Our cultural amnesia

In the midst of exponential growth, Seattle can't remember how to be Seattle. It's time we went back to school and learned how.
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In the midst of exponential growth, Seattle can't remember how to be Seattle. It's time we went back to school and learned how.

Seattle is suffering some senior moments. Starbucks has forgotten how to make good coffee. Boeing doesn't remember how to make planes. Our politicians can't recall how to maintain our big-league pretensions, so the SuperSonics are headed for Oklahoma City. What's next? Misplacing our Hat 'n' Boots?

On top of that, we seem to be trying to emulate other places: Our mayor acts like he's in Chicago, our skyline looks like Manhattan's, and our sprawl resembles L.A.'s. The small, ambitious, independent city like no other seems to be consumed by a case of the wannabes.

We're forgetting how to be Seattle. Surely age isn't the reason. Older cities generally become more distinctive with time, not less. Our problem stems from two things: fast growth and civic character.

One the one hand, we're being overwhelmed by a tide of newcomers. Seattle is growing at the fastest rate in decades, and 350,000 new Seattleites are expected by 2040 — a 60 percent increase. Some of our old ways are being washed out in a tide of change.

On the other, we're inept at dealing with these newcomers. Chalk it up to what writer Timothy Egan calls our "Scando-Asian" temperament. We're not exactly eager to get to know the newbies or tell them much about ourselves. A constant complaint is that old-time Seattleites are hard to get to know. Because of this provincial standoffishness, we do a bad job of passing on local history and culture.

There is a way to stave off civic Alzheimer's, however. We can exercise our brains by going back to school and teaching one another.

Here's an example of how it can work. Back in the late 1970s, I was asked to show my new boss, just arrived from New York, around town. His name was Ken Gouldthorpe and he arrived with a Burberry-and-Brooks Brothers wardrobe and stepped into an office full of long-haired, REI-clad kids. He had a funny accent, a pinstripe suit, and on rainy days, he wore rubbers to protect his loafers. Paris Hilton with a peavey would have seemed more at home.

But Ken was a cosmopolitan, a former foreign correspondent for old Life magazine. Born in England, he'd become a U.S. citizen after World War II. He'd lived an exciting life as a globetrotting journalist and top-rank New York editor, but what really made him stand out was his deep curiosity about where he was. In all my years of greeting new people to Seattle, I have never met anyone more eager to know about his new home. As I drove him around town, he peppered me with questions and was eager to get a taste of the place — literally. You make beer here? Let's try some. You have oysters? Let's eat some. He wanted to know what made Seattle tick, where it came from, and who ran it.

Eventually, he abandoned his rubbers, grew moss and let his shoes get wet. He launched a magazine called Washington devoted to the "beauty and bounty" of his adopted region, and not long after, he even became the state's tourism director. He went from immigrant to ambassador and never left.

To me, Ken is the role model of a Seattle newcomer — someone who didn't treat us as a generic stop on some ladder of mobility. I taught him a lot about Seattle, but he gave as good as he got: Through his curiosity and worldly perspective, I learned as much about this place as I ever had. As I heard him compare Seattle with cities where he'd lived — London, New York, Sydney, St. Louis, Mexico City — I came to see Seattle as a unique place with differences that were both real and important.

Recently, I was talking with Art Skolnik, a Seattle architect and historic preservation consultant. He was telling me he used to provide orientations about Seattle to new Microsoft employees. He said he thought all newcomers to Seattle should take a "Seattle civics class" to learn how the place works, just like prospective U.S. citizens do.

I think that's a great idea. All newcomers should attend Seattle School. It might help us deal with our senior moments and civic forgetfulness. It could formalize an exchange between newcomer and native that is hard to come by informally. Even us mossbacks should take it as a refresher course. You can never know your city well enough.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.