Last month I got chance to spend a few days in Seattle. The home city of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and Boeing is tucked away in the north west corner of the USA. I always love exploring new cities, and it was great to have my wife show me around a city where she had recently studied.
Two things struck us about the city:
- There’s a huge number of homeless people in the city. More than either of us had seen living on the streets of any city in the developed world, whether in the US or Europe, more even than in many third world places we had visited.
- Seattle has a reputation as being a very generous city. Many charities and non-profit organisations are based there, and raise lots from local corporations.
Is that a contradiction? How is it that such a generous city has such a problem with homelessness?
One argument could be that it’s precisely because there is so much generosity that there’s a problem. People gravitate towards the city because they know it has a reputation for generosity, and they hope others will give generously to support them, or so the argument goes. Perhaps. But maybe there’s a deeper reason.
We did a guided walk around the city (with Seattle Free Walking Tours), and learned two potential reasons from the city’s history.
- The Native American tribe who originally lived in the area had a reputation for extravagance, as a means of displaying wealth, and therefore gaining prestige in the eyes of neighbours. Could it be that the current trend for generosity in Seattle goes all the way back to these origins, over 150 years ago? That today’s generosity is the direct offspring of that showing-off mentality from five generations back?
- In the city centre there is an Alaskan totem pole. During the Alaskan Gold Rush people flocked to Seattle and used the city as a base to travel to the gold fields further north. On the way home, some explorers of dubious of repute raided a Native American town, stole their best totem pole, and brought it back to Seattle. The city proudly set it up in one of its public squares. It was vandalised in 1938, and Seattle cheekily sent the broken bits back to the same original town, and asked them to carve another. The tribe did so, but they placed two upside down frogs at the top of the pole. According to their culture this turns the totem pole into a shame pole rather than a blessing pole. In effect, it turns it into a curse. Could this be why there are so many homeless people in the city, because someone placed a curse on the city, that is broadcast from one of its most public squares?
It makes me wonder just how much key incidents in a city’s history can affect its personality even hundreds of years later. And what sort of impact do curses spoken over a city make?
Are there key moments in London’s history that continue to profoundly affect it, like the Great Fire, or the Blitz? And are there any curses over our city we should be aware of? What do you think has contributed most to shaping the current city as we know it?
Mark Williamson also blogs regularly at One Rock International, a training organisation resourcing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s passionate about good films, good food, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna.