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I was having lunch with a fellow local history geek recently and this question came up: If you could go back in time, which era of Seattle history would you pick?
That's a tough one, but I chose the the period from 1897 to 1912. And not because those were the good old days. In fact, the last few years of the 19th century and first of the 20th were a time of intense change.
Seattle saw explosive growth, a boom in infrastructure, wealth, population — and trouble.
A ship sailed in from Alaska with its fabled "ton of gold" and the Klondike rush began. Our own mayor resigned and headed for the gold fields without ever returning to his office.
It was a time of transformative technological change too. Seattle's first automobile arrived in 1900, the electric car toy of playboy hotelier Ralph Hopkins, who paved the way for the city's evolution to a modern metropolis.
That turn of the century time was an era when Seattle put its water and power supply under public control, launched its parks system and held our first world's fair. It was the era when Seattle adopted its first master plan. It was the era of progressive reform.
It was a time when the city was wide open in terms of vice, and when women first got the vote and led the charge to clean up corruption. It was an era of bare-knuckle politics too, and one of the first mayoral recalls in American history.
As a journalist, I'm interested in the era because of the robust media environment. No TV or radio, of course. But such a collection of newspapers. The Seattle Times, the Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Star, the Union-Record, the Seattle Republican, the Argus, the Mail & Herald and many others. These newspapers covered the dynamic, bursting, bustling and often warring city from multiple perspectives, with different agendas, with bias, fearlessness, intensity and competitive spark.
The fact is, we are not as well served by the news media today. Our modern city compares favorably with turn-of-the-century Seattle in many ways, but not in terms of news. We need to recapture that era of lively, in-depth news. We need more news outlets, not fewer; more documentation of our triumphs and foibles; more record of our debates; more poking around in the corners of process and politics.
Indeed, we need a media that acts as both a civic prod and as a storehouse of civic memory. The city of 100 years ago lives on in the old pages of its newspapers, which offer us a treasure trove of perspective that is still useful today.
- Why did Seattle commit to public power, and how did it fight to keep it out of corporate hands?
- How did salesmanship turn the gold rush in Alaska into an urban development boom for Seattle?
- Why did we get rid of the district council system?
- How did police corruption work, and why was it so hard to root out?
- What are the consequences of picking the wrong police chief?
- How do new transportation technologies make cities better, or worse?
- How did we deal with the homeless who lived in squats and shanties on the margins of our booming city?
The work of the media doesn't simply inform readers in the present. It can inform them for generations — some issues stay relevant forever.
Crosscut is, I believe, a vital part of our urban media landscape. It is committed to coverage, reporting and analysis that will help our engaged readers build a better city and, with your support today, give future Seattleites the tools they need to learn from our mistakes and be inspired, at least occasionally, by our example. An investment in Crosscut's journalism is one that can reach across time and pay off for years to come.
If we do it right, the stories Crosscut tells will not only help us in our turn-of-the-century boom times, but will leave behind a rich vein of experience and knowledge that can be mined by the city builders of tomorrow.