Can the Seattle Freeze Melt?

It was a Sunday morning, six-days after Governor Inslee’s stay home, stay healthy order. The sun was peaking through the morning clouds. The thermometer was edging close to sixty-degrees. After working from home for two-weeks, I was eager to escape my house and go on a long walk. My neighborhood park, Green Lake Park, would be crowded, so I set my sights on walking 3-miles along city streets in the direction of Wallingford.

My heart was light with a feeling of liberation as I stepped off my porch onto the sidewalk. I was thrilled the long, dark Pacific Northwest winter was melting into the past. The smell of spring gave me an optimism the pandemic would be short-lived. I wondered how my fellow Seattleites would weather this viral storm.

I had never heard of the Seattle Freeze before I first drove into the city on July 1, 1996. But under clear blue skies and seventy-degree weather it was the first time I felt it. The sublet I found, on an online bulletin board of the University of Washington website, was one room in a house in Ravenna. The guy I rented it from made the location sound idyllic and his roommates angels. When I drove up to the house on the corner of NE 65th St and 25th Ave NE, I thought I had the address wrong. The guy said nothing about being at a busy intersection or across the street from a gas station. Trying to take it all in stride, I met my new roommates. The cool reception of scowls and crossed arms I received in response to my overly enthusiastic just-drove-up-from-California “Hi,” was a bit perplexing. They not only made me feel unwelcome but made me feel like I had done something wrong.

For those of us who have experienced the Seattle Freeze, we know it comes in many flavors. The happy to meet you but I won’t be your friend. The I’ll come to your dinner party, then don’t show up. Whether the reason for the Freeze is because people are introverted or the city inherited the disposition of the region’s early Scandinavian settlers or the nine-months of gloomy weather, “the Seattle Freeze is real” said UW professor Pepper Schwartz in an interview back in November 2019.

After twenty-three years of walking around Seattle, the Freeze continues. Although during each walk I am always hopeful I will receive an acknowledgement to my greeting as I pass a fellow human. On that last Sunday in March, amidst the beginning of a pandemic, my sunny disposition was in overdrive thanks to the hint of spring in the air. Along with my husband I walked towards Wallingford, taking streets we had never driven or walked on. We admired the many Craftsman houses and gardens beginning to bloom. We took turns greeting the people we passed, thanking them for giving us six feet of space. Between the smiles, there were the people who turned their heads downward or away, and those that pretended not to see us even after yielding us the sidewalk as they walked along the curb. Later we determined that only one out of every five or six people we saw acknowledged us.

When I arrived home, I decided to see how folks on NextDoor app, the app I call the FB for your neighborhood, would respond to a plea to Help End the Freeze. My plea was simple:

Let’s use this time to acknowledge and practice our shared humanity. I am your neighbor not a stranger. Change your default look of judgment to a Buddha smile. Say Hi! Smile or Wave. We are all in this together.

The 124 emoticons of thanks and hearts plus 63 comments showed a full spectrum of attitudes towards the Seattle Freeze. There were the folks who agreed with me and shared their own experiences of the Freeze before and during the pandemic. A few offered me a “good luck with that” response. Several said they have never experienced the Freeze and think “Native Seattleites are the most generous people.” A handful shared their deep concern about what they feel is a fear of the “other.”

It is now almost a month since that walk, and I have to say I am receiving many more greetings and acknowledgements. Some people even greet me before I do. Dare I say I feel a certain warmth from my fellow Seattleites? Well, except from those who caught me walking a few steps in the wrong direction on the now one-way path around Green Lake. Maybe the isolation is revealing the importance of our shared humanity and maybe, just maybe, we can finally melt the Freeze.

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