How neighborhoods make Seattle

Neighborhoods pump as much life, if not more, into Seattle than downtown. But they need nurturing and protection.
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One of the still-funky floating home communities at the north end of Lake Union.

Neighborhoods pump as much life, if not more, into Seattle than downtown. But they need nurturing and protection.

It's one thing to live in Seattle, but it's another to have lived in the many Seattles. Can you really know the city if you've only lived in one neighborhood?

Seattle's neighborhood variety is often envied. In a debate a few years ago about which city is better, Seattle or Vancouver, Vancouver urbanist Gordon Price touted one of Seattle's advantages as being the unique character of our various 'hoods.

Civic conscience and columnist, Emmett Watson, was almost embarrassed by his own gluttonous sampling of the Emerald City smorgasbord. In his autobiography, Digressions of a Native Son, Watson listed the neighborhoods he'd lived in: West Seattle, Beacon Hill, U District, Rainier Beach, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Madison Park, Pike Place Market, and the Regrade. There's a reason that Watson spoke with authority on Seattle: He got around.

The distinctiveness has to do with history, community and terrain. West Seattle, by the way, seems hardly a neighborhood. I noticed that Pete Spalding, a guy described to me as being at the "center of community-building in West Seattle," calls that area "the Peninsula," and reminds me that a quarter of Seattle's population lives there. It's more of a region, with many neighborhoods within it. Spaulding, by the way, is based in a neighborhood that I had never heard of: Pigeon Point. No matter how long I've lived in Seattle, there are always enclaves to be discovered.

That distinctiveness is a strength, though it can lead to a kind of Balkanization that drives central planners crazy. But the neighborhoods provide a critical balance to centralized and downtown-centric thinking. If an ecosystem needs diversity, neighborhoods are it. Seattle is, I think, stronger as a city with a healthy grassrootedness in its neighborhoods.

I recently moderated a City Club panel called "The Making of a Neighborhood," which picked the brains of five neighborhood experts on the challenges of how to create, craft, foster, and protect our neighborhoods. The panel was taped by The Seattle Channel; you can see the panel by scrolling to the end of the story (the discussion starts at 15 minute mark) or the broadcast link is here.

The panel consisted of Suzie Burke, the dynamo of Fremont; Rahwa Habte, a community organizer (Hidmo, Vera Project) engaged with East African youth; Mike Mathieu, the co-founder of Walk Score; Pete Spalding who is chairman of the Parks & Green Spaces Levy oversight committee; and Darryl Smith, Deputy Mayor of Community and one of the prime movers behind the Columbia City renaissance.

We covered a lot of ground, and I won't rehash it all here (check the video). But toward the end of the panel, I asked which major policy issues or initiatives that impact neighborhoods were on their radar screens and that we all should be keeping our eyes on. I thought it would be good to share what they red-flagged.

1. Levy burdens. Pete Spalding said a major concern of his was to watch the shift of general fund programs to property tax levies, worrying that we're going to make things difficult for homeowners through too many tax increases.

2. Policing. Most of the panelists said that the U.S. Department of Justice agreement on oversight of the Seattle Police Department was a big deal. Not only are the neighborhoods concerned about public safety — an essential ingredient to having a good, vibrant "nabe" —  but are also concerned about the relationships and trust between communities and the SPD. The neighborhoods have a lot at stake in the outcome of reforms.

3. The Shoreline Review. The city is updating, for the first time since the 1980s, its Shoreline Management Plan, and the houseboat and liveaboard communities are alarmed that changes might destroy these uniquely Seattle floating neighborhoods. Suzie Burke jumped on this one saying the review was not mandated and emphasizing the potential threat to a special way of life on our urban waters. Are we really going to put the "Sleepless in Seattle" Seattle at risk?

4. Transportation. Rahwa Habte expressed concern about the cutting of bus routes and the impact on everyone, including low income and immigrant communities. In the course of the panel, everyone agreed on the importance of transportation to creating healthy neighborhoods. Mike Mathieu of Walk Score emphasized that his program of rating every neighborhood in America according to walkability was a yardstick for measuring community health in general, not just fitness, but in terms of design, safety, and vibrancy. He said it was important to keep an eye on the city's neighborhood plans overall on this.

5. Charter Schools. Charters could be a new option for neighborhoods. Some have suggested that the first downtown public school could be a charter. And charters are often ways of focusing resources on specific under-served communities.

6. District elections. The panelists seemed generally very favorable to the idea of moving the city council toward district elections. The plan recently proposed by a group of neighborhood activists, including Burke, suggests seven district seats and two at-large seats on the city council. Darryl Smith said he thought this was an improvement over earlier proposals. There's no question that the neighborhoods like the idea of being more enfranchised at the city council level.

7. Preparedness. We also talked about the consequences of the "Seattle Freeze" phenomenon. People here aren't always neighborly, and could that come back to haunt us in an emergency? Certainly, in the wake of hurricane Sandy and its impact on shoreline communities, there should be a kind of wake-up call for every neighborhood to have its act together regarding disaster preparedness. As I have pointed out, Seattle is almost uniquely positioned to be at risk of earthquake, tsunami, and volcanic eruption. We've designed a city almost impossible to evacuate. It's hard enough to commute in.

There's lot more that the panel discusses, including plans for Yesler Terrace and the challenges of re-developments (at New Holly and elsewhere), the soullessness of South Lake Union, the challenges of density, and what the city should and shouldn't do to support its neighborhoods. These experts are worth listening to.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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