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Seattle reaps creativity by playing in the gray

Marijuana legalization is the type of rough-edged venture that helps shape the region's identity.
Houseboats, now emblematic of Seattle, once operated in a kind of gray area.

Houseboats, now emblematic of Seattle, once operated in a kind of gray area. Ryan Healy/Flickr

The gray skies here tend to be tied to the seasons; the gray areas are with us year-round. Seattle is a tidy city for the most part, without the huge slums and decay of some older cities. But for all our Scando-Asian embrace of neatness, it is not so much our sense of order that defines us but rather along our messy edges, where creativity flourishes, trends are set and necessity becomes the mother of invention.

The state’s legalization of marijuana is an excellent example. As the city and state wrestle with how to implement rules for growing and selling weed, these activities are still a federal crime. Washington voters have, in effect, turned Washington into an outlaw state. Even if history proves that pot legalization is the future, we are for now out in front, blazing smoky trails.

Another activity that has gotten a lot of attention recently is the proliferation of renegade ride-sharing services, such as Uber, Sidecar and the pink-mustachioed Lyft. Made possible by smartphone apps, these popular and growing upstarts serve a real purpose: giving people an alternative to car ownership. So far in Seattle, they are unlicensed and unregulated, unlike the taxi and limo services that are now crying foul. Looking the other way on the regulatory niceties, especially in the beginning, can help incubate creative solutions that meet real needs, like getting around the city more sustainably and economically. The question on regulation is not so much whether to regulate but when. You don’t want to strangle the infant in the cradle. Or, maybe you do if you’re a cab company.

And then there is the question of what to do about Nickelsvilles, the homeless encampments that have provided refuge for those who can’t find room or won’t stay in shelters. Nickelsvilles are not a permanent solution, but they are partially self-regulated communities that answer real needs. Surely it will be a long transition to “end homelessness,” and tent cities seem like a valuable tool in the interim. Surely they keep at least some people out of the greenbelts and shop doorways. Even as Seattle’s economy recovers, more systemic failures (affordable housing supply, mental health treatment) aren’t going to be solved overnight. There has to be room somewhere in the mix for improvised, self-built solutions.

Illegal shanties and shacks have always been a part of Seattle urban landscape. In the 19th century, the city’s urban Native Americans often squatted, sometimes illegally, on the margins of the city that they had occupied for generations. During the Great Depression, there was a large “Hooverville” in SoDo for the down and out. An exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry, “Still Afloat: Seattle’s Floating Homes” (through Nov. 3) documents the history of Seattle’s much beloved houseboats, which evolved from low-income, self-made housing for timber and mill workers, who built shelters on floating logs near where they worked, in places like Lake Union. Others were crafted in the early 1900s as floating vacation cabins at Leschi and Madison Park. 

Today, houseboats are fewer in number and highly regulated. The rules governing them evolved over the years, and the rights of owners are still strongly defended by the nonprofit Floating Homes Association. Once considered floating slums, they are now mostly the preserve of the well-to-do and, as "Sleepless in Seattle" showed 20 years ago, an indelible part of the city’s image.

“Still Afloat” is a reminder that what was once on the fringe can become mainstream, an essential part of the city’s unique livability. In other words, we can benefit by being open to experiments. When it comes to ride-shares, pot and other experiments, we ought to have tolerance for the gray before trying to control everything with the black and white of law.

A version of this story first appeared in the September issue of Seattle Magazine.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Oct 14, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

My high school drama teacher lived in a Lake Union houseboat when he was a student at the U.W. in the 60s -- they were someplace between the logger's homes you describe and the funky affluence we see today, but absolutely low-cost housing.

sandik

Posted Mon, Oct 14, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

"In the 19th century, the city’s urban Native Americans often squatted, sometimes illegally, on the margins of the city that they had occupied for generations."

Nice inclusion but your should have stated the fact that starting in 1863, it was illegal for ANY Native American to live within the city limits unless they lived at their place of employment. There were a few exceptions (Lake John Cheshiahud, Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline) and a few others).

Posted Mon, Oct 14, 12:56 p.m. Inappropriate

"There has to be room somewhere in the mix for improvised, self-built solutions."

In countries with major populations of poor people like India and Mexico, low-end groups have an identifiable community existence and a specialized economy of sorts that services their needs. Their lives may be a struggle, but they are pretty much left alone by the upper classes to work out their solutions.

In America the poor exist in a marginalized condition at best. The legitimacy of their existence is denied. At worst they are demonized as morally deficient. And the regulatory state interferes with their efforts to survive. They are told they can't build simple shelters because the building codes don't allow them. They can't sell food on the sidewalk without a health department permit and a city business license.

If the American welfare state is indeed going to be abandoned and the poor left to fend for themselves, then the shackles on creative low-end economic activity will need to be removed. Or else ever bigger prisons must be built to warehouse them when they break all the rules in their desperate struggles to eke out an existence.

woofer

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I was just in Portland last weekend and my wife made a great comment about that city's approach: They make really good use of small open spaces with improvised, temporary, or small-scale structures.

Left to our own devices, and given options, our city's low income residents can find all kinds of good models for living - microhousing, temporary/mobile housing, cottages, clusters of high density, low-rise property, combination small-business-and-housing properties (think food truck scale meets micro-house on a poorly or under-used lot). It's one 'gray area' I think there's a historical precedent for, as well as a current need.

nullbull

Posted Wed, Oct 16, 4:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Regions Identity?
That of an overly arrogant group of individuals.
Why would anyone gamble so much on dope?
Do you think a Dem or God forbid a Republican Pres wont call your bluff on dope, really? The taxpayer, as always, will pick up the tab.

tjp

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