Seattle's high-water mark?

When did our city start to back away from its 50-year mood of lofty civic aspiration? The writer puts it in the autumn of 1998, when we decided to settle for the bronze medal.
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The Pacific Science Center arches

When did our city start to back away from its 50-year mood of lofty civic aspiration? The writer puts it in the autumn of 1998, when we decided to settle for the bronze medal.

The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 earlier this summer got me thinking about something that the late newsman David Brinkley said a few decades ago. Brinkley, the cool and detached half of the 'ꀜGood night, Chet'ꀝ/'ꀜGood night, David'ꀝ NBC News team of Huntley and Brinkley, pegged Apollo 17 — the last manned mission to the moon in December 1972 — as the high-water mark of American power.

In Brinkley'ꀙs view, it was all down hill (into the crater) from there, as astronaut Gene Cernan climbed back into the lunar lander and pulled the hatch closed on the once glorious republic for once and for all. As a confirmed fan of popular history — that brand of looking at the past designed to appeal to a mass audience rather than a handful of academics — I admire anyone who can riff polemically on something as feel-good as a successful moon landing and make it seem wistful and sad.

Whether Brinkley'ꀙs thesis is true or not is beside the point; like talk radio, it gets you bothered and thinking, staking out your position on something the possibility of which hadn'ꀙt crossed your mind before.

The question of where to place this city'ꀙs high-water mark came to mind the other day as I took my daughter along for our first ride on Link Light Rail, from Westlake Station to Tukwila and back on a weekday afternoon. The rail cars are fabulous — clean and new, filled with stainless steel and the antiseptic sound of pre-recorded feminine station-stop announcements just like in some anonymous Big City somewhere.

To this north end resident, the route south through the Bus Tunnel (I'ꀙll always call it that no matter that trains now run through it'ꀔthe same way the Center House is for me still the Food Circus) felt esoteric and exotic. Sure, the area south of Pioneer Square was familiar from Amtrak rides to Portland, but suddenly we veered left and were high above the Franz Bakery, getting an eye-level glimpse of signage we'ꀙd previously only seen through the upper reaches of our windshield while driving Sixth Ave. S. Then, we disappeared, a la Disneyland'ꀙs Thunder Mountain Railroad, into the side of Beacon Hill, only to emerge on that perennially misunderstood thoroughfare known as Martin Luther King, Jr. (nee Empire) Way.

That the first phase of the region'ꀙs light rail system is complete is a major milestone and a Good Thing. While the conservative and libertarian critics will inevitably point to low ridership figures for years to come and make the predictable I-told-you-so arguments about the greater cost-effectiveness and flexibility of buses, anyone with a sense of history gets that it will take a decade or more for light rail to really have an effect. It takes that long for settlement patterns, housing construction trends, and genuine economic development to really kick in along the rail line and begin paying off in a big way (to a degree that bus routes rarely deliver).

Taking the long view of history even further back (and then forward), consider that a region'ꀙs infrastructure investments don'ꀙt ever pay out all their benefits in the first years or decades or even centuries for that matter. Look at Interstate 5 and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge (built in the 1960s), the Alaska Way Viaduct (built in the 1950s), Aurora/State Route 99 (built in the 1930s) or just about any major street in the city (built as early as the 1850s). Infrastructure investments made by early Seattle residents — to identify and then formally survey routes, to condemn and/or purchase land, to plat and grade right-of-ways — began in the 19th century and are still producing returns in the 21st century for millions of us (whether we travel by car, bus or rail).

So while the light rail system is something to be proud of, it'ꀙs also something that could and should have happened 40 years ago — an oft-told story that doesn'ꀙt need repeating here. But just imagine what MLK Jr. Way — especially along some of the southern-most portions of the Link route, with vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, abandoned vehicles — could already be like now had light rail been present for nearly two generations.

Regardless of the missed opportunities in the past, the years ahead for communities and neighborhoods along the rail line will be all about progress. And progress (apart from the light rail portion of Forward Thrust going down in defeat way back when) was what post-war Seattle was all about. Like successive movements of a decades-long civic symphony broadcast by the Bullitts on KING FM, or, like a neverending recession-proof Ivar'ꀙs fireworks show (remember those?) with one spectacularly colorful cluster of civic success after another, Seattle was a city that Got Things Done.

