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Our cultural amnesia

In the midst of exponential growth, Seattle can't remember how to be Seattle. It's time we went back to school and learned how.


Seattle is suffering some senior moments. Starbucks has forgotten how to make good coffee. Boeing doesn't remember how to make planes. Our politicians can't recall how to maintain our big-league pretensions, so the SuperSonics are headed for Oklahoma City. What's next? Misplacing our Hat 'n' Boots?

On top of that, we seem to be trying to emulate other places: Our mayor acts like he's in Chicago, our skyline looks like Manhattan's, and our sprawl resembles L.A.'s. The small, ambitious, independent city like no other seems to be consumed by a case of the wannabes.

We're forgetting how to be Seattle. Surely age isn't the reason. Older cities generally become more distinctive with time, not less. Our problem stems from two things: fast growth and civic character.

One the one hand, we're being overwhelmed by a tide of newcomers. Seattle is growing at the fastest rate in decades, and 350,000 new Seattleites are expected by 2040 — a 60 percent increase. Some of our old ways are being washed out in a tide of change.

On the other, we're inept at dealing with these newcomers. Chalk it up to what writer Timothy Egan calls our "Scando-Asian" temperament. We're not exactly eager to get to know the newbies or tell them much about ourselves. A constant complaint is that old-time Seattleites are hard to get to know. Because of this provincial standoffishness, we do a bad job of passing on local history and culture.

There is a way to stave off civic Alzheimer's, however. We can exercise our brains by going back to school and teaching one another.

Here's an example of how it can work. Back in the late 1970s, I was asked to show my new boss, just arrived from New York, around town. His name was Ken Gouldthorpe and he arrived with a Burberry-and-Brooks Brothers wardrobe and stepped into an office full of long-haired, REI-clad kids. He had a funny accent, a pinstripe suit, and on rainy days, he wore rubbers to protect his loafers. Paris Hilton with a peavey would have seemed more at home.

But Ken was a cosmopolitan, a former foreign correspondent for old Life magazine. Born in England, he'd become a U.S. citizen after World War II. He'd lived an exciting life as a globetrotting journalist and top-rank New York editor, but what really made him stand out was his deep curiosity about where he was. In all my years of greeting new people to Seattle, I have never met anyone more eager to know about his new home. As I drove him around town, he peppered me with questions and was eager to get a taste of the place — literally. You make beer here? Let's try some. You have oysters? Let's eat some. He wanted to know what made Seattle tick, where it came from, and who ran it.

Eventually, he abandoned his rubbers, grew moss and let his shoes get wet. He launched a magazine called Washington devoted to the "beauty and bounty" of his adopted region, and not long after, he even became the state's tourism director. He went from immigrant to ambassador and never left.

To me, Ken is the role model of a Seattle newcomer — someone who didn't treat us as a generic stop on some ladder of mobility. I taught him a lot about Seattle, but he gave as good as he got: Through his curiosity and worldly perspective, I learned as much about this place as I ever had. As I heard him compare Seattle with cities where he'd lived — London, New York, Sydney, St. Louis, Mexico City — I came to see Seattle as a unique place with differences that were both real and important.

Recently, I was talking with Art Skolnik, a Seattle architect and historic preservation consultant. He was telling me he used to provide orientations about Seattle to new Microsoft employees. He said he thought all newcomers to Seattle should take a "Seattle civics class" to learn how the place works, just like prospective U.S. citizens do.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Loss of local broadcasting is a big problem: It used to be that if you were a newcomer, you could get immersion into local culture just by turning on the TV. How many cities had a weatherman like Ray Ramsey? There were entire blocks of the day when there was nothing but local culture on TV. Bea Donovan, Len Sampson, Lloyd Cooney, Don St. Thomas. Kids learned young from Stan Boreson, JP Patches, Brakeman Bill and Captain Puget. For the adults (as if the adults weren't watching those other shows), the Good Cap'n donned his Don McCune costume and hosted "Exploration Northwest". Now all local programming is either high-profit noozcasts hosted by muppets (I mean, come on, can Dan Lewis' hair really be organic?) or... well, that's about it. The last holdouts of local TV culture, "Almost Live" and "The Spud Goodman Show" have been gone for a decade. When the instruments of transmitting culture are lost, the culture soon follows.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Seen one city, you've seen 'em all: It's interesting how many come to the Seattle area claiming they were drawn here by a unique quality of life. As soon as they get their bags unpacked, they complain about how the area isn't like the place they left.

So many who are fixated over light rail, for example, or who despise the intitiative process do so because wherever it is they're from had a subway or elevated train and an iron-fisted government that precluded citizen input. Home is where the heart is.

The fascination many have with other places suggests that, while the mountains, water, and trees are nice, the sooner the area can be retrofitted into a copy of the old country the better off they'll be - and, by extension, those of us who are natives.

This homogenization refuses to tolerate the unique and home-grown, insisting, instead, on sameness and conformity that saps the spirit and takes the fun out of life. Ivar Haglund or Emmett Watson wouldn't be tolerated - just a couple of dirty old men.

