The story is often told in neighborhood circles about the time Jim Diers, a leader of the South End Seattle Community Organization, released a live chicken in the office of Seattle's Mayor Charles Royer. Diers, an acolyte of the renowned Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, wanted to make the point that Royer was being chicken about economic justice for Southeast Seattle.
Diers emerged as a champion for neighborhoods; Royer appointed him director of a new Office (later Department) of Neighborhoods. A scrappy movement grew into a widely popular city agency known simply as “Neighborhoods.” Then, in 1990, Washington passed the landmark Growth Management Act, which was intended to channel suburban and rural sprawl into dense urban areas. Soon afterward, Royer's successor, Norm Rice, developed an Urban Village strategy to meet the requirements of the new law and enliven and empower city neighborhoods.
But since then, Seattle’s neighborhood movement, which started as a collaboration between neighborhoods starved for infrastructure and a city seeking to lead the region in growth management, has degenerated into a growth-resistance movement. What began as a social-justice movement has become a bulwark of the status quo.
I started out in the mid-'90s as a “citizen planner” in two neighborhoods, South Park and Beacon Hill. I attended lots of meetings — at the city council, in the mayor’s office, with local chambers and business groups. I loved it so much that I took a job as a neighborhood development manager in the Department Neighborhoods (where Sally Clark, now a city councilmember, and Phil Fuji, later a deputy mayor, held the same position). It's the best job I ever had. I also think we accomplished a lot for the neighborhoods, while holding their feet to the fire on promises they'd made during the neighborhood planning process. I even fought for a parking garage in the Admiral District!
All this planning and meeting and mind-melding was supposed to lead to two things: empowered neighborhoods and dense, well-planned urban villages. Neighborhoods did get more power, and City Hall came to respect almost anything that emerged out of the “neighborhood process.” All those years of meetings and all that attention to growth issues earned political clout. Today, Seattle's mayor and the chair of its city council's land use committee (Sally Clark) are both alumni of the neighborhood planning effort.
But the neighbors who ended up empowered were overwhelmingly single-family homeowners who are, understandably, deeply vested in keeping things mostly as they are. There is a strong undercurrent of resistance to change in this movement. In one case, neighbors in Laurelhurst so vexed Children’s Hospital that the hospital ended up paying them $150,000 to stop opposing its expansion.
There’s nothing wrong with single-family folks banding together to protect their investments. But what happened in Laurelhurst is a very different sort of activism from deploying a flapping chicken in the fight for basic services in the Rainier Valley.
The movement also puts a premium on proximity. In the debate over more density in the Roosevelt neighborhood, residents suggested that the closer someone lived to Roosevelt High School, the more accurate and legitimate her opinion. First-comers should decide the future of a place, in this view, but that's an exclusionary bias at odds with the inclusive nature of the original neighborhood movement. Today's movement is starting to sound like the Tea Party, with its xenophobic, know-nothing rhetoric, and distrust of experts. Outsiders don’t count, no matter how much they’ll be affected and how much they can bring to the table.
The neighborhood movement needs to reclaim its original inspiration if it's to become a vital, positive force once again. Three changes could save it, in my estimation.
First, the movement needs to move away from being so focused on single-family homeowners. Economic interests correlate strongly with activism, and that can be positive. But neighborhood identity should embrace not just vested residents but renters, wider regional interests, and people who haven’t even moved in yet.
Second, the Department of Neighborhoods and other city agencies should stop organizing their work exclusively by geography. While neighborhoods are by definition places on a map, that doesn’t mean matching fund applications, city staff, or citizen councils have to be organized that way. Imagine a DON-supported renters' council, or perhaps a council for new immigrants. These councils would add new voices and lend citywide perspective to neighborhood projects and city budgeting.
Third, neighborhood advocates need to recognize that it's all about planning for growth, not stopping growth or shifting it somewhere else. Change is scary and even painful. But the city and its neighborhoods need to organize around something other than trying to stop bad things from happening. The new neighborhood organizing principle should be distributing the benefits of growth as widely as possible. For example, more transit for more people is an effort everyone could rally around.
The best people to implement these reforms are neighbors themselves. Anyone who lives, breathes, eats, or works in this city should get a say in it, no matter what part of it they live in. C’mon Seattle, don’t chicken out. Together we can make this a better city, by welcoming and accommodating more people.