Seattle is a city
of postcard appearances: beautiful, fresh and friendly. But it often succeeds in driving newcomers crazy. It's as if the city lives in two dimensions, but hides a third that is a little darker and often elusive.
Why do your smiling neighbors never actually talk to you? Why do people look uncomfortable if you try to debate a topic? Why does everyone appear laid-back, yet you often find that "Uptight Seattleite
," a Seattle Weekly
column, is so aptly named?
OK, we're not exactly a Stephen King town where the locals are hiding a creepy secret. More often Seattle suffers from civic self-deception. As a fourth-generation native, I thought I would use this space, from time to time, to debunk some of the lies we tell ourselves.
The first lie I'd like to tackle is the myth of Seattle nice.
Back in the 1990s
, a former adman named David Stern ran for mayor. He had one major accomplishment to his name: He was credited with creating the Happy Face. It was such a great story and we liked to believe it. What other city – cheery, friendly, home of the kindergarten wisdom of Robert Fulghum – would be more fitting as the originator of the international symbol of niceness?
Only it turned out Stern's story
wasn't true. Someone else had invented the Happy Face years before, and Stern had been milking the myth. Ironically, the man who defeated Stern was Norm Rice, whose last name and personality gave rise to his nickname, Mayor Nice.
Seattle may not have originated the Happy Face, but it often puts one on. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" has long been the city's unofficial motto. It is not a plea for civil discussion, but rather a recipe for no discussion at all. This suits Seattle's dominant political styles: consensus (no arguments), back-room dealing (no public arguments), and endless process (no conclusions). Those styles avoid the nonniceties of ever having to decide anything, which is so "noninclusive."
Pitch a proposal in this town – ask for an investment or try selling something – and people will be very reluctant to say "no" or "no thanks." The word "no" is not nice. It's so negative. If a person in Seattle wants to say no, they'll say, "I'll think about it," or "I'll get back to you," or pretend they never heard you in the first place.
Mayor Greg Nickels embodies this style: He cannot say no to any project. Instead, he has a full-time assistant, Deputy Mayor Tim "The Shark" Ceis, whose job is to say no for the mayor. The Shark usually does this very privately so no one will think the mayor isn't nice.
The voters don't like
to say no either. We voted on the monorail expansion four times before finally saying no. Last March, we held an advisory ballot on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, after which every faction declared victory. The vote was specifically designed not to decide anything. In Seattle politics everyone's a winner, just like the Special Olympics.
I have noticed a subtle change in what people mean when they say a person is nice. Nice used to be a judgment that meant you were OK, like wallpaper that doesn't catch the eye.
Back in the '90s, I read David Maraniss' book on Bill Clinton, The Clinton Enigma
, wherein Maraniss learns that when the president complimented a man by saying "Nice tie," it was really code for – I'll be polite here – "screw off."
The same thing is now happening here in Seattle. Saying someone is nice is often a leadoff into an attack, like saying "no offense, but ..." An online critic recently took me to task for my article defending Seattle Center's world's fair legacy
. My critic began his tirade using my nickname, saying, "Skip's a nice guy, but he's wack-a-doodle-doo. ..."
The nice-guy preamble was so Seattle. But it wasn't really nice, which gets to my point. Seattle operates under the guise of nice, it tips its hat to nice. But much of the time, we're something the postcard doesn't show: a passive-aggressive, often dysfunctional, conflict-averse town where the sharpest knives often leave their mark in the form of a Happy Face.