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How neighborhoods make Seattle

Neighborhoods pump as much life, if not more, into Seattle than downtown. But they need nurturing and protection.
The Fremont Troll

The Fremont Troll jcolman via Flickr

One of the still-funky floating home communities at the north end of Lake Union.

One of the still-funky floating home communities at the north end of Lake Union. Lawrence W. Cheek

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the panel and this discussion is really important - the only nitpik - is that downtown also has neighborhoods - International District, SODO, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, Belltown, Regrade--- let's get over the fight of downtown vs neighborhoods. Downtown neighborhoods and all neighborhoods care deeply about public safety, schools, walk-ability, parks and open space, small businesses and cleanliness.

fen1027

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Let’s say downtown has 6 neighborhoods…or even 10. It still receives the lion’s share of public resources and attention from our elected officials while the remaining 80+ neighborhoods do with very little. District elections might not fix that pot hole in Lake City, but it would at least give the illusion that someone at city hall cared about it.

It would also allow more light to shine on giveaways to affluent neighborhoods who lobby for local amenities that add billions to public projects.

jmrolls

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The issue is not "downtown" as neighborhoods versus the rest of the City's neighborhoods (as fen1027 implies). The problem is more like jmrolls' description: Downtown "receives the lion’s share of public resources."

But even that is not the exact point: The point is that "downtown" represents the power of those with the wealth to control the major policy decisions: the major consistent contributors to city council and mayoral elections (many of whom don't even live in Seattle, let alone "downtown"), and the developers and related professionals (architects, lawyers) whose livelihood revolves around building and making lots of money doing it. And extracting as much value and money as possible from the commons and public fisc while doing it (the South Lake Union rezone being the most current example).

"Downtown" neighborhoods (meaning the people who live there and the small and medium businesses located there) like Belltown and Pioneer Square have just as much interest in a more equitable distribution of power in Seattle as the traditional neighborhoods of Fremont and Delridge and Rainier Beach.

I (again) suggest that people interested in improving Seattle's governance should learn about Seattle's political dynamics. As in most U.S. cities, much if not most of the power is held by the power elite that Domhoff calls "the growth coalition." See www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/local/ The SDN proposal is nothing less than an effort to make the political power distribution in this town more equitable. I believe more democratic is another word for it.

By the way, "a quarter of Seattle's population lives [in West Seattle]" is not accurate. There's a reason West Seattle is only one district out of seven in the Seattle Districts Now proposal--West Seattle contains almost exactly one-seventh of Seattle's population (2010 Census). The SDN proposed district map gives a very clear visual demographic lesson about Seattle's population distribution: within a few % points-- West = 1/7; SE = 1/7; QA/Magnolia/Belltown = 1/7; I-5 to Lake and I-90 to Ship Canal = 1/7; North of Canal = 3/7.

louploup

Posted Thu, Nov 15, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Most neighborly people who used to live in Seattle either died or moved. Today ... Seattle is foreign to me, and my family, all Seattle natives, 4 generations of us.

Posted Thu, Nov 15, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Lest you jump to conclusions, it is the policy and politics of Seattle that is foreign to me and family members. We hate to direction this town has taken, and took our businesses elsewhere.

We return, both for a view of what is going on, and to do some business, as well as to confirm that life is truly better away.

Posted Thu, Nov 15, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Please share some specifics about the "policy and politics of Seattle" that alienated you and your family. If we don't know the details, there is no way we can learn from your experience. Thank you.

louploup

Posted Thu, Nov 15, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't know that Seattle is bereft of "neighborly" people, common1sense. Perhaps it depends on the particular neighborhood. Yes, there are a lot fewer Seattle natives, as a percentage of population, than there used to be. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

You "progressives" never have been, and never will be, interested in "learning" a damned thing from anyone. If common1sense does give a list, you will respond with the usual condescending denials. Your side is absolutely no smarter, no more flexible, and no more open minded, than Sarah Palin's wingnuts on their dumbest day.

