THE FIRST TIME I saw Seattle, the city was a faint cluster of skyscrapers, backed by the most impressive mountain range I’d seen on my 2,000-mile drive from my home state of Kentucky.
It was May 1994, the summer before my last semester of college, and I was about to start a three-month internship at The Seattle Times.
As I drove down out of cold, drizzly Snoqualmie Pass and through the Cascade foothills along Interstate 90, the clouds jarringly gave way to sunny skies over the far-eastern edge of Issaquah.
I’d experienced my first “sun break,” without even knowing the expression. It was as if someone had flicked on a cosmic spotlight, and everything went from gray to green in an instant.
If I told you that the 933-foot-tall Columbia Center (Bank of America Tower back then) sparkled in the sudden sunlight, you wouldn’t believe me. But I swear it did.
Seattle introduced itself to me as someplace magical — the real-life Emerald City. Which was perfect, because I was running from home, and I needed something shining in the distance to run to.
I drove off the I-90 interchange, then onto Fourth Avenue South into downtown, without really paying attention to the roads.
Veering north onto Second Avenue, I got my first glimpse of the top of the Space Needle hovering at the end of a canyon of high-rises.
The view was so striking that I failed to notice one little thing: Second Avenue is a one-way street — and it goes southbound.
Somehow, I avoided crashing into oncoming traffic and made a mad U-turn. Nobody honked. The stunningly polite drivers simply drove around me.
Eccentric, nonconformist and nice to a fault, it seemed as if Seattle itself moved in the opposite direction. That’s one reason it always felt so right to put down roots here when I came back to The Times as a three-year intern.
I was ready to say goodbye to Kentucky, where I was born and raised and went to school.
The country boy in me dreamed of becoming a city slicker.
The gay man in me looked forward to coming into his own in a West Coast city that seemed to live and let live.
But the black man in me … well, let’s just say I didn’t anticipate the challenge of being the only one in the crowd in Seattle, over and over and over again, especially since my decision to leave Kentucky had a lot to do with its racial divisions.
What Seattle lacked in diversity it would more than make up for in livability.
That decision to relocate changed my life. I never left the paper, or Seattle.
I hope that my work at The Times has contributed to that hard-to-define spirit, and in some small way helped keep us resilient in the face of changes that threaten to dim it.
As I relocate to Los Angeles, I look back on Seattle not as my hometown — that distinction goes to Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the Hilltoppers, the Purples, red birds in the morning, lightning bugs in the evening and church suppers that send you to bed for a nap in between. But Seattle is the home of my choosing. I made the city work for me just as the city worked its magic on me.
WHEN I WROTE over the holidays about my mixed feelings about my hometown, I asked you to submit reflections on your relationship to your own hometowns. Nearly 100 of you responded, with a depth of insight, searching, humor, pride and pain that left my head spinning.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who can feel overwhelmed by a rush of memories and emotions that accompany the prospect of revisiting the past by returning to the place where I was born and raised.
We’ve created an interactive map that allows you to click on a curated selection of readers’ hometowns to find out what they think about when they look back on the cities and towns that raised them.
Each reader’s reflection represents a dot on the map, and each dot on the map represents an essential ingredient in the character of our city and region.
Seattle’s DNA is the sum of all of its people, from the indigenous people who arrived in the Puget Sound region of ancient times to the new tech workers who roll into town on a weekly basis to strike it big in the Gold Rush of our times.
Many of you who grew up in small, rural, more conservative or more working-class towns looked back on where you grew up with fondness and even longing for the strong sense of personal ethics and emphasis on family.
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Of course, no one type of community has cornered the market on values and community.
Many of you wrote about feeling repressed and constricted in the cities where you were born or grew up. You talked about being at odds with the conventions of those places, different kinds of abuse that you or those around you suffered, the lack of diversity or the stubborn persistence of bigoted attitudes.
Even when we rebel against our hometowns, we still bring something of those places — lessons learned and lessons unlearned — when we settle here.
Some of your hometowns hold bittersweet memories because someone you knew or loved there has moved or passed away.
GINGER, WHO WAS born in Phú Cường, Vietnam, shared Kodak pictures from her high-school graduation in Thornton, Colorado, where her immigrant family settled. In the photos, she’s standing with her “Auntie Rosie,” “the most significant person in my life.”
In the photos, Ginger is smiling. She was feeling something different on the inside.
“Mainstream culture tends to romanticize ‘close-knit’ Asian families or the immigrant ‘success stories,’ ” Ginger writes in a recent email exchange. “In a way, my family and my story embody both of those elements, but … not all was tender, humane or kind. Some of it was due to the trauma of leaving our homeland; some of it mental illness and addiction, which were already there but magnified by the war experience.”
Ginger lived with her mother, but Rosie, who died in 1999 from lung cancer, was her bedrock.
