To be a Seattle native today is to be conflicted. I suffer from bouts of nostalgia for the old city, but also feel excitement about aspects of the new. The latter sentiment may come as a surprise, because as a columnist I frequently complain about more people, more condos, bad traffic, and grocery-bag taxes. That’s what mossbacks do. But not all change is bad change, and there are developments in the “New” Seattle that I love. I thought I’d salute the new year by writing about some of the things I see as progress.
1. Diversity. Over the years, the ethnic and racial mix of Seattle has changed dramatically. There are more than 90 foreign languages spoken in the Seattle public school system. We’ve gone from being a 1960s city of segregated neighborhoods and schools to being much more integrated: No longer are more than 80 percent of Seattle’s African Americans confined to the Central District. The old neighborhood housing covenants that excluded blacks and Jews are off the books. We’re a city that has literally changed its complexion, a city of turbans, head scarves, Ethiopian eateries, and taco trucks. The white-bread city has gone whole grain, and we’re richer for it.
2. Better eats. It is incontestable that food and drink in Seattle have radically improved. We’ve gone from being a town with one good French restaurant and a fading Pike Place Market to one with better and more diverse grocery stores, a robust local food movement, more organics, a proliferation of neighborhood farmers’ markets, creative restaurants, better bakeries, handmade chocolates, quality coffee, cafes, regional wines and microbrews. The only downside (other than obesity) is experimentation that can parody yuppie excess. There’s a Seattle company (Dry Soda) that makes lemongrass and lavender sodas. Yech. But hey, it’s all a matter of taste. One of the best things about the city is that you can “live to eat” in Seattle, no matter your palate. If you want to toast our foodie city with a curry or a cocktail, go right ahead.
3. Better cultural amenities. The investments in cultural infrastructure in recent decades have been truly impressive: new and restored neighborhood libraries and the Rem Koolhaas downtown icon; more community centers; the expanded Seattle Art Museum and the downtown Sculpture Park; the revamped opera house. Even publicly funded projects like Qwest and Safeco fields are first rate, if born of misguided public policy. Seattleites are often mocked for their do-gooder liberal willingness to tax themselves to death, but that’s leavened by a laudable desire to invest in feeding our minds.
4. Ecotopian efforts. Seattle is attempting to become a much greener, more sustainable city. We can quibble about the details (I often do), but the overall goal is noble and needed. The rehabilitation (replantings, removing invasive species) of parks and greenbelts by the City and volunteer groups is important and admirable work. The City’s plans to restore the “urban forest” are critical to long-term quality of life (including wildlife), controlling our carbon footprint, and helping curtail polluting run-off into Puget Sound.
5. Political dysfunction. OK, this isn’t new to Seattle, but the fact that it endures is encouraging. Mayor Greg Nickels is the closest thing we’ve had to a strongman mayor in decades, but even he is frustrated by the decentralization of power. Earlier this year, he fantasized aloud about having Seattle secede, perhaps so Nickels could become the Hugo Chavez of his own city-state. Seattle teeters on the brink of one-party rule — Republicans are probably rarer than Seattle natives — which means finding checks to balance local governance is essential. Citizen initiatives, voter unpredictability and pragmatism, an egalitarian core that insists on input, transparency and talking things to death: these are annoying at times, and counterproductive at others. Yet they have shaped a city that has avoided or minimized many of the failings of other major cities, such as massive urban renewal and loss of character; disastrous freeway projects; dominance by single-minded, often corrupt political machines. The resilience of this “Seattle way” — the willingness to trip up the powerful, deflate egos and rethink top-down plans — is ultimately a plus. May we remain a city ruled by Davids rather than Goliaths.
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