NotFan

Posted Sun, Nov 18, 5:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Good call. I moved out just as the rot started (1974) and end up on the Olympic Peninsula. Don't miss anything about Seattle. But hey that's just me.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Nov 15, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

I spent my early years growing up in the house my grandfather built on Sunset Hill. Most of the people on the block were Scandinavian, predominantly Norwegian. Almost every family was supported by a single income. There was a postman, a milkman, and lots of commercial fishermen. Most families had a vacation home of some kind, on a lake or an island or in the mountains.
There were dozens of kids. We all walked to Webster School, which is now the Scandinavian Heritage Museum, and ate lunch in the cafeteria. Shilshole Marina was still Ballard Beach.

We were free-range kids. We played over the bluff at Sunset Hill Park, walked to Ballard, North Beach, Golden Gardens. One day my friend Bob Pierce and I walked to Burien. We were 10 or 11 years old. Another time (Bob's father was a conductor on the Great Northern) we took the bus to King Street Station and the morning train to Vancouver B.C., walked around, and took the late afternoon train home. I think some parent picked us up. No passports. No i.d. I can't remember anything bad ever happening to me or anyone I knew, at least anything anyone talked about. The guy across the street ran the neighborhood grocery.

I'm not making this up.

gabowker

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's corrupt urbanist "progressives" are intensely hostile to the city's neighborhoods. They blindly hate the city, and seek to destroy it from within. They regard stability, single-family dwellers, and long-term residents as obstacles, and do everything they can to harass and alienate them. The result is a city that constantly grows uglier, more dysfunctional, yet more expensive. I moved to Seattle because it was beautiful and easy to live in. Both of those attributes are steadily eroding over time.

I don't see any end to it. In my own neighborhood, most people wish only for the city government to stay the hell out of here, because everything they touch winds up worse for their involvement. We are nothing but the city government's piggybank, period.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is to take the sucker bait of becoming involved in some city planning exercise. These are always, in every instance, Potemkin village exercises intended to co-opt people under the guise of "involving" them. Look no further than Seattle's city master plan, which the city government sweeps aside any time a connected developer or rich individual spreads some money around.

I'm damn lucky to have picked the right spot to move when I came here 20 years ago. The city wreckers who run this place won't get to where I live until after I'm gone. They'll be too busy ruining Capitol Hill, First Hill, South Lake Union, Roosevelt, Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford, and the U District.

A big part of the blame belongs with the majority of people here who don't pay attention to what the city government is doing to ruin Seattle. It's rare to see even half the people vote in an election here, and as a result the power gets concentrated among various cronies. I wish it would change, but I am not hopeful.

So, in the meantime, I hunker down and vote against every levy, and every local incumbent except when the opponent is even crazier. It's all you can do in Seattle, because the city government has been captured, and most of the population is asleep. From time to time we'll win a victory, such as with the defeat of the $60 car tabs or with Eyeman's tax limitations, but the general trend is very much in favor of "progressive" corruption.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 6:46 p.m. Inappropriate

NotFan, nice to see your commenting somewhere. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones that live in the heart of Ballard. A once great neighborhood being destroyed by the likes of City Hall and developers. Oh some newbies like it -- lots of bars and restaurants in old Ballard. Just the other day I got up and the old farmhouse behind me was torn down. A three-pod of houses will be built there. They goodness I've been planting trees around my property that will protect me from prying eyes. I think a big problem here is the number of renters vs. owners of property. If I am correct, its about 50/50. Fifty percent don't care about what goes on -- us property owners do as it affects us. We just can't up and move as easy as renters. There is nothing wrong with single family neighborhoods and the city should uphold the zoning in these areas, not insist on adding additional dwelling units. It really won't benefit the property owner or the neighborhoods, it benefits the developer who buys the piece of property, builds the accessory dwelling unit and sells the property.

Norge

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 9:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank God I don't live in Ballard. You are now squarely in the "progressive" cross-hairs. Surely you have seen the forthcoming "urban rest stop" plan, which is the equivalent of leaving uncovered garbage cans full of food on the street and expecting that the rats and raccoons won't come around.

