Seattle's 'civic dementia,' and how to cure it

We are losing our historic brain cells, one bungalow at a time. Much of what needs to be preserved isn't architecturally special by itself, but it has earned a right to stay with us, and the civic cost of wrecking and replacing is often too high.
Crosscut archive image.

The late Edit Macefield's holdout bungalow amid Ballard's condo-landscape

We are losing our historic brain cells, one bungalow at a time. Much of what needs to be preserved isn't architecturally special by itself, but it has earned a right to stay with us, and the civic cost of wrecking and replacing is often too high.

Editor's note: This speech was given last week at the 35th anniversary celebration and awards banquet of Historic Seattle.

It's great to be here with you this evening under the stained glass of the Arctic Club Hotel. This historic building looms large in my mind because of its walrus "gargoyles," the faces that line the outside of the building and look like Mike Holmgren.

These made a great impression on me as a child, and I think they made an impression on my father. He was born and raised in Seattle too, the second of four Knutes. As a young boy, his family lived on the east slope of Queen Anne Hill above Lake Union, in a bungalow on the edge of the woods right near where Aurora is now. My grandfather, bestafar, was a tough Norwegian, and did what most Scandinavians do. At bedtime, he read stories to my dad — stories that scared the living daylights out of him.

Yes, my father's lullabies were terrifying tales of trolls and witches and monsters of the dark forest, a most Lutheran preparation for life. As a result, my father was reluctant to walk through the woods to school at the top of the hill having become convinced that a giant walrus lay waiting for him. Nothing his parents could do would shake him of this belief. I am sure this idea must have been put in his head by the walrus totems decorating this building, as walruses are not native to this area. My ability to be here is testament that a bloodline can overcome its fears of rampaging forest walruses, with the passage of time.

The subject of time brings me to what I want to talk about, which is the battle we fight against "civic dementia."

That's not an easy fight in Seattle. "Civic dementia" is everywhere. We're losing our historic brain cells one bungalow at a time. How can this be happening in a city that became a national model for proving the economic vitality and value of saving historic neighborhoods, in a town that rescued Pioneer Square from decay and the Pike Place Market from being converted into a parking lot?

It's because Seattle is a city that is actively engaged in forgetting who it is. We may dream of being a big city, a green city, a world-class city. But we are still a city of the far West, a frontier city. As such we're restless, utopian, future-focused, money-crazed, and our town is filled with newcomers and short-timers. We attract many people who believe Seattle is the place you come to to escape the past.

Historian and novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote that the hallmark of the West was its transience. He wrote that the West invented ghost towns, dust bowls, and motels. Our obsession with the new and with change is, ironically part of our past, and part of our discontent. You build something in the West, then you move on. Psychically, we're not the Arctic Club Hotel. We're a motel on Aurora, a city of one-night stands.

Just look at our shifting identities. Seattle's founders dubbed us New York Alki, and our first real tourist attraction was, appropriately, Madame Damnable's, a brothel. We soon became the Gateway to Alaska. Just in my half-century of life we've been the Queen City, the Jet City, the Portal to the Pacific Rim, the launch pad for Century 21's Space Age, the capital of Pugetopolis, the Emerald City, and the Silicon Forest. Tacoma claims to be the City of Destiny but Seattle is Sybil, the city of multiple personality disorder.

This is what makes the work Historic Seattle does — and the accomplishments of tonight's award winners — all the more significant. Because while you and I cherish Seattle's up-and-down, back-and-forth history, while we relish finding a new use for an old house or church or school, many of Seattle's citizens view historic preservation as holding us back, as an exercise in nostalgia, as something only old people and rich people care about.

They have a point.

Historically, preservationists have often been biased toward saving the homes of the wealthy or large public monuments. They've shown a tendency to reward architectural virtuosity, anything with spires, cupolas, or gingerbread. The rap against preservationists is that they don't like change and want to turn back the clock. And we all know a few moss-covered souls like that. Although, the amusing thing is that the critics of preservation are also often people who tout things like streetcars, small neighborhood shops, walking, cycling to work. This fall I saw two downtown Seattle policemen on horseback wearing capes. Giant wooden nutcrackers stood outside downtown shops, like cigar store Indians of old. Now, just who is turning back the clock?

Many citizens are happy to allow historic preservationists their snobbery — to allow granny and grand dad their bottle of sherry now and again. Let them save a few mansions if they must, but the rest of the city is ripe for erasing. Keep the bar high on historic landmarks, and keep the bar low for developers who are eager to swing the wrecking ball, in the name of progress.

Seattle is filled with people who act as if we were a blank slate.

