Edith Macefield has died. She was the Ballard resident who wanted to be left alone. She refused to sell her home to a developer who then built around her bungalow, surrounding and overshadowing it. She's entered Seattle lore as a symbol of old Ballard, which itself stands as a symbol for old Seattle, a place that's being turned into a playground for the haves.
Macefield did not want to be a hero. She simply wanted to live out her life her way in her own home. The city is full of such people. They're not standing firm to make a statement, but they are resisting the pressures and temptations of change in order to live life their way. That stubborness is not simply an old Scandinavian trait, an impulse of old Ballard's squarehead culture. It's a human one: People grow into places, become part of them like the rocks and trees and hills.
But we live in an era where place isn't supposed to matter, except as a backdrop for a condo view or on a postcard. Our mobile society can live, work, play, and pursue the American dream anywhere. People bound to place — people with accents, regional loyalties, people with a skepticism about rapid change, people with deep roots — are seen as holding America (and Seattle) back. We live in a time when simply being isn't enough; we have to be moving up and forward and fast. Mobility is our obsession. Change is out mantra. Growth is our lifeblood.
People like Edith Macefield who want to live quiet lives and be left alone are now the equivalent of squatters — they occupy space that has a destiny, a "highest and best use" that doesn't include people who want to live their lives in peace. Steamrollering over them is justified by the notion that we're fulfilling our civic mission to create a denser, more urban city so that we won't pave all of nature. The Edith Macefield's are seen as standing in the way of progress.
A few might cheer her on, but only a few. Seattle's policies and laws, its tax breaks and incentives for developers, its frontier city DNA all call for the displacement of the Edith Macefields.
A new report underscores how large the pressure is: Many Seattle neighborhoods have hit their 20-year housing growth targets in only three years (Ballard is at 174 percent of its target). Even so, the city continues to look for ways to speed up the process, and indeed encourages more and faster growth. These targets don't reflect anything so natural as the birth rate of the local population. They are set to meet job and economic targets. They are driven by prosperity goals. Money.
Sadly, we haven't figured out how to live in a denser city well — why do we think growth is going to save us? We can't clean up Puget Sound now — are we really going to be able to clean it up more readily with another one or two million people packed in here? Growth is often what drives our problems, not solutions. But slowing growth? Un-American. You can't deny or defy the all-powerful market that rules American life like a bullying demiurge.
The problems of growth aren't the only ones.
Edith Macefield wanted to be left alone. But that's hard today even if a developer doesn't want your property. Seattle is putting up surveillance cameras in city parks. The Puget Sound region is contemplating widespread road tolling that would allow drivers to be tracked. The state is putting micro-chips in some driver's licenses as part of a larger national pilot program to make sure every American has — and carries — a traceable ID card. The feds are stopping U.S. passengers on the San Juan ferries to look for drugs, terrorists and illegal immigrants — stopping and questioning Washingtonians who have not crossed a border. In Seattle, your garbage is being picked over to make sure you've sorted your recycling properly. If not, you'll be fined.
Edith Macefield may find what she wanted in the afterlife. In Seattle, fat chance.