For your own sanity, sell out while you can. Ballard is going to be the next Capitol Hill/Madison Valley. There are nothing you can do about it. The "urbanists" in city hall, and their friends, have targeted you. If I'm wrong about where I live, I will sell, leave Washington State, and not look back.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Nov 17, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

I do plan on moving in a couple of years. This neighborhood is getting totally unusable for me. The transient issue here is getting unbearable and city is making it worse with offering services such as a free medical clinic, the proposed URS (which is on hold by the way--LIHI is trying to classify it as a community center), it seems like every church in Ballard has a shelter and soup kitchen). Traffic is miserable, finding a place to park and shop is a no go. Thankfully I have a long driveway so I can still invite people from outside the neighborhood to come over. I get letters from developers on a regular basis (one was in the mail today). I am not going to be able to afford to live in this city after I retire because of the rising costs to live here -- utility costs, taxes, etc. I figure the powers that be want the city to be young and vibrant and they see no need for seniors on fixed incomes.

Norge

Posted Sat, Nov 17, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I travel a lot, and am pretty stunned when I look at the difference in the cost of living between Seattle and some other very nice locations. It'd kill me to leave here, given how much I've put into my life here, but the long-term future really looks pretty scary for anyone who's not filthy rich in this town. Eugene, Oregon has good medical care and much lower costs. I'm thinking about it pretty seriously.

There are also some really nice towns in Idaho, like Sandpoint and even Boise. It's becoming ever clearer that Seattle is going to be ever more hostile to a middle class presence. It's turning into San Francisco here, and that's a very bag sign. Given where I live, it probably makes sense to hang on for another decade or so, until the real estate bubble reinflates, and then cash out. They won't ruin my neighborhood directly like they're going to kill yours, but the costs will eat me alive.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Nov 24, 1:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Some of those seniors on fixed incomes, Norge, need the free medical clinics and soup kitchens. You'd be amazed at the growing number of seniors who are homeless. But thankfully you have a long driveway and thus I assume you are not in that sad situation.

sarah90

Posted Fri, Nov 23, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Althought Mossback does not seem to recognize the Central Distric as a neighborhood, perhaps what with it being gentrified out of existence, he appears to have touched a handful of nerves. Among the commenters are those who would prefer Seattle to be like old time Malmoe, some like the kind where everthing was fine and you could kiss the cop on the beat - that is, there exists a recollection of the kind of city this has never been since its very rough beginning. The pastorals I call them. They are pastorlists because they lived in what used to be the suburbs which, meanwhile, have been absorbed, sort of, against their resistance, into the city proper - which yet in its very own way - in some respects like L.A. but unlike Chicago, New York, Atlanta - lacks a real center. Thus you have a whole variety of deeply provincial neighborhoods that are gradually decimated as the city becomes a real city. Meanwhile a whole new set of suburbs surrounds the city proper. How much "pumping" Mossback's neighborhoods actually do, and where that "pumping" becomes evident, and what is "pumped," Mossback's rhetoric fails to specifiy. I would say what emanates, rather than pumps, is provinciality - and of a kind that you find in the largest of real cities. Paris, Walter Benjamin, declared as the capital of the 19th century - because he liked to walk, stroll in cities, because he was a flaneur, a dreamer in a cityscape, a sexy experience, as compared to a country walker. Yet what was Montparnasse not all that long ago with it Moulin Rouge? That then turned into a dance hall.
What venues might fit that description in Seattle, with the kind of mix that pleases a flaneur? Broadway on Capital Hill for a stretch. A gay neighborhood with lots of signs of it there.
Westlake Center. The Ave in the University district come to mind. The surround of Pike Street Market. Perhaps a few blocks on top of Queen Anne. The Seattle Center area has possibilities.
These are promiscuous busy places that are NOT neighborhoods! What do the NEIGHBORHOODS feed into them, anything distinctively neighborly? One could maintain that the International Disrict is a city unto itself - if it were not but for its Japanese component never having recovered from that paroxysm of provincial paranoid misapprehension after Pear Harbor - the few gruff Japanese American shoemakers and busdrivers stick out among the masses of Chinese, Vietnames and Thai Americans. r

mikerol

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