Aug 21, 2014

A Year in Review: Bellingham Edition

A year and most of a summer have passed since we made the great journey to Bellingham. A year of hard work, frugal living, and major life adjustments, as well as exciting new experiences, enchanting discoveries, and memorable fun.

Hard work is necessary to convert such a life change from a mere daydream to reality. Intensely motivated by our clearly conceived dream of the end result, and our primary goal of greatly improving the quality of our lives together, we were thoroughly dedicated toward putting in all the hard work involved in moving and integrating into a brand new community thousands of miles away. We arranged for a little place in town to move into before arriving here, but we certainly didn't attempt to find jobs beforehand, much to the chagrin of our parents, who seem to view that as a terribly unwise transgression. Well, we have effectively proven to a few naysayers and critics of ours that it can be done without sacrificing a tremendous amount of comfort. Two days after arriving here myself, I was hired into a decent job that I'm still doing to this date, and my mate had very little trouble finding something appropriate as well. Neither of us consider them to be ideal careers and know there is much room for improvement, but for the most part, our jobs have been working out for us.

Indeed, as a young couple just starting out together, we have had to live rather frugally, at some times more than others. Still, when it comes to our financial status, I wouldn't use the term "poor" to describe us (my dad did recently). People that are poor would not be able to afford such luxuries as being able to attend concerts, take weekend excursions around the big city, or finance summer trips to Hawaii. We would be more comfortable if we had more in the bank, sure, and more than one working old car between us, and a more charming house in which to live, but what matters most to us is finally being together as a family, in a setting we can truly appreciate and enjoy. Financial wealth, while not something I'm averse to attaining sometime in the future, is not a priority - certainly not as important to me as this shamelessly materialistic society tries to convince everyone it should be. We work a decent amount without overworking so much we destroy our health and gradually kill ourselves. We live well enough, can afford what we really need, and even have some left over for fun on the side.

In terms of adjustments, a whole family living together for the first time in an apartment unit is certainly a major one. Two adults, two children, and three cats in a very limited space could be a recipe for disaster -- or at least, a great deal of hackle raising and fur bristling. But it hasn't been. In spite of the sparse accommodations, we've managed to get along with each other -- except for when one of the cats happens to brush by a little too close for another feline's liking. We've had more problems with neighbors being rude and inconsiderate with their noisemaking (young, immature college kid types are abundant here) and the apartment itself than we've had with each other. We dealt with a flea infestation that made our cats miserable last summer, then a leaking ceiling during the rainy seasons, and annoying shit like plugs falling out of worn-out electrical outlets. Truth is, the rental outfit we deal with are slumlords that apparently own most of the crappy, dilapidated dwellings in town and rent them out to unsuspecting young adults who don't have any push or power to get them to change their ways. Their advice to resolving the issue of a leaky roof is to put a bucket underneath the drip until it stops raining, so they obviously don't care much about maintaining their units.

We are hoping to get out of this apartment and into a house soon, by the end of the year if possible. Not only do we tire of paying a shitty property manager for such a mediocre accommodation, we would be significantly more comfortable if we had more space, and were considerably more distanced from neighbors. At the very least, it would be quite a bonus to no longer have to hear them through our own floorboards, and even *gasp* have a bit of grassy space to call our own. Unfortunately, finding a house rental that meets our necessary criteria in a good location for the price range we're seeking has proven to be a difficult task. Apartments, rooms, and small townhouses are easy to come by for less than $1000 per month, but in this college town, those are primarily meant for students and singles. From there, prices tend to jump up to around $1400 to $2000 for a larger, family-sized home in a decent neighborhood, with seemingly very little available in the $1000-$1200 range we're seeking. We're not even that picky. We just don't wish to live in a seedy area or be surrounded by fratboys, and we have three cats. The little monsters, it's amazing how few renters seem to be willing to even consider allowing cats.

...Perhaps Bellingham is one of those towns in which the middle class is vanishing at a much faster clip than average. We already know it's been happening all across this once great nation (i.e., before the white plague invaded it). The cost of living in Bellingham is, in fact, much higher than in any of the immediate surrounding towns. This town is full of wealthy residents with lavish lakefront homes and private docks, seaside palaces with exclusive coves, and mountainside retreats. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it's a university town, so thousands of students live in the abundant student accommodations near campus with little more in savings than a bag of Cheetos. But for those of us who are middle class families, or at least making the passive attempt to maintain a vestige of such, there simply isn't as much room in between. Many such families have been squeezed out to neighboring communities like Ferndale, home to the county's two major oil refineries and all sorts of other heavy industry, and Deming, which seems to be all about logging and chainsaw-wielding rednecks. It's just so much more affordable to live outside of Bellingham city limits, it seems. But even out there in the vast open acres of farm and dairy land, I haven't seen much reasonably close to town that looks like a good fit for us. And nothing I've seen quite compares to this town's unique setting against the densely forested mountains, surrounded by picturesque lakes and overlooking the bay. The livability factor is very high, so I guess we're spoiled.