And it's not just developers. It's those of us who worship nature too. A professor I know said the reason so many Seattleites don't go to church (we are among the least religious, least churched people in America) is that we have never been able to build a sanctuary that comes close to matching the awesome magnetism of Mt. Rainier. By that measure, our built environment will always seem second rate. We'll rally to save a forest before organizing to create a new historic district.

My current interest in historic preservation was sparked when I wrote about the impending demolition of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's restaurant a couple of years ago. The argument was over whether this 1964 roadside diner was significant enough to save. Most experts and the city's landmarks board thought that it was.

But many people thought the whole idea was preposterous because it was a Denny's, not a grand hotel or theater. When built, it was called the Taj Mahal of Ballard, which says more about Ballard than the building. It was touted as a unique example of "Googie" architecture. One architect dubbed its style as "Scandagoogienesian." The press coverage was extensive. Channel 9 called it the battle as "Googie versus Goliath."

What really struck me, though, was the hostility the effort to landmark the diner engendered. I was told by people that Seattle "has no history." Another wrote "There is NOTHING worth saving — blow it up." But you can't really blame these people: we are the city that built the monumental Kingdome at public expense, then blew it up before we'd even finished paying for it. That sent a message: Seattle is disposable.

The problem with viewing the city as a blank slate is that it is not. We call this landscape "Metronatural" but it has been extensively altered to suit our needs. We washed away hillsides, changed river courses, built canals, pushed the sea back. The last 150 years of extensive development and settlement has created not only manmade landmarks, but a living fabric that has bound us to this place. The natural and built environments are inseparable really. Together they help form civic memory, embodied values, our very sense of reality. And it's literally how we find our way around. Who here has not given a direction like, "Go down the the Pink Elephant sign and turn right?" We all know you never ask a native Seattleite how to get somewhere by naming the streets.

So, how do we combat civic dementia? There are several things that can help.

One is that preservation now means more than mansions. It includes Sears catalog homes, Denny's diners, old nuclear reactors, the P-I Globe, even a bulletin board in Chinatown. The preservation movement needs to continue to broaden its definitions and find creative ways to pursue and encourage the shaping of the city without reliance on simply saving major landmarks. Preservation is a key component of livability and should be part of everyday policy debate.

Preservation also needs to have fun. I think back to seafood entrepreneur and folksinger Ivar Haglund stepping in to save the Smith Tower and fly a victory salmon windsock over it. I can't help but think if Ivar were with us today he might have saved the Wawona in its final hours or turn the Kalakala into a floating Acres of Clams. Ivar operated with humor and hustle and a brilliant PR sense for the absurd. Scandinavia tends to produce people who take things a bit too seriously, but Ivar managed to make Seattle laugh even when doing something important. We could learn from that.

We need to educate the public that preservation is more than architecture, more than "the Doc Maynard slept here...or lay drunk here." We need to save the nuts and bolts of the city. I think of the row of wonderful brick retail and apartment buildings along Broadway that were demolished last year by Sound Transit. They weren't landmarks, but they were beautiful, affordable, and well-built. Much of what needs to be saved isn't special by itself, but it has earned a right to stay with us, and the civic cost of wrecking and replacing is often too high. I'll bet you that whatever replaces that Broadway stretch will be less well built and more expensive too.

We need to spread the word about recycling. Seattleites love to recycle but that ethic disappears during building booms. Much of the growth is done in the name of the environment: We're putting up green towers downtown to increase walkability and density. But the carbon footprint of new construction is huge. As they say, the greenest building is one that is already built. Historic Seattle and its supporters know this and live by this ethic, but most people still believe that new is greener or greenest.

We also need to stand up to free market arguments by recognizing that the dynamics that drive development are not free. They are the products of specific tax and land-use policies. They are the outgrowth of federal and state decisions, incentives, and mandates. As we're learning in these post-boom times, markets are made and unmade by people, and not always good people. It is no more interference to pass laws to protect our built environment than it is natural to allow it to be bulldozed.

A city that knows its history is a city that knows where it is and who it is. Change, we know, is inevitable, but Historic Seattle and historic preservation helps us answer questions about what kinds of change are desirable. It embraces and invites change as it tries to shape a city of rich cultural layers. It teaches us the love of place, it helps newcomers learn the lay of the land and put down roots.

During the Ballard Denny's controversy, one of the people arguing to demolish the diner told me he had just come back from Europe, from Prague, and that there was a city with real historic buildings worth saving, they were hundreds of years old. Of course, I helpfully explained that the reason he could gush over 300-year-old buildings is because when they were as old as the Ballard Denny's, no one tore them down.

If Seattle doesn't do something to halt the process of civic dementia, it will never be like Prague or London or Boston or San Francisco or any other city that resonates with the contributions and legacies of those who came before.

That's why what you here at this celebration of Historic Seattle do, is so important.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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