Perhaps...but they were our dirty old men!

Of course, it's not just new comers who are guilty. Locals who hunger for worldly acceptance mask their shame at being from what they inwardedly regard as a hick town by rushing pall mall toward every benchmark of so-called "sophistication."

Whether it's major league sports teams and their pleasure palaces, posh development, or jumping on board the governmental fad de jour, the sooner they can be shuck of the funky or off kilter in favor of being in with the In Crowd or ahead of that curve, the better.

The Viaduct is an example. It's funky, irritates the esthetic sensibilities of some, and prevents others from jamming more upper income development onto the Seattle waterfront. Expensive suggestions for alternatives have nothing to commend themselves other than they will make Seattle more like every over-developed city, especially in one important respect: you can't afford to live here.

That it's already so is irrelevent - the sooner those worker bees who use the Viaduct to go to nasty blue collar jobs in the South End can be done away with, the sooner downtown elites can assert their rightful place more forcefully at the top of the social food chain.

What would Bill Speidel think?

Yet this has less to do with buildings and roadways and things and more with the hearts and spirits of people. It's one thing to be visionary, but another to demand conformity. To so regulate life that menus you read tell you what a heathen you are for not eating someone else's idea of a healthy meal, or that you'll have to pay to get a bag for your groceries because some civic control freaks insist it's good for you, illustrate the point.

Whatever happened to live and let live?

When I was a kid, it was fun to go downtown, especially to wonder the pawn shops, go to Warshall's, get kicked out of the pool halls and such all along First Avenue. Now, aside from a few - and dwindling - dens of eccentricity, the wrecking ball and architectural sameness rule.

A city should be about people, not views or projects or what others in far away places think. If people are a tad quirky or don't share the sensibilities of their betters, then good for them.

I wish as much energy could be devoted to protecting the right to mind one's own business or live where you want as it is to promote density (that what folks want?) or insist that youhave to live close to a light rail stop (again - folks want that?) or eat only heart healthy at Dick's (you've got to be kidding!).

Unless and until the right of the individual to live as he or she sees fit again becomes a civic virture, this inexorable march toward sameness will continue.

We're becoming sheep, and we all know where they get led.

The Piper

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 12:53 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Loss of local broadcasting is a big problem: You don't mention Big Night Out. Is this because you don't know about the government channels or because you are so disgusted by the substitution of circus for government, that you change the channel to the County and State who have yet to shun their duties?

So yes, loss of local broadcasting is a big problem. As it stands only Knute and a few night owls know dimly that another mayor and beguiled council are taking another run at 1 million people without the rest of us being aware of it. Even Knute is begiled by the notion that Seattle is "growing at the fastest rate in decades," although I suspect he's checking his delivery and who's reading because the real title of his link is Seattle: Home to 1 million?

Knute reads MacDonald so probably does knows where growth is actually going: here's an update (29,424 people in 8 years seems ok) but then check here–yikes where's Seattle and the rest of Vision 2040's strategic big five? (Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, Bremerton.)

There is more, but the planning document in this case is offline, unless it's still floating around a Councilmember's website or newsletter archives. Seattle's net new units in the same time frame (2000-2008) is occupied by a mere .8 new persons. Seattle's current household size of around 2 persons per household is guesstimated because it's hard to calculate and lately has not been changing much mid census. The considerable difference, then would reflect lots of second and third home buyers and absentee speculators, plus low absorption.

Units lost, around 7000. Gross new units around 45,000. Still hidden: the median value lost vs. the median value gained (in terms of rent equivalent); the real demand as reflected in the applications for the various housing subsidy lotteries and one-night homeless counts, in Seattle and in the sprawl that this mayor refuses to admit his hoarding attempts are perpetuating.
Let em eat cake? Stay tuned.
afreeman

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Loss of local broadcasting is a big problem: I've never heard of "Big Night Out" and the only "government channel" I'm aware of on my little slice of Comcast is TVW, which makes C-SPAN look like Cirque du Soleil.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Jul 12, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Loss of local broadcasting is a big problem: Sorry, too Seattle centric myself. "Big Night Out" appears to be an old fashioned neighborhood talent show held, what seems like, every Friday in Columbia City and televised for all of Seattle's viewing pleasure.

Comcast provided "King County" is a study in contrast. Some public meeting or "townhall" is on almost all of the time. And yes, most of it is boring, that's the justification for Seattle's circus, the other is need– Seattle has so little culture otherwise.

I started turning the boring on to shift my mind down and off of what was preoccupying me. It works and puts me to sleep. But now that I'm hooked I'd prefer to have a choice of catching Seattle government antics during normal viewing hours.
afreeman

Posted Sun, Jul 13, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

BRASILIA: "the pool halls and such all" along First Avenue.

