Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Washington: strange mix of West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, and Old West

True. Washington State, specifically Puget Sound, Western Washington in general and Seattle in particular, have an interesting synthetic feel to them. The first element in the synthesis is upper midwest and old west culture. Both, especially the upper midwest element, are very present and form a kind of foundation that everything else is based off of. The reason why its there is simple: Washington is straight across the country from Minnesota. People who started off in Minnesota steadily migrated west, first through North and South Dakota, then into Montana, then into northern Idaho and finally into Washington, ending in western Washington. After folks began to get settled in each of these places, people from elsewhere, mostly Scandinavia, who would otherwise have gone to Minnesota went directly to the other stops along the way, with western Washington being a popular area because of its milder climate and extensive natural resources as against the Great Plains. Through the trek they absorbed some of the culture of the wild west, which truth be told was the first claimant on Washington culture. You can still see the Scandinavian/cowboy culture mix throughout Montana and North Dakota. Sometimes this situation leads to some cultural conservatism of an extreme type in the smaller towns that isn't pleasant if you happen to be on the receiving end of it though.

Now, even though the rest of the west coast is physically closer, it's the east coast culture, by which I mean the rest of the Great Lakes region and the orthodox east coast that makes up the next biggest element in the mix. I think the reason for that is that it was probably easier physically to get to Washington from the east than it was to get into Oregon and then Washington from the south for a long period of time. Sure, you have the Cascades, but there are passes, and the mountain range isn't that broad, while the mountains of southern Oregon and northern California are extremely complex and basically take up the western half of Oregon and the entire breadth of northern California. One mountain range that's comparatively narrow versus mountain ranges that go on for hundreds of miles meant that migration from the east was easier, even though to get to the Pacific Northwest itself you had to cross the Great Plains.

And finally there's the influence from California. This is comparatively new, based on the interstate system and better roads. Specifically, there's the counter culture influence from California along with the Yuppie influence, with the two strangely coming together at odd junctures, that has colored the Pacific Northwest as well. In Washington, the east coast and midwest influence prevailed against California in what I understand was a very nasty culture war in the 1980s, while in Oregon the California influence won out. This brings with it organic produce, ecological awareness and responsibility, a trend for decentralization and citizen involvement on a local level, health trends, eastern mysticism, drugs, basically all of the really cool shit that you associate with California. But it's also brought snobbery and a kind of very unpleasant Haute Couture produced originally by rich people in northern California, whose watchword is inflexibility and shrillness, as well as a kind of ignorant self righteousness and superficial sense of entitlement. On the whole, the influence has been good, and I hope that the economic downturn wipes the smiles off of the products of the negative aspects of California's faces. But be that as it may, the idiotic, superficial, and nasty still have seemingly found their niche in Washington State.

Add it all together and you get a unique mix that makes up lots of what Pacific Northwest culture is. There are of course other influences, for example the history of the people of the state itself who lived there in the entire 20th century as opposed to those of new immigrants, but that's a story for another time.

*on edit: me, I'm a mix of the best of both worlds. I'm originally from the midwest but was significantly influenced by being on the East Coast, then moved to Florida and participated in a pseudo-hippie California-esque alternative lifestyle before moving here.

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