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Kent Kammerer: Seattle loses its neighborhood ‘Yoda’

Kent Kammerer

Kent Kammerer wasn’t a journalist, but he talked to people. He loved talking to people.

I first got to know him when I was invited down to the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, a rag-tag, grassroots group of truly independent Seattleites that meets once a month in a diner to hear speakers talk about civic issues. The SNC can be a tough crowd. That first time, I was on a panel with then Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher, who was nearly eaten alive by citizens angry at the paper, and the media in general. The SNC may be a kaffeeklatsch, but the participants can bite.

A couple of things struck me. One was that it was a refreshing change from Seattle Nice: these were activists who weren’t shy about asking questions or speaking their minds. And these were no-Astro Turf activists, but people who represented and loved their varied patches of Seattle. It was like a meeting of Darwin’s finches all in one room. Grumpy finches.

The other was that the group had no particular ideological bias, save a general questioning of civic authority, namely city hall, downtown business, the media, and conventional wisdom. They are a coalition of folks who don’t indulge in group-think. Some lament Seattle’s one-party-townness, but at the grassroots, outrage is often less driven by ideology than circumstance. As a guest, you never knew from which field a ball was coming, left, right, or from somewhere up in the bleachers

Presiding over it all, like a mossback Yoda, was Kent Kammerer, who booked the guests and took careful, thorough minutes of the meetings, which he would send out afterwards. I was impressed by these documents because they showed that Kent actually listened to what was said, and worked hard to present even views he strongly disagreed with fairly. And over the years, as I attended breakfast both to speak and listen, I became friends with Kent. I found a retired teacher who was intensely curious, deeply thoughtful, not cynical — capable still of hope and outrage — and someone deeply committed to democracy.

Through the SNC, he helped facilitate direct links between neighborhood activists and policy makers and others who were civically engaged. Recent coalition guests include King County prosecutor Dan Satterburg, new city librarian Marcellus Turner, Sound Transit and Metro critics Emory Bundy and John Niles, Anne Levinson on police accountability, University of Washington Professor David Montgomery talking about how civilizations unravel and fall apart. The ensuing Q&A’s at the breakfasts are always the best part. I love the image of a bunch of crusty neighborhood activists discussing theories on the fall of empire while eating hashbrowns at Ballard’s Salmon Bay Cafe.

Kent was the ringmaster of a crucial level of civic debate in Seattle. He helped create an old-school social network with more substance than Facebook. It was a place where people could gossip and argue over the back fence, but also often put questions — big questions, or wonky or trivial questions — to people in the know.

Kent loved new information. He was a teacher, but also a student. And his love of asking questions extended everywhere. I remember early on Crosscut, I had written a story that had infuriated the town of Pomeroy, Washington. Kent wrote me. It turned out he had traveled to Pomeroy, he knew Pomeroy, and that I had missed some important things about the place. Kent knew these things because he’d once parked his RV there and had met and talked with the locals in this obscure part of Washington. He was well-traveled around the region, and I imagined him exploring it “Travels with Charley”-style. His impressions were insightful. They came from listening. It turns out, Kent not only took the minutes at SNC meetings, but he had a knack, an ear, and a love for talking to people who were just people and taking in their stories and opinions.

When we launched Crosscut, Kent approached me to explore the idea of writing for us. He loved Crosscut, which was non-ideological, eclectic, deeply civically engaged, and powered by a wide group of contributors. He began writing stories, coming to Crosscut’s own pizza lunches to question guests. They are a bit like a writer’s version of SNC. He didn’t have to take minutes here, he could grill the visitors without the obligation of being a fair host.

I admired Kent. For his compassion for people. His belief that our world, our city, is full of variety and diversity, and that this is inherently good. I remember in the arguments about density, one of Kent’s concerns was that the variety of housing options would disappear. People ought to be  able to have affordable choices of single-family homes, condos, apartments, and trailer parks, he thought. He didn’t want planning to trump choice. He wanted a city for walkers, transit riders, drivers, and cyclists. He wanted government to be more open. He wanted it to be less mired in bullshit. He wanted it to stick up for the little guy. Not a classic urbanist, he still wanted to know how cities worked, and how they could work for everyone.

His pursuit of that benefited all who received his advice, his feedback, who heard his questions, who listened to his stories, who were inspired by his caring, his activism. In echoes of Tom Joad, for me at least, wherever people are gathered in places like the Breakfast Club in Lake City, the last place Kent and I shared a meal together and talked about the state of the city, wherever they ask tough questions of their leaders and their neighbors, wherever they listen to the answers, Kent will be there.

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