In moving to Seattle Laura and I put a lot of effort into finding a great place to live. We wanted a place that was suitable for living with a small child and an active dog — I.e. a house with a yard, in an area with good schools, but with a short commute to my office in downtown Seattle. Luckily, we were spared the choice of buying vs. renting, because sale prices for single family homes in much of the Seattle area are preposterously high, but rents are still (barely) within reach for us. We also had the advantage of some time to shop around thanks to a month of temporary housing in my Amazon.com relocation package. We ended up in Bellevue, WA. More about it below the jump…
We started researching Seattle-area neighborhoods while we were still in Pittsburgh, and we quickly began jokingly calling Bellevue “The Mt. Lebanon of Seattle”, in reference to the suburb of Pittsburgh where I grew up (and also where I blogged briefly). Like Mt. Lebanon (nicknamed Lebo), Bellevue is an upper-middle-class suburb with fantastic schools and a partially deserved reputation for being snooty. When we were about to move here, a friend of ours who had lived in Bellevue said that she felt like women looked down at her in the mall because her stroller wasn’t nice enough. My reaction? No wonder I feel so at home here. Seriously, it’s so Lebo: a relatively expensive place to live, where the overly status-conscious mix with ordinary folks who are willing to spend more on housing in order to make sure their kids are in great schools. Growing up in a place like that you learn to filter out the snootiness — the snobs inherently disqualify their own opinions from weight or importance — yet being around it again was still perversely comforting in some mysterious way. You can take the boy out of the suburbs, but you can’t take the suburbs out of the boy, I guess.
Of course, analogies like “Bellevue is the Mt. Lebanon of Seattle” only go so far, and I’m as fascinated by the differences as the similarities.
- Bellevue is in large part a bedroom community for Seattle, with easy access to the city via I90, and enough commuters to fill a 60-foot express bus every eight minutes throughout rush hour. Yet, Bellevue clearly sees itself as a “satellite city” to Seattle, not merely a bedroom community. It has its own downtown with skyscrapers, as well as an art museum and sculpture garden, and it seems to have a non-trivial number of “reverse commute” workers coming from Seattle to work in Bellevue. Bellevue also houses quite a few folks who work in Redmond.
- My time in both Pittsburgh and Austin had me convinced that expensive suburban towns with good schools were almost entirely populated by white, native-born Americans. Then I came to Bellevue. When I take my daughter to the playground at Bellevue city park after work, I am surprised if I don’t hear more than three foreign languages spoken. Really. And it’s not the same languages every time either. I used to think I had a good ear for identifying foreign languages, but I’ve heard more strange Asian and Eastern European languages at the park in a couple months than I think I had heard before ever. At first I simply wrote this off to the fact that the Seattle area is in general far more international than Pittsburgh, but the preponderance of foreign languages at the park is so great that I’m not sure that can be the only explanation.
- Bellevue is greener than Mt. Lebanon. Literally, Bellevue’s residential areas have a slight edge on Lebo for the number of trees per unit area — hard as that may be for some native Mt. Lebanese to believe. (Parts of Bellevue and Redmond are like evergreen forests with spaces cut out for the houses.) Figuratively, Bellevue, like most of Seattle, blows away anywhere around Pittsburgh in terms of environmental issues, recycling, etc. Bellevue’s recycling program accepts pretty much everything one might imagine as recycling, e.g. plastic containers without regard to the number on the bottom, paper, cardboard, glass electronic waste (old computers and monitors), and lots of other stuff. They give you a 90-gallon wheeled recycling bin, and we regularly fill ours past halfway. They also collect yard waste for composting and provide special bins. They encourage putting food-soiled paper and food scraps (including meat and fish) into the yard waste bin instead of the garbage. Many people on our street only use a single 15-gallon garbage can to dispose of non-recyclable, non-compostable materials. Bellevue also has system of walking trails including not only trails through nature parks and woods, but also easements for pedestrian access between houses — all marked with “Bellevue Trail System” signs.
- Bellevue is, overall, less walkable than Lebo. Although the neighborhood I live in has sidewalks and is within walking distance of downtown Bellevue, much of the town is essentially “sidewalk-less suburbs”: even if there are in fact decorative sidewalks, there’s no place within walking distance and it’s rare to see anyone walking on them. Aside from downtown Bellevue, all the other Bellevue business districts I’ve been to are heavily car oriented. And although downtown Bellevue is walkable, much of it is sterile and corporate, and except for one little stretch of Main St, there is no place with the character of Washington Rd or Beverly Rd in Lebo. (Although Bellevue does have excellent dining.)
- After growing up in Mt. Lebanon and then moving into the city of Pittsburgh in my twenties, I learned to prepare myself for a particular reaction when I told people I was from Lebo: the “wow, you must be rich” reaction. We weren’t rich, but that’s the rep that Lebo has. We’ve already gotten similar reactions here. We’ve also gotten another, more entertaining reaction: a kind of hip/urban reverse snootiness about Seattle relative to Bellevue and the whole East Side (Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, and Renton). It didn’t take long for us to learn that, in the minds of many Seattleites, the East Side is not Seattle. One day while we were still living in our temp housing in the city, I told a woman I met that we were moving to Bellevue, and she replied “well I hope you enjoyed Seattle while you were here.” She said it with such disdain it was comical — we were standing in a park where I was afraid to walk my dog after dark, in a neighborhood where part of our nightly entertainment was watching the meth heads come and go from the dilapidated motor home in the parking lot across the street. Sure there are nice neighborhoods in Seattle, but that wasn’t one of them.
Anyone reading this hoping for some single take-home message will be disappointed, I guess. I just love thinking about places and the similarities and differences between them. I’ve left out of my list some basic geographical differences, e.g. Bellevue is on Lake Washington, so it has boats and beaches, while Mt Lebanon is landlocked, also many places in and around Seattle have some kind of mountain view, except our house, but I still see the mountains on clear days from the bus or when I’m out and about.
As for me, I think moving again has given me a clearer view of Lebo in some ways. If I had to live in Pittsburgh again, I would probably choose to live in Mt. Lebanon if I worked downtown, but probably not if I worked in Oakland. I don’t especially like commuting by car, and the public transit options from Lebo to Oakland are just too unpleasant. I’d probably choose Aspinwall instead.