Sorry, local well-poisoners.
You know that gruff exterior many of us — outside the Realtor and chambers of commerce worlds — try to exude, to keep the invading hordes outside the gates?
The angst we spread online about housing prices, rampant crime, and insufferable albeit short-lived traffic jams during commuter hours? The anti-social media pages with clever names like “Bellingham has gone to s—?”
The ‘Ham — in fact, the entire region that surrounds it — remains a national magnet. And the pull seems little weakened by the growth pains that have come along with it.
Not celebrating this, but facts be facts.
As a thought experiment this week, yours truly reached out to a number of acquaintances, or friends of acquaintances, who have pulled up stakes elsewhere and staked a claim in Whatcom County in the past two years. Some of these, granted, are folks able to summon the means to transition into town the Easy Street way, often by selling a long-held home in another superheated real estate market to upgrade in the upper left corner. Bias granted.
Among this group, at least, it was tough to find anyone with a shred of regret over fighting alongside us old-timers for a spot at Trader Joe’s.
“I am in continual awe of the panoramic beauty,” said one recent northern-Cal transplant, a California native but longtime Pacific Northwest fan. “The sunsets over Lummi Island and the San Juans, Mount Baker and the Twin sisters showing off when the clouds depart … It never gets old.”
To be clear, he’s not fully enamored, noting local vexing issues including “the Indianapolis Speedway,” otherwise known as The Guide — living proof that “Washington nice” is a quaint anachronism. And don’t get him started about those British Columbia drivers. And there’s that long-lingering wildfire smoke in recent late summers. But shoot, that’s happening everywhere with our planetary meltdown, isn’t it?
Also on the negative scorecard of many folks was the preponderance of “shouting, in-your-face folks” on downtown streets, clearly in need of mental health assistance — something expected by urban transplants, but more severe than anticipated. And one provoking more sympathy, than annoyance, from all.
Another nitpick from one: The lack of a pleasant waterfront park vibe downtown, which is mostly limited to Fairhaven “unless you like dirt bike tracks” (which a lot of local folks do, based on crowds). But city parks were a source of universal praise.
Big picture: Bellingham’s physical scale seems to outweigh most concerns. Even with newly noticed local commuter jams, our place to most is seen as refreshingly accessible by car, foot or bike.
“Everything is 10-15 minutes away (newcomers may frequently arrive way too early),” one of the newbs observes (where he came from, it’s 30-45; do the math and multiply by decades). “Hiking/walking trails are everywhere, in unexpected places through urban neighborhoods and behind streets.”
“People on trails and sidewalks will say ‘hello’ to you here, and seem to genuinely mean to smile.” (Note: Not all locals will agree with that latter statement, a source of continuing debate in my own household.)
Other surprises noted by newbies:
“Our street actually gets plowed when snow is an event.” (Let the howls begin from the city’s other 95%!)
“We’ve been delighted to discover that we can see the stars on nights when it’s not cloudy,” says one Seattle transplant.
Also: “Drivers here are courteous to bicyclists. They are bike-aware, making it safer to ride on the streets. Also, the community as a whole reflects a more active lifestyle.” (Again, argue this one among yourselves.)
“And hey, what about that Senior Center: Tap dancing! Ukulele! Who knew?”
In sum: “As for being newcomers (we moved here after 30 years in Seattle) the locals have been welcoming. It feels as if they have their arms wide open. We can’t think of any downsides that we’ve discovered.”
Another friend-of-a-friend immigrant came from the Other Washington (D.C.) in 2020 and immediately fell in love with what most of us longtimers treasure: location, location, location. The nearby riches of hiking trails beckoned, and the newcomer couple followed. They took keelboat sailing lessons at the Community Boating Center (how many communities have one of those?) and volunteered at Whatcom Museum.
Paradise, sadly, was interrupted by the untimely death of the husband, whose wife found her life turned upside down as a 60-year-old widow.
Our community, she says, stepped in, and stepped up.
“The friends I’ve made in Bellingham graciously supported me,” she said. “I joined a hiking group. I snowshoed with women I had met. I welcomed a young woman into my home who needed a little bit of shelter.”
She’s spent a lot of time establishing an all-new social network and finds the people extremely giving.
And the place … well, it’s everything. The physical world heals as well as it thrills.
“I spend a lot of time turning to nature here,” she says. “There is healing and beauty and renewal in these views. Each time I spy Golden Ears when driving up State Street or on the overpass on I-5, I smile. Baker is my anchor to the east. To be able to drive to Washington Pass on a day-trip is a dream.”
Bottom line: “I feel accepted here. I feel I’m putting down tentative roots. I’m sensitive to the anger I feel from those who believe the newcomers are usurping their city. I am trying to do what I’ve always done, which is to become an integral part of my community and support it in the ways I can.”
That, for all you folks who’ve grown up in the weeds here, or transplants hoping to close the gate behind them, is what you’re up against. You can argue this random sample, mostly of homeowners, is an outlier — not representative of the average experience of many who show up here and after a couple years in the microbrew economy, find themselves priced out, and back on the road to the next stop.
All true. This sampling is about as scientifically accurate as opening a thread online and asking folks to name the best local hot sandwich. Purely anecdotal.
But also instructive. Because the sentiments of folks like these are, in fact, the major economic driver these days in our little corner. That’s decidedly for better or worse, with all the good for some folks clearly outweighed by the bad from others, especially those facing insanely soaring rents.
Nevertheless: With climate change and remote work locking arms in a march toward an unsettling national future, we’re perched in a bubble that will continue to shine and attract from afar.
Sobering note to all of us, especially local leaders: Best to plan accordingly.
Ron Judd’s column appears on Wednesdays; firstname.lastname@example.org; @roncjudd.