As I've studied the history of Seattle and Pugetopolis, I've noted how two forces are often clashing. It's more than Greater vs. Lesser Seattle, growth vs. stability, fat cats vs. social justice advocates, the Chamber of Commerce vs. the Sierra Club. The lines of battle are far more complex, even before you get to the issues of Balkanization and parochialism, with which our region is rife. We were born in dog-eat-dog competition, each city on Puget Sound trying to be the biggest and best, mostly as defined by industry, but also in terms of lifestyle and appeal. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, cities and suburbs, are still locked in competition for growth, prosperity, clout.
The clash of forces I'm talking about tends to be between people who come to the region believing one of two things (and this is common in the West). One is that Seattle represents an opportunity to replicate where they came from, often to obtain what they were too late to get in, say, New York or Chicago.
This is embodied in the name the first settlers here gave to the settlement: New York Alki, meaning we'll be New York someday. Seattle was a place you could replicate familiar ground, but without the baggage of people on top of you in the economic and social food chain. If you couldn't be a Vanderbilt or Astor or Trump in Manhattan, the path was wide open in Seattle. Look at our two recent mayoral candidates: the finalists (and winner) were political outsiders few could have named before their campaigns. In Seattle, anyone, not just the cream, can rise to the top.
The counter-force is from those who come here wanting to escape and create something entirely new. Puget Sound is rife with utopian experiments, from turn-of-the-century anarchist and socialist collectives to the Love Israel family. But utopianism isn't owned by cults or outliers alone, it suffuses our public life evidenced in our desire to make, or keep, Seattle special, a city better than others. It makes the case for Seattle exceptionalism, be it the greenest city, the most literate, the most "metronatural." It is also often driven by fears of disaster: We must transform dramatically, or face the end of life as we know it.
All sides in civic debates draw on uptopianism. There is a sense that we can have it all here: prosperity, nature, industry, wealth, social justice, growth, solitude, wilderness, a clean Puget Sound. The problem I have with the utopian impulse (which I too possess) is that it is often driven by two false assumptions. First, that there is only one way to do things right. And second, that the city or region is a tabula rasa, or a new iPad.
Utopianism is reflected in both forces for change, especially in the desire to break with the past. Those who would recreate New York (or Vancouver or Copenhagen) here are usually for starting from scratch. They tend to dismiss local history and customs and the older built environment in favor of whatever moves most boldly in the direction of rebuilding. From R. H. Thomson's washing away the inconvenient hills to the mass makeover of South Lake Union, the future is achieved through dramatic restructuring.
Those idealists who want to escape from New York (or Los Angeles or the Old World) to create something new also work on the blank-slate theory. They tend to see local history as easily swept aside. The severing of connections is crucial, or the remaking of consciousness. Any New Age must, by definition, be new. You see this in expressions of the urge to drop out, or secede, as modeled in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia. Our Cascadian region and its cities are often imagined as something apart, remote, or separable from a more corrupt or compromised whole: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver are metrotopias to be perfected and copied, even envied.
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