I believe it all began with The Spirit of Seattle Building, constructed in Montlake in 1952 to house the Museum of History & Industry. That was the result of a little remembered but unprecedented campaign (led by brewer Emil Sick) to marshal private dollars from a diverse spectrum of Seattleites to create this civic asset. (Take a look on the donor wall near the MOHAI entrance to see many of the names.)

The MOHAI campaign was different than Richard Fuller's building SAM at Volunteer Park in the 1930s, constructed with Mom's money. MOHAI'ꀙs home was the result of the more populist approach of the man responsible, after all, for Rainier Beer and the Seattle Rainiers Pacific Coast League baseball team.

Next came the effort to build a second bridge (State Route 520) across Lake Washington; the campaign led by Jim Ellis to clean up Lake Washington and create Metro; the 1962 World'ꀙs Fair and creation of Seattle Center; Forward Thrust parks and pools and the domed stadium (which also made the Seahawks possible and, in somewhat complicated fashion, brought the expansion Seattle Mariners to town in 1977); multiple Final Fours and NCAA playoffs; the Goodwill Games in 1990; and even the new stadiums that replaced the Kingdome.

The aspiring popular historian in me wants to link all of these developments as linear cause-and-effect stair steps, with each accomplishment leading to the next in well-ordered progress toward The Perfect City. At least there is a shred of truth in this approach (and that'ꀙs enough for me).

All of which brings me to my Apollo 17 moment in Seattle history, in the autumn of 1998. It was then that the official bid committee for the 2012 Summer Olympics was in the midst of an effort perhaps more organized and with more potential than any prior attempt to bring the Olympics to Seattle. As the committee moved toward what would have been our own civic moon landing on the Sea of Tranquility, the Seattle City Council opted to not sign an essential letter of support.

Popular opposition to pursuing a Seattle Olympics (and paying for all those places for elite athletes to show their stuff) was sown in the we-voted-against-it-before-they-voted-for-it story for what became SAFECO Field, and in the growing sense that we needed to focus on our own unglamorous infrastructure needs before we tried to build, say, a world class equestrian facility. Perhaps, then, Seattle'ꀙs Apollo 17 moment was the death of the Olympics bid.

So someday, when historians look back at where (and when) Seattle went wrong, they'ꀙll see that soon after the 2012 Olympics bid died, A-Rod and Griffey moved away, Boeing headquarters left town, Nisqually shook, the Sonics thundered off to Oklahoma, the Kalakala went to Tacoma (via, who could forget, Neah Bay), and we struggled for years to find support for solutions for replacing the Viaduct and 520.

Had the bid gone forward with the necessary Seattle City Council support (and the entire community rallying 'ꀘround) and had it been successful, we would now be in the midst of a construction boom functioning as our own regional Newer Deal. Thousands of jobs would be created in the lead-up to 2012, millions of dollars of public and private investment in local infrastructure (including Seattle Center, just in time for its 50th anniversary year), and billions of dollars of revenue on the horizon just three years from now.

As it is, the region will see some ancillary benefit from the winter games next year in Vancouver. Think of it as a bronze medal. We'ꀙre there on the reviewing stand, but get nothing compared to the gold medal economic and civic glory of the host city as 'ꀜO, Canada'ꀝ (rather than Perry Como'ꀙs 'ꀜSeattle'ꀝ) blasts from the PA system of worldwide media.

My family fled post-war Europe and made Seattle our home 50 years ago. We found a place rich with amenities and infrastructure, and we willingly supported the civic leaders who articulated the opportunities (and necessities) of making further investments. A half-century later, it feels like we lack leadership with a bold vision for the future and with the ability to convince us to support it.

Granted, we are slowly addressing our infrastructure and transportation needs. But I'ꀙm not convinced that we are collectively looking forward far enough and with enough imagination to live up to the promise that got Seattle so far, so fast. I still believe in our civic mythology, the regional folklore that acts as a beacon to the larger world — our focus on the future, our unique relationship with the natural environment, our obsessions with technology and innovation. Fine story. But it needs to be more than myth.

Good night, Chet.


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