All kinds of things make a city: street grids, parks, schools, historic districts. But there's one key ingredient that defies planning: amazing civic moments.
These come in many varieties and can have a huge impact. Think of the WTO demonstrations of 1999, or what the history books tell us about the city being shut down by the blizzard of 1916 or the flu epidemic of 1918–19, and in more recent times, the snowstorms of December '08.
This last event is worth remembering because of the disconnect between then-Mayor Greg Nickels — who gave the city’s vastly inadequate snow-clearing effort a "B" — and the shared experience of almost everyone else in the city. The rest of us would have issued a failing grade and did during last summer's primary election. Nickels was seen as a mayor who couldn't deliver the basics, like salt for the streets. So a snowstorm shaped our politics for years to come.
Storms and natural disasters are prime examples of civic moments, which I define as events that bring nearly everyone together in a shared experience, or even a shared reality. In these days of dying daily newspapers and of websites and cable TV networks that cater to niche markets (Fox goes right, MSNBC goes left), shared reality has taken a beating. But civic moments are rare events that give rise to a collective sense of things such as fear, joy or excitement.
Natural disasters tend to bring us together: the big earthquakes of 1949, 1965, and 2001; the Hanukkah Eve Storm of 2006 that sent 100-year rains that drowned a woman, Kate Fleming, in her Madison Valley home; the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, the last time Seattle was hit by a rare cyclone. Some of these disasters had political reverberations: The 2001 Nisqually Quake is the prime cause of our ongoing Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement debates. The death of Fleming motivated her partner to lobby in Olympia, successfully, for expanded domestic partnership rights.
On the upside, civic moments can generate collective elation. Some of the biggest crowds in Seattle's history gathered in August 1945 to celebrate VJ Day, the end of World War II. That crowd was matched in 1979 when the Seattle SuperSonics brought home the NBA championship and were feted by at least 300,000 people in the streets of downtown Seattle. Not bad for a city that, at the time, had fewer than 500,000 residents.
Here are my personal favorite civic moments, countdown style:
4. Mariners playoff run, 1995
The improbable run the Mariners made to win their division and beat the Yankees at the Kingdome created a civic excitement and shared passion for baseball unlike anything we've seen since the Sonics championship. Ken Griffey Jr. scoring the winning run is an image that will live forever in our civic Hall of Fame.
3. “Tex” Johnson rolls a jet, 1955
The birth of the Jet Age occurred at Seafair when tens of thousands of people witnessed a Boeing test pilot barrel-roll a prototype passenger jet in flight over Lake Washington, a stunt that could have spelled disaster for Boeing, but instead ushered in a new era of Boeing-dominated air travel.
2. The implosion of the Kingdome, 2000
No local skyline landmark has ended life so dramatically as when the Kingdome was blown up, to live forever on YouTube. The city stopped to watch as the ugly, historic, and still-not-paid-for dome was turned to a pile of rubble.
1. WTO, 1999
Just over 10 years ago, the Battle in Seattle stopped the city and gained it world attention as demonstrators and tear gas filled the streets. It cost a mayor and police chief their jobs, gained visibility for the anti-globalization movement, and turned Seattle into a noun meaning fiasco, yet it was the Woodstock of protest.
In response to great civic events, cities gain a sense of identity and character (How did we respond? What should we do next time?), and these events can reverberate for years, even decades, to come. They are a big part of Seattle’s past, but they actively shape the future, too.
I’d love to see your list of amazing moments.
This article first appeared in Seattle magazine's February issue