He began with his own encounter with the city: "First impression! As I found her so will I always think of Seattle. As young and eager. Life still the great unexplored; living still the great adventure. With no old past to stop and worship; no dead men's bones to reckon with; no traditions chained to her ankles." Here, then, was the prevailing place-story of the modern era (and not just Seattle): that the past was irrelevant (although it had been a great adventure), that only the future lay ahead of the city and nation, that all the negative consequences of modern urban life would be outweighed by the benefits. No old bones.The battle between new blood and old bones continues. For many people, Seattle can't be transformed fast enough. Old Ballard? Raze it for eco-friendly urban density. Pioneer Square? Build more housing to create a real neighborhood. The Alaskan Way Viaduct? Tear down all vestiges of the auto age and prepare for mass transit and tolled roads. Fisherman's Terminal? It would make a great place for yachts. The Kingdome? Blow it up. Downtown? Let the shining towers rise. Recently, the Clise family decided to sell 12 acres of the Denny Triangle, an area just south of Seattle Center. The property was described as "undeveloped." Hmmm. No old growth that I can see. I see businesses and parking lots, and concrete. The fact is, the Clise blocks are developed, but the boomers choose to see them as blank. Anything that is not maximally developed becomes "undeveloped." And if property is not being pushed to its "highest and best use," it is holding us back from civic destiny. Go downtown to the 20th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower and you'll find the Department of Planning and Development. I was there on a recent midweek afternoon and they were doing land-office business, which is appropriate for a land office. People in line for permits, checking plans, contractors on their cell phones with clients. It is the hive of a city on the move. Inside, the change is represented by the energy of the people, the long lines, the impatience of a city on the move. But there's no sign of the heavy lifting: It's all blueprints, microfilm, permits, and approvals. This is the new city in its virtual phase, where dreams and "old bones" are turned into paperwork. Outside the tower windows, though, is the city whose symbol isn't a resurgent population of eagles, seagulls, or Canada Geese, but of cranes. Driving on Interstate 5 by South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle, the cranes are everywhere, slowly turning their stiff necks, standing tall and still as if stalking frogs in a marsh of high-rises. They are building nests of concrete and steel. It looks like Bellevue, or Medina during the dot-com boom. Only bigger. History isn't forgotten in Seattle. Not entirely. In fact, history once was the force that drove urban renewal. The fight to preserve Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market were emblematic of a new way to use history to create a better city. The past is part of the future, not steamrollered by it. Developers and city officials in the 1960s thought they were doing the city a favor by removing blight, by channeling federal funds into downtown to revitalize an old port town that had stalled on the brink of the Space Age. Freeways were built, slicing the city in two. Seattle Center replaced a "blighted" neighborhood. Many of the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square property owners rooted in favor of mass destruction in their own backyards. But minds were changed, the people spoke, the urban renewal that damaged so many other central cities was largely held in check. Communities saved from the wrecking ball became the kind of amenities that are driving the current boom, and their own future endangerment. But there are two problems with what happened. One is that such historic districts can ghettoize the past – they create a false sense that all of the history worth saving has been saved within these enclaves. That feeds the idea that everything else in Seattle is "non-historic" and up for grabs. The second is that the historic districts, too, are under pressure from within and without to change. The old "we must destroy it to save it" ethic is popping up. Around Pioneer Square, developers look to add stories to historic buildings to make their projects more profitable. Some people argue that density will bring more people and increase the neighborhood's political clout. Others argue for growth, saying there is greater public safety in numbers and in gentrification. The homeless? What kind of clout do they have at City Hall? The boom is nibbling hungrily at the edges of what amounts to the city's national parks. The discussion about historic preservation needs to be broadened. It's more than the "soul" that is the Pike Place Market or the fight for a tacky Ballard Denny's. The Department of Neighborhoods has completed a survey of downtown buildings and structures and has recommended 37 for landmark status. City Council member Peter Steinbrueck says, "This is the largest preservation effort undertaken in Seattle since the Pike Place Market was saved." The sweeping move has caught many property owners by surprise, and no doubt for some it will be inconvenient, for others it might advance an agenda. But casting a wide net has the advantage of sparking broader conversation. Should all those buildings and structures be preserved? Did the city identify everything that is truly important? Who gains and who loses? The effort helps take the discussion of Seattle's history and heritage out of the ghetto of historic zones and helps us recognize that the past is part of the weave of the entire city. It's long past time to get preservation debate out from under the pressure of a single wrecking ball threatening a specific music hall or monorail or Methodist church. The preservation movement needs to come out of its defensive crouch and argue for the advantages of remembering rather than forgetting. That's not easy, says Coll Thrush. "There's fear that if we remember, we won't move on, that we'll go back." Of course, no one is arguing to go back. It's a question of what values we carry forward. Council member Jean Godden, whose onetime newspaper column was for years an arbiter of Seattle culture, says that "Seattle needs its past – it's what binds us together, what makes us distinctive, and what keeps us from becoming just another megalopolis." Of course, it would be nice not to become any kind of megalopolis at all, but certainly one with a grounded sense of its identity is far better than a market-driven berserker with a bad case of Alzheimer's.
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