Just say no to media fear mongering, Capitol Hill

New plans to redevelop a half block of E Pine and Melrose on Capitol Hill have the community all riled up.

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Bauhaus coffee, a landmark Capitol Hill coffee shop, will have to relocate for the proposed development.

New plans to redevelop a half block of E Pine and Melrose on Capitol Hill have the community all riled up.

There is something powerful about fear, especially as a tool for social organization. An external threat to a community — real or not — can act as a binding agent, strengthening and sustaining its value structure. New people moving into a community can stoke fear — even in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill, one of the most culturally diverse and crowded neighborhoods in the city.

Recently, a key block in the neighborhood changed hands and will likely be developed. Already the fear-based organizing has begun, but it’s unlikely to be successful. Can Capitol Hill learn something from last year’s battle over zoning in Roosevelt? Or will neighborhood organizers follow the usual pattern of fear based organizing to stop the inevitable?

I call it the Music Man Effect — in honor of the 1962 film starring Robert Preston. In the film, the character played by Preston, Professor Harold Hill, is trying to make a buck selling musical instruments. But River City there was no demand for his product. Hill has a solution.

Professor Hill: I need some ideas if I’m gonna get your town out of the serious trouble it’s in.

Marcellus Washburn: River City ain’t in any trouble.

Professor Hill: We’re gonna have to create some. Must create a desperate need in your town for a boy’s band!

This starts of one of the greatest numbers in the film, “Ya Got Trouble,” in which Professor Hill details the evils of playing pool and how it would lead the town to ruin. In Hill’s case fear was the means to the end of selling his product.

In Seattle sometimes the motives aren’t quite so clear, but last week Capitol Hill Seattle started beating the drums about a new development slated for the neighborhood. The issue: Another half-block of Pike/Pine has been purchased by an Eastside developer with plans to create a new mixed-use development that will likely push out several long-running commercial tenants and apartment residents currently part of the old buildings along E Pine and Melrose. The popular neighborhood blog fanned the flames in posts like this one and this one

Gasp! Eastside developers! Oh, we got trouble! The iconic Bauhaus coffee shop and half a dozen other retailers have made the block between Melrose and Bellevue a signature of Capitol Hill. Bauhaus coffee was the birthplace of Top Pot donuts and stands, along with Machiavelli Italian restaurant, as a west-facing gateway to the neighborhood.

Many Capitol Hill residents regard Bauhaus as an essential part of the neighborhood, full of memories both bitter and sweet; one friend wrote me to say that he and his wife had their first date there. Bauhaus was the first place I ever connected a laptop computer to the Internet via wi-fi. Capitol Hill without Bauhaus would be like Seattle with the Space Needle, a different place entirely.

But that’s the point. Change is difficult, even for Capitol Hill. Several years ago a similar effort by locals was made to stop a development up the street on Pine between Summit and Bellevue. It failed, but delays caused by appeals left a key block of the neighborhood a gravel lot for over a year. What was lost was a chain of locally-run businesses of varying quality, but with a place in the heart of many Capitol Hill residents.

The problem with the Music Man approach is that, while fear is an effective tool, it doesn’t leave much to build on. The truth is that, like the sale of the Oddfellows building on the Hill several years ago, we won’t know for a while what will happen once the developer builds out the block.

The Oddfellows sale was greeted with similar panic: Local arts groups would be homeless, replaced by chain restaurants and pricey condos. Today though, it would be hard to find anyone with heartburn over what’s in the Oddfellow building; a restaurant operated by a longtime Capitol Hill restaurateur and bar owner (Linda’s and Smith). The building is vibrant and active and even has a chain (gasp!), Molly Moon Ice Cream.

Those of us who support more people moving into Seattle and new dense, development for them to live in, must be prepared to have some consistency between what we advocate for other neighborhoods and our own. The temptation with change is to make it about other people and other places; the Bauhaus block “works” just like it is, leave it be.

Things “work” in Roosevelt, Beacon Hill, and Northgate too. That really isn’t the point. What matters is not buildings, but people. If we cut the Bauhaus block of buildings and businesses, and pasted them in Minot, North Dakota, it wouldn’t make that neighborhood Capitol Hill. Those buildings wouldn’t “work” there because it’s a different community.

We do have trouble here in River City, and it isn’t that we’re losing too many great buildings to new development. The trouble is that all of us, even those of us living in already dense, vibrant neighborhoods, fear change. The solution isn’t stoking that fear, but calling upon our enthusiasm for other people, for our neighbors, and the knowledge that our city is always changing and it’s up to us to change it for the better. 


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