Light rail does not a 'grown-up' city make

Seattle has acquired light rail and a strongman mayor, but that doesn't put us in the big leagues. In fact, we were more mature a few decades ago. And Seattle's civic DNA is about not imitating other cities.
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A light rail train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Seattle has acquired light rail and a strongman mayor, but that doesn't put us in the big leagues. In fact, we were more mature a few decades ago. And Seattle's civic DNA is about not imitating other cities.

Danny Westneat bravely steps up in his column this Sunday (July 19) to take a contrarian position: He puffs up Greg Nickels, Seattle's deeply unpopular (but likely to be re-elected) Mayor.

Westneat contends that despite the critics, Mayor Nickels is no Chicago-style pol, no Mayor Richard Daley-style strongman. "I've known Nickels for 20 years, and if he's Boss Daley, then I'm Mike Royko."

Danny would get my Royko vote, and he's right on a couple of counts. First, there's no indication Nickels is corrupt. Second, to the extent he is a strongman mayor, he often fails to deliver. The trade-off for putting up with a tin-pot civic dictator is getting your streets snowplowed, having straight curbs, getting pork from Olympia and Obama. Read Westneat's paper and you can make the case that Nickels doesn't make the grade.

But let's not let hizzoner off the hook so easily. Nickels has brought a style to his mayorship that is distinctly different that other modern administrations. It's more us-and-them, more fear-driven. I've talked to city employees who say you wouldn't believe how much the agenda is driven by making the mayor look good. With his loyal deputy Tim Ceis, he's brought a rewards-and-punishments approach that is recognized (and much hated) in the city, and ineffective regionally. It's not that Nickels is Mayor Daley in personal style — far from it. But he's brought a kind of big city politics that Seattle, to its credit, once scrupulously avoided.

Certain factors have played to his hand. Our city politicians generally lack back-bone; our City Council is stocked with too many gutless wonders and go-alongs. It doesn't take much to intimidate the nice folks of Seattle: a few firings, a glare, some budget cuts, cutting off the council's information supply — even the mayor's top challenger, Jan Drago, has agreed with Nickels on substance most of the time. Their debate is over style: inclusion and consensus versus executive authority and banishment. Drago has a reputation for toughness, but she was tamed by Nickels along with most of her councilmates.

To those who fear punishment from taking Nickels on, shame on you. For those who've jumped into the mayor's race, Lilliputians and all, kudos. I agree wholeheartedly with Westneat when he says, "If you are fearful of Nickels, then you have no business in politics."

The one mayoral candidate to take Nickels' style head-on is former Sierra Club chair Mike McGinn, a Long Island-bred guy of Irish descent who doesn't seem particularly Seattle nice himself. He's highlighted both the unprecedented nature of Nickels' donations from city workers, spouses, and partners, but also how the mayor has tightened his grip on the city apparatus, expanding the number of employees who serve at his pleasure. McGinn writes, "In 2002, there were 241 staff with the designation of 'Strategic Advisor.' By 2008, there were 431 such staff, an increase of 79 percent. These advisors are paid about a third more, on average, than other city employees." Forgive some for seeing signs of creeping Daleyism.

The city is also changing in ways the fuel the worries of the anti-Daleyites. First, Seattle, through no fault of Nickels, has become largely a one-party city. Candidates who have even whispered connections with Republicans are outed (see Burgess, Bagshaw) for a public drubbing. Seattle's political style (and rhetoric) is trending much more Manichean: if you're for or against the tunnel, light rail, monorail, bag tax etc. etc. you are declaring whether you are good or evil. With the centralizing of power and the moral infusions of issues, it all feels less Mayor Daley than Dick Cheney.

Second, there's an attempt to revive the elected ward system, one that was done away with precisely because it was seen as corrupting in big cities and allowed some politicians to become entrenched in special interest (racial, ethnic, and class) enclaves. No system is perfect, but district elections smack of a way to wind-up with a much more Chicago-like system, at least if City Hall's current style remains dominant.

Third, Seattle of the last 20 years has become obsessed with being a "big city," a trend Westneat applauds in his column. Nickels may not be Daley, but, "Today we're a bit more like Chicago or New York than we were yesterday," Danny writes approvingly. He follows with a quote:

"We now join the cities of the world," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said, as the inaugural light-rail train jostled down Rainier Valley toward Tukwila on Saturday morning. "We are growing up."

Really? Is it really "grown up" for a city to wank over pictures of New York and Chicago, Vancouver, and Portland?

What could be less grown up than a city constantly comparing itself with its others, forever gazing in its world-class mirror to preen over its sophistication and maturity? This Seattle seems like an adolescent looking for the hint of a whisker. Hey guys, how do you like my light rail mustache? Can I hang out with you?

The answer to these boosters is that Seattle is already grown up. In fact, we were more grown up years ago than we are now. The Seattle some people are trying to preserve and protect was a unique city, created by grown ups (Jim Ellis, Eddie Carlson, the Olmsteds, etc.), designed and planned by urban sophisticates who knew that we would not flourish as a copycat city.

Let's go back a bit. Before the recent boom times, Seattle was a stand-out city. It had not gone through the terrible urban declines of the '60s and '70s, and required no "urban renewal." There were no ghettos, little crime. The population was distinguished by being unusually middle class; while we were affluent, the town was still affordable. The plan for the city was based on development around a streetcar grid. Look at the old maps: the bungalow neighborhoods we love were "transit oriented development."

What resulted was a city that used to pride itself on being unlike other cities. The new kid that didn't make old-world mistakes. Some of that was hype, but almost all of what we think of today as what makes the city livable and vibrant was the result of big-city planning determined not to make Seattle just like every other big city.

That has been the genius of Seattle's civic DNA. Seattle is a young city, but it came at the end of the surge of Western expansions. We went from wagon trails to space ships faster than just about anyone. We skipped some stages in our development. But this city was born in the boom years from the 1880s to the 1920s and while we didn't do everything right as America's then fastest-growing city (faster than LA), we went from frontier town to metropolis with speed and grace.

One of the major factors was we blossomed during the early 20th Century Arts & Crafts movement. And whatever you think about Craftsman homes, that movement was about more than architecture. It was about how to live and be self-sufficient, how to live in harmony with nature, how to create environments that were filled with art and beauty. It was a DIY movement, an anti-corporate attitude.

Want evidence? See the current and superb Arts and Crafts exhibit covering the movement in the Pacific Northwest at the Museum of History and Industry. It's an eye-opener. (Disclosure: I am doing some consulting for the museum on an unrelated project). Meet the Seattle that was a big city of ideas from Europe and the East Coast, yes, but one that was a manifestation of localism, a city crafted one yard, one ceramic tile, one bungalow, one park, one cedar plank, one boulevard at a time. This was the handmade city we showed to the world.

This Seattle still lives and has adapted to modern life. Despite the growth strategies that have contempt for "old Seattle" or enjoy "challenging" the neighborhoods with high-rises and big projects, it's a very durable city. It's reflected in the fact that we're still a city of single family homes and yards (now very politically incorrect, but beloved), a city of pea patches, locavores, community councils, traffic circles, affordability, farmer's markets, parking-strip farmers, and recyclers. This is the city whose egalitarian values have been under assault during the boom years, and are threatened to be "planned" out of existence during the quiet of the bust times.

It's this city, not the big "grown up" city, that will absorb and make light rail work, that will integrate it into a mature fabric.

Of course, the sure sign we've grown up is when we stop talking about it. I suppose we can be forgiven a bout of un-arrested development. But it's time for Seattle to put its civic Playboy away. It's not a blueprint for greatness.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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