Seattle neighborhoods in limbo

Ed Murray wants to talk with neighborhoods but he spends some of the time at his summit shushing the crowd. Is that a sign of things to come?
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A part of the Central District seen from Beacon Hill.

Ed Murray wants to talk with neighborhoods but he spends some of the time at his summit shushing the crowd. Is that a sign of things to come?

Seattle's soul might be said to reside in its neighborhoods, but often immersion in neighborhood politics feels more a ride in the back of a Metro bus.

Neighborhood politics are often messy, involving angry activists, grumps, bumbling bureaucrats and screwballs. Our neighborhood system of districts, councils, community groups and public process is often a clattering contraption that gets stuck in traffic snarls and feels far from state-of-the-art. If the passengers are reflective of the city's diversity and democracy, the system of dealing with their concerns doesn't always seem like an efficient conveyance. A lot of time is spent getting nowhere.

It's not the fault of the passengers. The city itself is conflicted about neighborhoods. Back in the Charles Royer administration, a Department of Neighborhoods was created to tap into grassroots energy and provide a pipeline for strengthening relations with communities that wanted something from the city, like basic attention.

Jim Diers, who headed the department from 1988 until the Greg Nickels administration, was a kind of grassroots pied piper who led the department and encouraged a bottom-up style of planning and activism — a fairly subversive model of government that cut against the top-down style of City Hall. After his election in 2001, Nickels sacked Diers signaling a less neighborly approach to decision making. Diers's bottom-up-ism was declared kaput.

So kaput that Mayor Ed Murray recently declared Diers prematurely dead. Embarrassing as that flub was, getting Diers' life status wrong happened as the new mayor was in the middle of fulfilling a campaign promise to hold a citywide Neighborhood Summit that would "renew" relations between City Hall and the nabes. One would think Diers, of all people, would be a featured member of Murray's team of neighborhood revivalists. Murray ought not only to have known that Diers was alive but should have been plundering his brain for ideas in anticipation of his April neighborhood confab, not writing his obit.

Still, the recent Neighborhood Summit was important. Seattle's disaffected hinterlands — almost anyplace outside of downtown — carry a lot of anger and distrust about city government's intentions and responsiveness. The neighborhoods were asked to plan for growth; most did, then saw their plans shelved, overrun by events, or ignored. Some neighborhoods have had to absorb more than their fair share of growth, others have seen affordable housing shunted aside for high-priced high-rises, most have seen potholes proliferate.

Every neighborhood has bones to pick — too much crime in South Seattle, too few sidewalks in North Seattle. And in the last two administrations — Nickels' and Mike McGinn's — there was a general sense that the grassroots were being paved over by downtown planners, top-down edicts and Astroturf groups posing as neighborhood advocates but acting more as developer shills.

Promising a summit during the campaign was a way for Murray to wisely woo the Peter Steinbrueck voters after their man lost the primary election, but also a chance to mend some needlessly broken fences, to give the neighborhoods their due, a forum, something — anything — positive. The hunger for that was evident at the summit. In what we were told was the first major neighborhood gathering since the Norm Rice years, hundreds of people filled the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center April 5 to visit booths doling out information on city services, to listen to the mayor and others talk about the history of the neighborhood movement and to talk with each other about challenges, hopes and gripes.

The crowd was diverse, lively and mostly polite. The buzz was largely positive and the costumes less exotic than Comicon. As a first step in some kind of reconciliation process, it was a smart move. But it was light on substance and there was a palpable nervousness on the part of organizers that the crowd would turn angry. The mayor lectured about civility and shushed the crowd often so that speakers could be heard over the general din. He gave a good impression of a Nancy Pearl doll.

Diane Douglas of City Club reported on the state of civility in Seattle citing a new report — the Civic Health Index —that found our civic health generally good, but like any doctor's check-up, there were a few things we could work on. We're good citizens, but we score low on personal connectedness. In other words, we vote and we volunteer, but don't talk to our neighbors much.

That's a bit ironic: a city of neighborhoods that doesn't talk to its neighbors, but it is also classic live-and-let-live Seattle. A good neighbor is someone you shouldn't have to talk to. That rests on a kind of understood ethic that people should generally behave themselves and leave well enough alone. We might keep our distance, but that's also part of our vaunted tolerance for differences.

Before pillorying quiet people for not being good urban citizens but frosty, smug ones, it might also be pointed out that the civility issue goes two ways. For the most part, neighborhoods do talk to themselves and organize around their issues and get things done, but the Seattle Freeze also has been coming from downtown, where neighborhoods have felt frozen out of decisions and marginalized by a city government that in recent decades has acted as if it exists to serve developers and downtown interests first and foremost.

That is an inherent hazard, because the city tackles big issues — transportation, garbage, crime, density, equity — while the neighborhood interests tend to be smaller-scale, by definition. It's micro vs. macro, David vs. Goliath. Sometimes a neighborhood issue rises to citywide significance; often the issues remain small, local, and sometimes fester.

Jim Street, the former city council member who helped push through the creation of the Department of Neighborhoods, sees the relationship between city government and the nabes as a difficult balancing act. At the mayor's summit, he offered a couple of ideas. One was that the department was not meant to be the sole avenue of connection with the neighborhoods. That connection has to be broad throughout city government. He also said the Department of Neighborhoods used to have more outreach folks who went out to teach neighborhood organizing, to help prepare neighborhoods to be their own best advocates. This is especially important with new, poor or immigrant neighborhoods. The city, in other words, must be proactive in cultivating citizens to make the system work.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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