Editor's Note: Seattle progressives seem to think we've got it all figured out. We gloat about the superiority of biking, both for our health and the planet. We advocate for density, save money by cohabitating, prefer to buy our produce from farmer's market stalls rather than supermarket aisles and lust after urban farmsteads to call our own. There's just one problem with our save-the-world-superiority complex. We're not so novel. In fact, when it comes to Seattle history, we're centuries behind.
It turns out that, at the turn of the 20th century, Seattle was home to a state of the art bike highway system and a two-wheeled police force; that an arts commune spawned modern-day Bellevue and an Italian godfather invented P-Patches in Seattle's Wedgewood neighborhood; that Mike McGinn was far from the first 'bike mayor'.
These aren't things I would have known before editing 'Roots of Tomorrow', Knute Berger's series about early Seattle urbanism for Crosscut last fall, but they are an important part of who we are as a region. They are both inspiration and cautionary tale for current-day Seattle area progressives. That's why we've expanded the series with new urbanism tales, added a foreword by former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels and turned it into a new eBook we're launching today.
Thanks to support from 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund, Roots of Tomorrow, Tales of Early Seattle Urbanism, by Knute Berger is now available on Amazon's Kindle store. Download it here, and, while you're at it, check out Crosscut's other new eBook, Kids At Risk, Stories from Foster Care. Both books are on sale for just 99 cents until next Wednesday.
And now, over to Nickels.
— Berit Anderson, Crosscut Managing Editor
I have a confession to make. I am an amateur historian. (Some would say a revisionist by nature.) Whether it is my own family’s history, that of Seattle (and its mayors) or larger, more encompassing narratives, history helps me sort out why things are the way they are and how to create positive change where needed.
Bill Boeing came to Seattle for the timber, but became obsessed with flight. Soon he began building aero planes, which led to the 707, which led to the Jet Age, which shrunk our globe.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen grew up in Seattle, became intrigued with computers, decided to develop software, which led to the information age, which shrunk our globe.
And, most ingenious of all, the good folks at Starbucks figured out how to charge $4 for a cup of coffee, and now have people standing in line not just for the beverage but for the communal experience it represents, shrinking our globe yet again.
The history of Seattle is a model of creative, innovative entrepreneurship. It helps explain why Seattle is such a center for companies that are breaking virgin ground in existing industries, or creating whole new industries that never before existed. It explains why the most important asset we have is the presence of America’s top public research university in the heart of the city.
Before serving as Seattle’s mayor, I spent (or misspent) 14 years as a member of the King County Council. We wrestled with the concept of growth management, even before it was unpopular. We downzoned thousands of acres in the rural parts of King County to stop the mad rush of suburban subdivision to the Cascade Mountains.
During my tenure as mayor, I had the opportunity to hear hundreds (perhaps thousands) of stories about the city, its people and its heritage. It renewed my belief that this is a special place. It also reinforced something I had begun to suspect while on the county council.
Like many western cities, we hate sprawl and despise density. This is called a dichotomy. You can’t have it both ways.
When city planners came to me wanting to pursue something from my predecessor’s playbook — the Height and Density Project — I politely threw them out of my office. I knew, from my history, what would happen if the project were launched with that branding. The city’s answer would have been a not so polite, “No, thank you.”
Instead we had a conversation — a two-year-long conversation — about what kind of place Seattle should be. Five hundred people came indoors on a beautiful spring night to listen to a talk at the UW by a Danish parliamentarian on smart growth. On a Friday night! Others followed.
What we heard wasn’t too surprising: People wanted a vibrant, dynamic 24-hour-a-day city with a great diversity of opportunities, activities and people. With that established, it became possible to talk about density as one tool to achieve that vision.
Here’s another example. As a young staff person for Seattle Councilmember Norm Rice, a friend and I co-authored a proposal to expand affordable housing by allowing property owners in areas zoned for single-family homes to build and rent mother-in-law apartments. We called it Add-a-Rental.
It made sense, but it died an ugly death — ironically largely at the hands of the very community council Norm had led before his recent election to the City Council.
So, years later when I became mayor and city planners came to me with a proposal for Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs for short), I politely informed them I never wanted to hear that acronym again.
Instead I talked to my constituents about building backyard cottages, which are now allowed in every single-family neighborhood in Seattle. Knowing your history is an important step on the road to positive change.
Knute Berger is, unlike me, a professional historian and writer. In Roots of Tomorrow he examines our city’s creative spirit in making this place we call Seattle. He is telling us the stories (and the stories behind the stories) about people and events that capture our imagination and answering some of the questions you never knew to ask. So sit back and make sure your glass is full. History is about to unfold!