Is Bellevue a "new Brooklyn?"
By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist
BELLEVUE — The corner of Northeast Eighth Street and 106th Avenue Northeast is the perfect place to ponder: What is Bellevue, anyway?
You can see what it used to be. Here sits an abandoned gas station of vintage "Googie" architectural style: low-slung with a sloped carport roof jabbing optimistically toward the sky, as if about to take flight. It was built to signify the Jetsons space age. It says: This is suburbia, where everybody can have a big car with fins and room to park it.
But it's slated to be torn down. In its place: the new Bellevue, a mega-development of five high-rise condo towers.
If you look up, you can see eight tower cranes running simultaneously, racing to stack Bellevue vertically so nobody ever accuses it of sprawl again.
And if you stand at this corner and listen, you can hear what else Bellevue is today.
Which is ... Brooklyn?
"You've got to be kidding me," says Caryl Abergel, who's from Detroit and whose husband, Robert, is an immigrant from the real Brooklyn.
Abergel runs Topolino's Pizza ("The True Taste of Brooklyn") in a strip mall at this same downtown corner. When I was standing there, trying to listen to Bellevue, her cook and a driver began shouting in heavy New Yorkerese about a botched delivery.
I tell her there's a new book that says Bellevue is one of the nation's "New Brooklyns." Titled "Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities," it argues that our quintessential whitebread suburb is now so packed with immigrants it actually looks more like New York's famed borough.
"I don't think so — maybe a very, very white-collar Brooklyn," Abergel says.
But as I eat my pizza, someone orders in Russian-accented English. An East Indian woman stops by for soup. A quarter of the passers-by are people of color, usually Asian.
The book's author, Virginia Tech professor Robert Lang, says he doesn't mean Bellevue feels urban like Brooklyn. It surely doesn't — downtown feels more like a giant mall than ever, now that it has four of them. Three are insufferably titled "The Bellevue Collection." Only Bellevue would "collect" malls.
Lang says he means that Bellevue is a "cosmoburb" — a place tagged as a white suburb that is no longer either white or suburban. Bellevue now is less white than Seattle and has nearly as high a share of foreign-born residents (32 percent) as Brooklyn (38 percent).
Yet people can't bring themselves to call it a real city. At the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, the folks writing Bellevue's entry first labeled it a suburb, then a city, then back to suburb. After a big argument, they settled on the '90s term "edge city."
So what is Bellevue?
Whatever it is, it ain't no bedroom community. It's so brash it's demanding a subway tunnel. There's even research out debunking the notion that places like Bellevue are socially isolating. A UC Irvine study says burbs are more social than high-density cities.
Figures. Everything we thought we knew about suburbs is wrong. And just as we're figuring that out, they aren't suburbs anymore.