Why Bellingham looks better than Seattle

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Bellingham Bay

It will be so long to Seattle but not goodbye as I leave my place overlooking Elliott Bay for one overlooking Bellingham Bay in the city where I was born and raised. It will be good to truly come home.

I will miss much of daily life in Seattle but it is not the city I knew in earlier years.  Seattle now has skyscrapers, epic traffic and construction disruptions, and other characteristics of growing big cities. The traffic jams are now as bad as those I encountered while living in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Los Angeles, in part because state, county and city governments chose to undertake simultaneously several major transportation projects, which will continue to paralyze and frustrate us over the next several years.

Seattle also has a far richer mix of high and low culture, the arts, restaurant and street life than it did when I first came down-Sound from Bellingham as a University of Washington freshman — or as recently as the turn of this century.  But Seattle’s historic populism, civic energy and sense of justice have diminished.

Seattle once was a city of working and middle-income families, possessed of a feisty civic politics that looked out, in particular, for those at the bottom and striving to rise. Now, as in much of America but more so, it is a city of rich and poor. It has become too expensive, and its taxes too high, for the people who once constituted its core.

Seattle prides itself on its liberalism but, in truth, its liberalism has little to do with what that word once meant. It mainly applies to cultural and lifestyle issues: marijuana legalization, removal of auto lanes and parking spaces in favor of bicycle lanes, for instance. The big financial and economic issues — the ones that used to matter most — are now dominated by downtown developers and investors, and ratified by largely supine mayors and city councils. The big players get what they want. Ordinary citizens pay taxes to provide it to them.

Public revenues do not flow to the everyday needs of those lacking employment, affordable housing and cost-efficient public transportation. Local media give little coverage to community groups demanding action on the latter issues except, for instance, to the $15 minimum-wage movement, where proponents have made sufficient noise to be heard.

Big players have always, everywhere gotten a bigger share of public-policy attention than ordinary folk. Our 1962 Seattle World's Fair would not have happened, for example, had not a handful of civic and business leaders decided to arbitrarily clear a Lower Queen Anne neighborhood to make way for the Seattle Center. That action, however, was not tied to the narrow economic self-interests of the leaders. It was based on an almost innocent, boosterish desire "to put Seattle on the map" at the outset of what was seen as a new Space Age.

This fall's district elections for Seattle City Council should help restore civic power to neighborhoods and people whose well-being has not been served. But even freshly elected district council members will need to fight avidly to assure that rubber-stamp, go-along, get-along decision-making comes to an end at City Hall.

The best recent example of such complacent decision-making was the action to destroy Yesler Terrace, significant both locally and nationally, in favor of yet another high-rise commercial project. We saved the Pike Place Public Market, also significant, and are now upgrading it in part because of its appeal as a tourist destination and revenue-generator. But they don't throw salmon or take selfies at Yesler Terrace, where generations of poor Seattle families tended their property and yards, sent their kids to public schools, and the city showed where its heart and priorities lay. It drew few tourists, except architects and social scientists who knew its importance.

Now it is done and its residents have been given promises of equivalent housing to be provided to them somewhere down the line — way down the line, you can be sure, if ever.

The expensive South Lake Union transportation project, which has increased rather than reduced traffic congestion, was undertaken to conform to a private developer's plans in the neighborhood. The Westlake trolley, usually running nearly empty, serves the same purpose. Sound Transit light rail channels billions to firms with a piece of the construction and operating action but it is hugely cost-ineffective as compared to expansion of existing bus service — which would carry far more people to far more places for far less money and do it now rather than years from now. Streetcars are an equal waste of taxpayer money that would be more efficiently invested in bus service.

Strong long-term economic growth will not be built with tax breaks and public spending to benefit a few politically influential economic players. Rather, it is built on a fair business tax structure, which gives all economic players the same low rates; on a progressive tax structure for consumers and ordinary citizens; on an educated and skilled workforce; and on cost-effective investments in needed infrastructure, transportation, schools, housing and environmental stewardship.

Nor should we be paying for successive special tax levies for transportation, parks and other city functions. We got to this place with levies because earlier city administrations misspent their budget money, found themselves with shortfalls and decided that voters were sufficiently gullible or distracted to keep approving taxes for seemingly useful purposes without looking closely at why the new levies were needed. Over time, this will lead to a general tax rebellion in a city already burdened with a tax system that is among the most regressive in the country.

We need mayors and council members who recognize that their first responsibility is to ordinary citizens lacking big political money and juice. Then Seattle would be more like Seattle.

After all the grouching, it must be said that Seattle retains the potential to become a truly world-class city. Its natural setting is wonderful. Our climate is invigorating. People want to live here. Racial, gender and ethnic equity are far healthier than in most places. We have fine higher-education institutions. If its regents can finally hire the right president, after three successive mistakes, the University of Washington can truly establish itself in the top 10 public universities nationally. Old media, as everywhere, are short-staffed, withering and able to cover only a small percentage of important issues and events in the community. But alternative media are still in their infancy and, down the road, may provide us with the information we need to make wiser decisions.

I am not among those who decry the advent of high rises and high density in the city. High density in some places can leave room for lower density in others. The Seattle of distinctive neighborhoods and single-family homes and backyards need not disappear. We do need to be sure, though, that density and development take place where they should and that they do not destroy our neighborhoods.

Bellingham, of course, is no longer the blue-collar, smokestack town it was in my childhood and growing-up years. The smokestacks are gone and the city is trying to clean up decades-long environmental damage to its harbor. From my front window overlooking Bellingham Bay, I will see the now-empty site of the huge sawmill that once was the city's largest employer and where my father worked as an unskilled laborer for many years. He and others went on strike for three years to unionize the mill.

The old downtown lost its commercial core several decades back to suburban shopping centers and big-box stores. But it is coming back.  A distinguished Carnegie Library was demolished a half-century ago in favor of a characterless institutional building which, in turn, is awaiting its own demolition — to be replaced, one hopes, with something better.

The Fairhaven district, an abandoned wasteland when I was growing up, is now an attractive, restored community with restaurants, shops and new housing. The city's liberalism goes beyond lifestyle. It still takes special care for homeless, jobless, and other leftout citizens. Western Washington University, a community college and a technical college have added many thousands of faculty, staff and students to the local population. Many are politically engaged.

Bellingham’s housing costs and taxes are higher than they once were but nowhere near the inflated levels of Seattle's. Traffic moves. There is an excellent local bus system. The city's population has trebled since I headed out to the world in the mid-1950s. But its essential character is still there.

I see the old Bellingham, still, in its current battles against coal and oil trains passing through the city and against the projected coal-export terminal north of town. People care and have made themselves heard on this issue, which goes to the quality of life and environmental integrity of the region. I look forward to joining that battle personally.

Hollywood films often tell Coming Home stories. Some turn out bittersweet or end sadly. There will be no such ending for me in my old hometown.  My memories are all good. I intend to pickup where I left off. Many old friends are departed but the city remains its good-hearted self. It will feel good to again be a part of it — and to regularly revisit Seattle for diversion at off-peak traffic hours.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.