It's one thing to live in Seattle, but it's another to have lived in the many Seattles. Can you really know the city if you've only lived in one neighborhood?
Seattle's neighborhood variety is often envied. In a debate a few years ago about which city is better, Seattle or Vancouver, Vancouver urbanist Gordon Price touted one of Seattle's advantages as being the unique character of our various 'hoods.
Civic conscience and columnist, Emmett Watson, was almost embarrassed by his own gluttonous sampling of the Emerald City smorgasbord. In his autobiography, Digressions of a Native Son, Watson listed the neighborhoods he'd lived in: West Seattle, Beacon Hill, U District, Rainier Beach, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Madison Park, Pike Place Market, and the Regrade. There's a reason that Watson spoke with authority on Seattle: He got around.
The distinctiveness has to do with history, community and terrain. West Seattle, by the way, seems hardly a neighborhood. I noticed that Pete Spalding, a guy described to me as being at the "center of community-building in West Seattle," calls that area "the Peninsula," and reminds me that a quarter of Seattle's population lives there. It's more of a region, with many neighborhoods within it. Spaulding, by the way, is based in a neighborhood that I had never heard of: Pigeon Point. No matter how long I've lived in Seattle, there are always enclaves to be discovered.
That distinctiveness is a strength, though it can lead to a kind of Balkanization that drives central planners crazy. But the neighborhoods provide a critical balance to centralized and downtown-centric thinking. If an ecosystem needs diversity, neighborhoods are it. Seattle is, I think, stronger as a city with a healthy grassrootedness in its neighborhoods.
I recently moderated a City Club panel called "The Making of a Neighborhood," which picked the brains of five neighborhood experts on the challenges of how to create, craft, foster, and protect our neighborhoods. The panel was taped by The Seattle Channel; you can see the panel by scrolling to the end of the story (the discussion starts at 15 minute mark) or the broadcast link is here.
The panel consisted of Suzie Burke, the dynamo of Fremont; Rahwa Habte, a community organizer (Hidmo, Vera Project) engaged with East African youth; Mike Mathieu, the co-founder of Walk Score; Pete Spalding who is chairman of the Parks & Green Spaces Levy oversight committee; and Darryl Smith, Deputy Mayor of Community and one of the prime movers behind the Columbia City renaissance.
We covered a lot of ground, and I won't rehash it all here (check the video). But toward the end of the panel, I asked which major policy issues or initiatives that impact neighborhoods were on their radar screens and that we all should be keeping our eyes on. I thought it would be good to share what they red-flagged.
1. Levy burdens. Pete Spalding said a major concern of his was to watch the shift of general fund programs to property tax levies, worrying that we're going to make things difficult for homeowners through too many tax increases.
2. Policing. Most of the panelists said that the U.S. Department of Justice agreement on oversight of the Seattle Police Department was a big deal. Not only are the neighborhoods concerned about public safety — an essential ingredient to having a good, vibrant "nabe" — but are also concerned about the relationships and trust between communities and the SPD. The neighborhoods have a lot at stake in the outcome of reforms.
3. The Shoreline Review. The city is updating, for the first time since the 1980s, its Shoreline Management Plan, and the houseboat and liveaboard communities are alarmed that changes might destroy these uniquely Seattle floating neighborhoods. Suzie Burke jumped on this one saying the review was not mandated and emphasizing the potential threat to a special way of life on our urban waters. Are we really going to put the "Sleepless in Seattle" Seattle at risk?
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