I just have to mention the death star of urban nightmares. I think it's our unconscious fear; an all new city. I think I read somewhere that Brasilia was gradually, after forty years, creating some wrinkles that made it less awful. But what an object lesson.
kieth

Posted Mon, Jul 14, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not the place, it's the process and people!: If we want to give newcomers the best representation of Seattle and environs, we shouldn't focus on the things and stuff of our physical city.
The most important thing that I focus on, when I am touring potential or new residents for Microsoft and others businesses, is how we got the way we are and who brought us along. There were events like the Gold Rush, the Alaska Yukon Exibition, the Worlds Fair, Forward Thrust I and II, the vote to save the Market, etc. These events shaped our city and gave us all our sense of place. We got the chance to raise our voices and speak our minds, jousting respectfully with our fellow residents over the finest of details and voting up or down with gusto.

If newcomers are only interested in the physical Stuff, buy them a coffee table book. We photograph well.
But if they are interested in the soul of the place the yings and yangs of how we deal with issues and challenges, then people like myself can and are available to help. It is great fun and reinforces why I continue to live and care sso deeply about Seattle.

Want to play?

Posted Tue, Jul 15, 5:25 a.m. Inappropriate

There he goes again!: THERE HE GOES AGAIN!
Ye ole mite drenched Mossback! Introducing us to ye old Seattle! What a team he and the Brewmaster make! The Master came to my attention when he wanted the then theater reviewer of the Weekly, founded by him, not to review shows at a theater where the wifey was on the board, he cashed out selling the Weekly and now it is worse than ever. The mossbedecked editor in jefe did little of note at the Weekly but about 50 % of what he wrote was worth reading, a high rate hereaboots, but he keeps repeating himself with ye old seattle and sounds just like Joel Connolly and Jean ["Godaweful"] Godden... Hey, tell your Chicago mayor to at least build as pretty as in Daley Town. What the region needs is more smart Jews and spicy Mexicans to get the old Uftas out of their sluglike being.

There they've barely started cleaning up the superfund site that they and their fore bears and 'hinds turned the region into in just one hundred fifty years. "The Three Muskrats" is opening the Rep next season! Five fine little theaters went down in the past 15 years, of course in most instances also for reasons of their own doing. Everyone has put on an extra pound for the past fifteen years, and one ounce more of gristle in the brain. All the women do is shopping.

What leaves Seattle? Some good musicians once upon a time. Poets? No: out of towners are made into local icons. All right, better then nuttin'!
We need a whole lot more smart Jews and Mexicans to mingle with them local breeders! We need to do something about those white mole rats that come out from under the rocks on the 4th of July in Seattle Center, no?
mikerol

Posted Tue, Jul 15, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle 101? Seattle Ice... and the Seattle Process: "Some of our old ways are being washed out in a tide of change." Some of that is good. As the author points out, Seattle's "Scando-Asian" temperament doesn't exactly serve us well when it comes to integrating new residents: "A constant complaint is that old-time Seattleites are hard to get to know. Because of this provincial standoffishness, we do a bad job of passing on local history and culture." It's worse than that. We also make this a rather unfriendly city to be in, not just for outsiders, but also for those natives who either grew up without, or were subsequently deprived of, a clique. Everyone interested in this issue should (re)read Pacific Northwest's February 13, 2005, cover story, "Seattle (n)ice: A city of warm smiles and cold shoulders" (which mysteriously has a second headline and subhead on the page itself, "Our social dis-ease: Beyond the smiles, the Seattle Freeze is on" — I prefer the first).

As for Art Skolnik's idea that "all newcomers to Seattle should take a 'Seattle civics class' to learn how the place works, just like prospective U.S. citizens do," I like Berger's suggestion that "even us mossbacks should take it as a refresher course ... you can never know your city well enough." I am sure that we probably need it more than the recent arrivals, just as most Americans would probably fail a citizenship test if they had to take one.

Regarding various comments, yes, loss of local programming is a major problem. I suppose it just wasn't profitable enough — I also suppose that it might have survived longer with local ownership (Fisher is apparently a special case). Bombshelter Videos towered above MTV for me, as did Almost Live! over SNL.

But "it's not the place, it's the process and people!"?

The most important thing that I focus on... is how we got the way we are and who brought us along. There were events like the Gold Rush, the Alaska Yukon Exibition, the Worlds Fair, Forward Thrust I and II, the vote to save the Market, etc. These events shaped our city and gave us all our sense of place. We got the chance to raise our voices and speak our minds, jousting respectfully with our fellow residents over the finest of details and voting up or down with gusto.

Recently, voting down. I notice that all the events you mention took place before about 1971. What have we managed to accomplish lately? Yes, the how (emphasis above mine) is very important ... I love local history. But please, let's not indoctrinate newcomers into our homegrown brand of talk, talk, talk, and do nothing. The vaunted Seattle Process isn't necessarily anything to be proud of. What use is respectful jousting if the main link between Seattle and Microsoft is still two lanes in each direction without shoulders?

Citizen bureaucracy is only marginally better than official bureaucracy. Let's not perpetuate it.

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