“Her life was marred by one tragedy after another, even after we arrived in the U.S.,” Ginger writes. “Still, she took me on even though she had two daughters of her own to raise with so little resources. By the time my college graduation came around, she was more beaten down by the cumulative traumas of her life; her expression still makes me so sad.”
IN MANY CASES, your hometowns have changed in surprising ways.
A Latina reader named Cathy, who grew up in Corpus Christi in South Texas, wrote about being followed by employees at stores in her hometown. When she goes back today, though, she’s struck by all the mixed Latino and white couples there.
Barbara, an African American from Wisconsin who lives in the Seattle area, grew up in a black township founded in the 1920s called Lake Ivanhoe, Wisconsin, 5 miles from Lake Geneva, “sometimes promoted as the Riviera of the Midwest,” according to The Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin.
The paper describes the influx of middle-class black families from Chicago to Lake Ivanhoe as the result of prohibitions against buying vacation property or permanent housing in the mostly white Lake Geneva area. The township’s founders named it “Ivanhoe” to honor Ivan Bell, the white real estate agent who helped establish the 83-acre site.
“The Wisconsin Historical Society has designated it as a historic town because it is one of the few (remaining) that was founded and occupied by African Americans,” Barbara writes.
“When I grew up there (I’m in my 70s), it was mostly black and biracial children. It served as a welcoming place for black and interracial families, and the occasional white family.
“On a recent visit, I saw only white children. Like many others of my era, I couldn’t leave fast enough. Now it is mostly occupied by white families who were encouraged to move there by HUD. I was happy to see that the street names, all of well-known black people or HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), are still intact.”
Anne Perretta, a white woman who reflected on growing up in Mounds, Ill., gave an unflinching account of the racial segregation of her childhood when she sent me photos of some of the town’s landmarks — schools, a church, a movie theater.
“Douglas was the school that black students attended,” she writes. “Mounds Township was the high school white students attended. The Roxy Theatre, lower level, seated whites only. The door on the far right was the entrance for blacks only, and just inside, it was partitioned off from the lobby so that blacks could not enter the lobby area.
“Blacks paid separately, and also the concession was separate from the whites. All black theatergoers had to sit in the balcony. This separation ended with the Freedom Riders (in the 1960s). Blacks were finally allowed to sit downstairs, but they had to sit at the back of the theater, and it was roped off especially for them. At the same time, when the white high school was ‘integrated,’ it was for two classes only: Home Economics and Driver’s Education. … In Driver’s Ed, black students had to sit in the back of the class, and they never initiated questions, and they were never called upon to participate in class.”
AND THEN THERE WERE those of you who wrote about growing up in Seattle, a city whose population has skyrocketed by tens of thousands since I moved here in the ’90s, and that really does sparkle at sunset because of the new glass towers that have sprung up downtown.
Recently, I’ve felt that Seattle has been disloyal to the earthy spirit and ethos that made it possible for so many people to build their lives here, not just me, back then.
Maybe I’m looking back on my adoptive city with a little too much of a gleam in my eye. It wouldn’t be the first time, as anyone who read my piece from last year, “I Hate You Seattle: A Love Story,” could see.
That relentless push to do away with the past and race toward the future — it was always there in our boom-and-bust metropolis.
Catherine, who says she was born in Seattle, waxes cinematic in an email to me about living in Fremont back in the day, in a former Elks Lodge that had been converted into housing.
Her third-floor apartment offered “massive views” over Lake Union, with Queen Anne Hill to the right and Capitol Hill to the left.
“I treasured the (I used to say 50 — before the book/movie) shades of gray of the sky and the clouds that moved swiftly over the lake due to the long fetch,” she writes. “I knew and appreciated that it was paradise. Every minute.”
As a kid, her “heart used to soar every time we drove north and saw the lights of the city pop up as we rode over the hill, with Beacon Hill on the right, the Kingdome straight ahead.”
She lived in Seattle for 13 years as an adult.
“Next-door neighbors lived in a two-story house, where bikers used to bring home women to beat up for fun,” she says. “911 got regular phone calls from my partner and me. ETG was our local espresso shop well before Starbucks came — the owner bought it from a man who died young of AIDS. I was there the first time nude bicycle riders came to the Solstice Parade and was close enough to see them wearing green condoms.”
She’s moved on to a new life in Spokane, which she says has some of the same artsy, mom-and-pop vibe of the old Fremont. It’s too expensive for her to live on this side of the Cascades anymore.
“I can only visit, not live in, Seattle,” she writes.
“Last time I was in Seattle, I was actually angry when we sat outside at an upscale restaurant on Stone Way next to what used to be ‘the dump,’ with wealthy couples and their children enjoying tiny, elegant portions of chichi food that we paid WAY too much money for.”
She perfectly captures the city I’ll look back on as I move to sunny California, which knows a thing or two about the difficulty of striking a balance between growth and accessibility.
Like that meal in Fremont, Seattle has become an elegant portion that we shell out way too much for.
Let’s hope the true price doesn’t turn out to be even more than we paid.