Besides, we didn't move here because we fell in love with Old McDonald's Ferndale Farm. No other town north of Seattle would have stopped us in our tracks and made us say, "well, this seems like a great town... perfect size for us, plenty happening, the people generally seem cool..." The more we have gotten to take a good look at what other towns are up here, the more special Bellingham seems. We were seduced by Bellingham's stunningly beautiful natural surroundings, its cool downtown and charming neighborhoods, and its hip, liberal, environmentally conscious culture. I think it's one of the country's best kept secrets, and that has prevented it from being completely overdeveloped and ruined, a fate that has unfortunately befallen too many other seaside locales. Even Seattle has become a complete mess, with the amount of overdevelopment that has taken place within the city and its suburbs, leading to some of the worst traffic in the nation, as well as increasing crime rates. The damage done there is irreversible.

I hope Bellingham is spared a similar fate for at least a long time to come, and its "progress" will continue to be defined in the environmentally conscious sense. Beneficial progress, in my view, is the active cleanup of old industrial contamination sites, repurposing that land for green spaces, and creating more "green" economic opportunities. Bellingham's history is chock full of greedy entrepreneurs and shrewd businessmen coming in from afar in the 19th and early 20th centuries and stripping the region of its natural resources (most notably, massive fir trees) for tremendous financial benefit. We're still cleaning up their messes. Sadly, history continues to repeat itself, as a few rich millionaires are pushing to construct a huge coal export terminal near town, which would lead to a major influx of noisy trains carrying huge dirty loads of coal through the region on a daily basis. The community is fighting against it hard, and rightfully so.

Bellingham already has its "Anytown, USA" zone, a certain area of uptown dominated by a huge mall, national hotel chains, big box stores, and chain restaurants. The same sort of bullshit you see in any other freeway town, and in fact have to see all the way south down the I-5 clear past Olympia. I am loath to ever have to go through there, whether for work or a shopping trip, because it's a terrible eyesore and a blight on an otherwise lovely settlement. Oh yes, and the traffic's ridiculous.

The good news is, since the majority of that is concentrated in one corner of town, we can usually happily pretend it doesn't even exist. From where we live in town, we can walk to downtown in 10-15 minutes, and find all sorts of cool, completely northwest-local eating, drinking, and shopping establishments. Last week, while strolling through a residential neighborhood in one of the historic districts, we happened to come across an old grocery store that had operated there over the span of two centuries. About half of it had been converted into a dining area and kitchen of sorts, with some decent food available to order. That's the sort of thing I love to happen upon... completely local businesses like these are still allowed to thrive in the Pacific Northwest, whereas in many other places they have been almost entirely decimated by giant, faceless corporations. When you can go have breakfast in a cozy, authentic, homey, locally-owned-for-generations little neighborhood cafe, fuck Denny's.

Bellingham is full of my kind of people, too. Musicians and artists, thinkers and dreamers, and altogether open-minded and easy-going souls. I definitely notice a difference whenever we're back in a bigger city, or out in hick country. It just doesn't feel as comfortable in either extreme.

I'm just waiting for the dog days of summer to go dig their own hole and lie in it so I can dance on their grave. Summer is perhaps the one... downfall of this place, if there had to be one. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to be able to embrace it like just about everyone else, but I have tried, and I have failed. Until the reliable cloud cover and autumn coolness returns, and the flocks of tourists head home for the winter, and the "dreary" gloom drives most of the norms back indoors, I'm going to continue spending inordinate amounts of time in my bat cave, anticipating. If I had initially visited here this time of year, having seen it for the first time in this light (or being blinded by it), I never would have fallen in love with it. Thank you, inevitable changing of the seasons. (As an addendum, I will say it's been very pleasant after the sun goes down.)

Overall, I know we made the right decision to live here. Getting to experience life in the northwest had been a long-time dream of mine since I first visited Seattle so many years ago, and we've been having many great and memorable experiences here since. Even though I've since concluded that this can't ultimately be my true home, I'm glad we have been allowed the opportunity to call it home for at least a few years.

No comments: