs, all clad in enough layers of water-repellant fabric that the mist and chill didn’t seem to affect them. We went deeper and deeper into a valley, beneath a towering overpass, past streams, and up and down stairs. One thing I’ve always loved about Seattle is the municipal stairs its Pacific Rim terrain requires. It’s a thing I love about San Francisco and Oakland too – someone looked at one steep hill or another and decided to create a project to make walking hither and thither just a little bit easier.
We climbed out and found ourselves among the Arts & Crafts homes that fill so many Seattle neighborhoods, especially in its northern neighborhoods. Tasteful, muted colors, and those yards full of just-off-of-regional plants that are common enough to read as belonging now. Tiers of tight-budded flowers, dense ivy, spiky and vibrant Japanese maples. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the patience (or, let’s be honest, the interest) to have a yard like that myself, but these just-this-side-of-overgrown yards were an early thing I loved about the city, in my first proper wanders in 2005, when I worked in Fremont. Lavender that loomed over cracked sidewalks, hydrangeas so big and lush they could’ve been transplanted from Jurassic Park. The mist and gentle weather creates mild-mannered people and absolutely gargantuan plant life – ferns and blackberry bushes alike that could take over the city in minutes if they ever got ambitious.
Seeing people roll with this lushness was like an invitation in when I arrived. Rather than fighting what grew almost unbidden, they encouraged it in pleasing directions. An early sign of a place I’d take root in myself for more than a decade.
Rico was right. Ravenna was beautiful – all these tranquil houses and quiet streets. The street cats surprised me most of all. People would sometimes ask me if I ever let my cats outside. I’d look at them for a long moment and then remind them that I lived on 12th Avenue. Letting cats outside in my part of the neighborhood would have been almost an act of neglect and certainly an act of stupidity. But in Ravenna, we saw cats every few blocks. One stalked us past several houses, winding in and out of bushes and staying just out of reach while keeping pace with us. More of them, though, approached us, flashing collars and oozing certainty. This was their place. They would accept your fealty, though, now that you mention it.
That a place this gentle shared the technical boundaries of my city was a bigger surprise than it should have been, considering this expedition took place within just a few months of my tenth anniversary of becoming a Seattlelite.
Best of all was that people were still weird up north. They didn’t give up on being goofy city people just because they were able to get a whole address all to themselves. A friend had moved from our shared building into a house in Northgate not long before this day; it had gotten me to thinking. I’d been considering leaving Capitol Hill since I’d started considering working toward a more permanent living situation. In late 2012, I took a first-time homebuyers’ class; while I didn’t end up buying anything, it was the first inspiration to consider what neighborhood I saw myself in for the next phase of my life. I didn’t want children and had no particular ambition to get married, but in my housing and neighborhood, I wanted something that fit better and would continue to for some time. Was the next logical step Queen Anne? Ravenna? A cheaper edge of Fremont? Going full Ballard and never seeing most of my friends again?
The plan was originally to go on a series of these jaunts, to walk around and study the people and surroundings, to spend a few hours in an imitation of a typical Saturday afternoon. Did I feel welcome? Was it a pleasant walk to the grocery store? Would I get bored? I knew no other neighborhood would have Capitol Hill’s wonderful, weird density, but I have the good luck to find beauty and intrigue in even relatively ordinary places. And I was getting pretty tired of sirens.
I was going to see Fremont and upper Queen Anne. Columbia City. Beacon Hill, Pioneer Square, the Central District. Points east and north and south, to see what I’d missed, to see where I could see myself.
Then I got into Hackbright, and everything began to tilt about 90 degrees.
I left Seattle for the first time on June 29. I returned in early October to pack up and move in two of the densest, most stressful weeks of my life. I returned once more last month to see Dina Martina. The city felt strange – I told friends that it felt like having dinner with an ex too soon after a breakup. It didn’t feel like home, but as Oakland also wasn’t home yet, it just emphasized my straddling state. I was glad to see friends and Pike Place in full holiday regalia, but otherwise, it was too soon and too strange.
When I drove into Oakland in October and when my plane began to descend in December from those two strange trips to my former sanctuary, I cried both times, so relieved was I to get back to the dinosaur cranes and the twinkling lights of Lake Merritt. Was it being glad to leave the past behind, or was it relief to return to the place that I could now assume would be my next home? Either way, when you cry at the mechanisms of a shipping yard, there are some major emotional forces afoot.
I write this from my home just north of downtown. There’s now a much, much bigger area to explore to see what might end up being the right place for me, a hunt that continues and will until the shifting sands of the last several months finally still themselves. But for now, there are no sirens, and I live among people who are just looking to live their lives, not to find the perfect setting and situation for their next Instagram picture. We’re not trying to be legendary. We’re just getting where we need to be.