From the time I was age nine my family made our home on Mercer Island, Washington. When we moved there in the sixties it was a lot like many small towns in America, except the average income put most residents in the upper-middle class.
As long as I can remember, Mercer Island had a certain reputation in nearby communities. We were the rich people. It followed me through school and even into adulthood. I’ll never forget being told by an opponent in a pick-up basketball game in college that my home town was “bush league” because “nothin’ but a bunch of rich people live there.”
As prejudiced treatment goes, it could have been worse.
Today I spent some time returning to my upper-middle class roots. I was meeting my friend Lee for breakfast in Seattle, and I had some extra time. So I hopped off I-90 and drove around for awhile. Driving through downtown Mercer Island I was reminded how much it doesn’t look like the place where I grew up.
Two story buildings were almost unheard of in the retail core through the 1980s. Now there are whole blocks of five story condo/apartment/retail development along the freeway frontage, extending a block or two to the south.
I drove through the old neighborhood, and the old homestead and the houses immediately adjacent to it are essentially unchanged. But the childhood homes of two of my oldest friends, including my breakfast companion, have been demolished and replaced with large luxury homes. I knew this was the case, but it is still disorienting.
Front of my childhood home in the 1970s.
Sometime in the late 1980s I read an article about the Mercer Island real estate market. The realtor being interviewed was very critical of the homes there, calling them mostly old vacation homes and “daylight ramblers.” She discussed how the market demanded better properties for such a prime location.
I grew up in one of those daylight ramblers. Her words stung.
For the unfamiliar, a daylight rambler is a one-story with a basement built into a hillside. The downhill side of the basement appears like the bottom story of a two story house with windows, doors, etc.
Upstairs was a large living room with vaulted ceiling, large fireplace, and expansive picture windows with a sweeping view of Lake Washington, Seattle, the Olympic Mountains, and the I-90 bridge. From the street you wouldn’t expect so much from a very humble looking home. I was lucky to live there.
With my parents long gone, I have no connection to the house. Ultimately, I expect it will go the way of many of the older houses on the island, which is a shame. No, it isn’t a “great” house, but it is a home with a history for my family, the Toda family before us, and those who have lived there since.
What is it that drives people to build ever larger and more luxurious homes? I can understand it when the space is truly necessary. I don’t understand it so much when it is simply driven by money.
Sunset, August 6, 1978. Venus is visible on the left edge of the photo.
It’s a strange feeling when you realize you can’t afford to live in your home town. I live about 45 minutes to the south now. I’m sure the life-long residents here have seen many changes to their community that are equally disturbing to them.
The two decades I’ve been here have been long enough to see changes. Farmland is being paved over. Development in the name of growth is changing the character of the community. Schools are being impacted. Local politics have become increasingly divisive as money becomes more influential.
I don’t believe that population growth, economic growth, and income class shifts must go hand in hand. It is possible to have a stable economy with a continually improving community, minus the growth that so obliterates the past. What makes such a place rare if not non-existent is a desire for more wealth. There will always be people looking to make a lot of money and calling what they do progress, regardless of the negative impacts of what they do.