Tale of Two Cities

Seattle’s Tacocat talks up the real cost of gentrification, Tucsonans chime in

A huge earthquake threatens to destroy your city. Quick, how do you respond?

a) Fall down on your knees and pray.

b) Speed dial your old roommate the rogue seismologist.

c) Write an incredibly catchy song.

The correct answer is c) ... at least if you're Tacocat.

"We'd always wanted to write a song about Seattle," recalls singer Emily Nokes. Yet capturing civic pride in song eluded the feminist combo. Then came "The Really Big One," a 2015 New Yorker article about the inevitable destruction of the Northwest coast. Bingo! Tacocat's "I Love Seattle" distilled the ensuing panic into irrepressible surf punk: "Ooh, beautiful Seattle/Ah, fall into the sea/Earthquake, tsunami/There's still no place I'd rather be."

Yet as Tacocat returns to Tucson in support of its 2016 album Lost Time, Nokes admits that living in the Emerald City is increasingly difficult. Seattle's median household income crossed $80,000 in 2015, jumping $10,000 in a single year due to the influx of highly-paid tech workers. The average Seattle rent is projected to hit $2,165 this summer, and the real estate market is on fire—which means artists get burned.

"My bandmates all live in this longstanding punk house that's been passed down through many, many friends," says Nokes. "The place is disgusting, but the landlord has starting hinting that the property's only getting hotter." Meanwhile, the rent on the singer's apartment just shot up 200 bucks. "It's like tick-tock, tick-tock ... how much longer are we going to be able to make this sustainable?"

Affordable cost of living means artists have more time and freedom to create, as local musician Bailey Moses attests. "Tucson is cheap," says the Foxx Bodies guitarist. "A lot of my friends in bigger cities can't afford to pick up and tour, or invest as much time in their music, purely because they need to work and make money."

The Old Pueblo also offers something else Seattle is losing: space. The limitless boundaries of the Sonoran Desert continue to inspire Oregon transplant Brittany Katter of Katterwaul. "When I first came here from the typical maples and Douglas firs of the Northwest, the saguaros rewrote what I thought was possible in an environment. [The desert] encouraged me to take risks and rewrite what I thought was possible in my own creative life."

Moses finds inspiration within city limits, too: "Most buildings and homes in the heart of Tucson are still pretty damn old and have a lot of history to them. Everything in this city feels like it's living and breathing. It may be rough around the edges, but it's real and alive."

Alas, due to an explosion of hastily-built condominiums and micro-apartments, the landscape of Seattle doesn't inspire Nokes much these days. "I'm sitting outside right now, looking at a building that is the color of putty," she says mid-interview. She wishes Seattle would adopt Reykjavik's use of vibrant colors to offset gray skies and drab architecture. "I don't understand why everything isn't hot pink here."

Tacocat has been working towards a more polychromatic world, both figuratively and literally, since forming in 2007. The band's visual aesthetic celebrates D.I.Y. ingenuity and vivid colors; along with Debbie Harry, Blade Runner, and the Spice Girls, Nokes cites the glittery, kaleidoscopic creations of Lisa Frank as a primary influence on their presentation and packaging.

As befits a band whose repertory includes songs about menstruation ("Crimson Wave") and street harassment ("Hey Girl"), Tacocat also champions music by women and other marginalized individuals. "When we first started playing in Seattle, there was a lot more masculinity. It was either dudes in punk bands or dudes with beards and acoustic guitars ... either way we weren't really invited to the party."

Since then, artists as disparate as futurist hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, Perfume Genius, and a slew of feminist punk combos (Chastity Belt, Mommy Longlegs) have transformed the world's perception of the city's music scene. Meanwhile, white men continue to dominate the tech industry. "Seeing all this come to fruition in the midst of the economic boom is bittersweet," Nokes admits.

One of band catchiest songs, the anti-party anthem "I Hate the Weekend," arose from seeing how Capitol Hill, once Seattle's hub for artists and the LGBTQ community, became party central. "When the condo boom started happening, there were more and more people who have no etiquette," explains the singer. For musicians who pay the bills as bartenders and baristas, that sucks. "You're making our lives harder by getting way too drunk, not tipping your servers, and puking in the sink when you make seven times as much money as we do."

But Tucson isn't Seattle, and the members of Katterwaul and Foxx Bodies both hope that the rejuvenation of Downtown will provide more opportunities to celebrate our city's character, and serve all populations better. "If revitalization is going to be truly inclusive and organic, it's necessary to value local products ... and make these products accessible to everyone," says Katter. That means more venues that host hometown artists and affordable shows, restaurants sourcing ingredients from nearby farmers, and locally-owned businesses "that offer services and goods that are truly filling a niche in the immediate community."

Moses also sees this renaissance as a potential boon for our robust yet isolated music scene. "Downtown is more appealing now, and is a place where more touring musicians might actually consider stopping." That's critical, she insists. "We have an amazing city, but no one will ever know that if we don't have a place that people want to come visit."

So what's the key to sustainable growth? On this point, all three women agree: community involvement. "It's always easy to be angry when things go awry, but you have to do the due diligence beforehand," says Nokes. "That's so important. It definitely feels like we've lost a big part of Seattle, and there isn't much we can do about it now."

"Tucson feels like it's in a sweet spot between affordability and people starting, and participating in, a new culture of food and art," observes Katter. For the center to hold amidst this change, citizens must stay informed and engaged. "It requires the community to constantly ask who revitalization is for, what we want from it, and most importantly, what are the roots of Tucson's unique soul."

Cataclysmic earthquakes may be unstoppable, but other forces that can decimate cities are still within our control. "These decisions can't be left in the hands of developers, investors and corporations," Katters concludes. "It's up to us. That's exciting in its possibility and terrifying in its weight." 

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