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Vol 11 No. 13, Dec 13 - Dec 19 2001


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-FEATURE-

THE DISAPPEARING RICH PEOPLE
by Emily White


Will the current recession and our recent e-failures turn Seattle into a ghost town wracked with poverty? Emily White reports from the Elliott Grand Hyatt, Seattle's newest four-star hotel.

In the plush lobby of the brand new, four-star Elliott Grand Hyatt hotel, I buy a copy of Money magazine. The headline on the cover reads, "Investing in America: Keep the Faith." The articles inside urge readers not to give up on the stock market--while you may be tempted to pull all your money from the bank and stuff it in your mattress until the economic sky clears, Money urges you not to panic. One editorial describes the virtues of uncertainty. Many articles in the magazine are rife with a tone of apology, a quivering hesitance from the writers and editors who seem sorry for believing in money when so clearly money should not be believed. It never lasts. It disappears like smoke.

The woman I buy the magazine from looks at the cover and nods her head. "Money!" she says. "People say it isn't everything, but maybe it really is!" With her thick African accent, her hair in perfect cornrows, and her red, red lipstick, she is a vibrant sign of life in the hotel's mostly deserted lobby. Aside from her there are a few security guards standing around, some slightly giddy concierges chatting at the check-in desk, a man sitting in a lobby chair on a cell phone tearing at his hair.

The Elliott has been open since July; its cheapest rooms cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300, and its most expensive top-floor suite costs $3,000 a night. A hotel built with "the corporate traveler" in mind, it was meant to compete with the Four Seasons for the wealthy globe-trotter who drops $400 without blinking. The builders spared no expense--there's a de Kooning sculpture in the entryway, and Chihuly glass shimmers everywhere. But like the rest of the country, the Elliott is in trouble. There is no one checking in, no one on the elevator, no one in the hotel's four-star restaurant. The super-rich traveler that the hoteliers envisioned is a casualty of the dot-com bust and the post-9/11 fear economy. The Elliott waits for the super-rich to show up, like a decked-out girl waiting for a date who never arrives.

Located on Seventh and Pine, the Elliott is an outgrowth of the Convention & Trade Center; it's the place the world leaders could have stayed during the WTO, if only it had existed. The Elliott guarantees that you do not have to leave the shelter of the hotel to attend your convention; you do not have to brave the street, where all manner of rioting and anarchy might be taking place. The interior is decorated in what has come to be called Northwest Style: natural materials, wood and marble and glass, a low-lit, log-cabin ambience, framed maps on the wall, Kenny G in the background. The Hyatt chain, which owns 49 percent of the Elliott, trumpets its new acquisition as "friendly, spacious, cosmopolitan, and effortlessly at the center of the high-tech revolution." On the lobby's shiny coffee tables, there are photograph books celebrating Seattle's water-edged beauty. The books advertise a dream of the city and an airbrushed version of its history.

The story of Seattle and of the world has changed since the Elliott was conceived, and it's clear the rich tourists this hotel was meant for are disappearing. In the August 24 edition of the Puget Sound Business Journal, a slowdown in tourism was already being documented. "Inhospitable Times," the headline read. The writer, Brad Broberg, described a "cold wind blowing through the nation's lodging industry." This was due to the dot-com bust and the end of what Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance" in the market. And this story appeared before September 11, before long, sweaty lines at airport security checkpoints, daily airport shutdowns and evacuations, fear of anthrax in airline sugar packets. They occurred before we started to see planes as missiles. By November 6, the Journal was declaring--in an article about the Elliott by Luke Timmerman--"you couldn't have picked a worse time to open a luxury hotel." Money magazine declares that the hotel industry is "bracing for one of the worst years in memory." According to The Seattle Times, the Elliott has cut 80 of 400 jobs, and they've recently slashed room rates to as low as $165.

Money disappears, and what is left are the ghosts of money. The Elliott is full of ghosts. Like an abandoned town after the gold rush, it's a place built for a population that has vanished. In a different time there might have been noise, life, moguls getting drunk in the bar, but now there's so much silence it's positively eerie. It feels like something died. And in a way, something did.

****

What does it feel like to spend the night in a ghost hotel? It feels creepy. I know because I spent one night at the Elliott recently, courtesy of The Stranger. I checked in on a rainy Tuesday afternoon when a small Microsoft conference seemed to be the only thing happening in the hotel. On notice boards in the lobby, conference-goers were directed to OEM seminars and MapPoint discussion groups; long refreshment tables filled a side hallway where the 50 or so attendees could mingle, checking out each other's name tags.

As I wandered around trying to decipher the Microsoft acronyms on the notice boards, a uniformed blond woman approached me. She looked alarmingly like Tipper Gore.

"Are you with Microsoft?" Tipper asks.

"No," I answer, smiling stiffly.

"Oh?" she says, her voice taking on a sheen of accusation. "You're just cruising the lobby then?"

I guess in my thrift-store coat I don't look quite up to par for the Elliott; I do not fit into the illusion they hope to create. Still, I am a little freaked by Tipper's hostility, the way she appears out of the blue like this, questioning my motives. I get defensive. I tell her, "No, I am NOT cruising the lobby, I am staying here." I say this with some vague pride of ownership--after all, the room is paid for, it is mine for the night, which gives me the inalienable right to mope around the lobby spying on people. Suddenly self-conscious, Tipper backs off, seemingly embarrassed. I am embarrassed too, and I suppose part of me knows she's right. I clearly don't belong here. Only people who wear Microsoft name tags belong here.

I take the elevator to my room on the 20th floor. It is a spacious corner room that looks east toward Capitol Hill. I can see the freeway and, beyond that, a glimpse of Lake Union. Directly across from me there's a round tower of apartments, and the buildings are close enough that I can see people in the windows. There's a man on his deck trying to light a cigarette, a man dancing for another man who sits on a couch, a girl pacing and talking on the phone in a bathrobe. Many of the apartments are empty and dark. Directly below me I can see the ceiling of the white skybridge which crosses Pine at Seventh, part of the Convention Center's hideous architecture and the surest sign we have that Seattle might one day be as ugly as Orlando. I marvel at the skybridge, which ruins the sky--it has been an obsession of mine since the moment it blocked the light of downtown a couple of years ago. It is such a phenomenal mistake, such an indisputable example of butt-ugliness, it's almost wondrous.

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photo by Alice Wheeler



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