A fellow Stranger refugee stopped me on the street the other evening. He said he still enjoyed my writing, my vocabulary, and my sense of style.
But he also said he thought I’d limited my vision by holding to a rose-colored nostalgia for “the old Seattle,” a viewpoint that’s ill-suited toward effectively discussing today’s city of high tech and hipsters.
I beg, as I do so darned often, to differ.
You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.
The mindset that created the Century 21 Exposition, f’rinstance, is with us still. The magnificent Space Needle was built with private money on land essentially donated by the city. The publicly-funded exhibit buildings were either cheap “multipurpose” constructions (just like most local government buildings between then and the late ’90s) or repurposed older structures that weren’t that distinguished to begin with.
The old Seattle had its progressive, even radical ideas, alongside plain old fashioned racism/sexism. Some of its citizens held both types of beliefs at once. (I’m thinking of labor organizers who appealed to anti-Chinese hysteria among their flocks, and of “New Left” rabblerousers who defined “women’s liberation” as the right to give blow jobs.)
Today, Seattle loves diversity. Or rather, it loves the idea that it loves diversity; just so long as its white female children don’t have to go to the same schools as black male children.
The old Seattle had civic leaders who tirelessly struggled to have their burg seen as “world class,” but always by someone else’s standards. (Hence the ’60s campaigns to bulldoze the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and large swaths of the Arboretum for parking lots, office towers, and highway lanes respectively.)
In more recent years, Seattle had civic leaders who saw every problem as solvable by a construction project. That’s why we can build new libraries and arts facilities, but can’t afford to run them.
The old Seattle’s governmental gears could grind very slowly; just as they can now. It took the “foodie” restaurant revolution of the ’70s before the city legalized sidewalk cafes. Now, we need, but are less likely to get, a similar outspoken demand before the city will allow new strip clubs.
If I may switch metaphors for a moment: Leonard Maltin’s book Of Mice and Magic, an invaluable history of the early animation business, refers at one point to the Warner Bros. cartoon studio’s desire in the thirties to “keep up with Disney, and plagiarize him at the same time.” Seattle’s assorted drives over the years to become “world class,” by imitating all the things all the other would-be “world class” burgs do, have often been just as self-defeating.
Warners conquered the cartoon world when its directors and artists stopped aping Disney and started to create their own brand of humor. LIkewise, Seattle will come into its own as it develops its own ways of doing city things.
We don’t have to have a cars-only transportation plan, or sprawling McMansions devouring the countryside. We don’t have to give in to corporate job-blackmail shakedowns. We can lead, not follow.
That’s not the “old Seattle,” but it’d be a better Seattle.