The big news in the Seattle area yesterday was the arson of a group of suburban houses, apparently by the Earth Liberation Front. This is not the first time ELF has gone and done something stupid (their torching of the Urban Horticulture Center a few years back still baffles and angers me), but this time it really stings. For all their zealotry, ELF was apparently protesting the unchecked sprawl that has gobbled up most of the rural landscape of the Puget Sound lowlands, which is a matter of genuine concern. By resorting to criminality and terrorism, though, they have done more harm than good, marginalizing those of us who think that sprawl is just one symptom of a much bigger problem that needs to be addressed. This is a topic I've been mulling over quite a lot since I was up in Seattle over Christmas, and this seemed a good opportunity to put it into writing, awkward as the segue may be.
I should preface everything by saying that, though I currently live in Oregon, I was born and raised in Seattle, and there is a lot I really love about the city. First off, it has one of the most fortunate geographic settings in the world, on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with sunrises over the Cascades' most spectacular peaks and sunsets that silhouette the Olympics. It also has a much richer cultural heritage than it gives itself credit for, especially in regards to music (which goes back a lot further than the grunge bands of the '90s). It has an enormous Vietnamese population, salmon runs through the Ballard Locks, a beautiful baseball stadium, a series of Olmsted parks that rival New York's for scenery, and is - for some inexplicable reason - the best place in the country to get a hamburger. It's a city built on boats, both those of Scandinavian fishermen and of the so-called "Mosquito Fleet" that kept the city in business after its upstart neighbor Tacoma was named the rail terminus for the region. Seattle succeeded against all odds, cementing its role on the national stage during the Klondike gold rush and on the world stage during the dot-com revolution. It has, however, become a victim of its own success after a quarter-century of unchecked growth. The most obvious - and ugliest - change has been in the suburbs. Farms have been plowed under, forests have been leveled, and once-rural towns have become soulless bedroom communities for the big city. This is the trend that was apparently being "protested" by ELF in the most ineffectual and destructive way possible, but things have been changing for the worse in Seattle itself as well.
An article that I read in the Seattle P-I over Christmas is what really got me thinking about all this in the first place. The story was about a jury from the American Institute of Architects giving the city a failing grade on its new architecture. The main argument of the author was that Seattle's greatest failing was its lack of vision. A sudden influx of money led to myriad new construction projects that were not necessarily ugly or useless, but that lacked any distinctly local style, leading to what the author referred to as "a watery Dallas." Ouch. This may sound trivial, but a lack of foresight or desire to retain the city's original character has cropped up many times over the past few decades. Voters have several times rejected measures to fund transportation that the city now desperately needs (the new South Lake Union Streetcar is a nice idea, but
the route is almost comically short and no more effective than a bus line), as well as an initiative to create what would have been one of the world's great urban parks in a former warehouse district. Several urban neighborhoods are thriving, which is nice, but almost everything that made those neighborhoods interesting to begin with has disappeared. I am thinking in particular of Ballard, which almost overnight went from a Scandinavian community to a hipster enclave; it's still a perfectly nice place, but with barely a hint of Nordic heritage.
All this may seem ludicrously petty to someone who didn't grow up in Seattle. The region's economy was in the tank during the '70s, only to be rescued by Microsoft and the high-tech industry of the '90s and it may seem as though I have a lot of gall to complain about the city's near-miraculous turnaround just because it made things change from the way they used to be. That, however, is not the point I'm trying to make. Cities should try to grow their economies, of course, and development in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is the change that is necessarily attendant on that development. However, I know the reason I loved growing up in Seattle was that it was not just a nice place to live, but it was genuinely unique. I also know I'm not alone in this, and that one of the major reasons the city's economy exploded in the '90s was that people wanted to work somewhere that was not a carbon copy of so many other urban centers across the country. The irony, of course, is that so many people wanted to live somewhere different that they wound up building over many of the things that made Seattle stand apart. For years, Seattleites have put the blame on new arrivals to the city, in particular those from California. Scapegoating is easy, but I think it's time we recognized the problem lies squarely on our shoulders. The people and the government of Seattle had plenty of chances to allow development within a framework that preserved the city's heritage, but we failed to do so. We need only look to Portland, which has managed to balance economic success and local identity spectacularly well, to see how effective such a framework can be. It is my fervent hope that someday Seattle will follow the lead of its southern neighbor and finally make itself a city worthy of its setting and of its own history. The miles of suburbs aren't going anywhere, and places like Ballard and Fremont will likely never return to the way they were, but there's still a lot of Seattle worth saving.