The Memes That Maim: Seattle at the Crossroads

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Bernie Sanders meme (Image: Twitter)

Many years ago, as Seattle faced another Boeing downturn and the usual soul-searching, an economist from MIT named David Birch came up with a novel theory that still haunts and misleads us. What created Seattle booms, Birch advised, was Seattle busts. Busts are when creative folks, out of a job but not wanting to move away, retreat to their garages and with their buddies cook up all sorts of risky new companies. Count seven years from the start of the bust and most fail but some of these companies take off. Boom — Auto-Boom!

The theory reminds me of Ivar Haglund’s famous song, “Acres of Clams.” Just wait out the hard times, scoop up supper from the beaches, and prosperity will come sailing back into town like the famous “Ton of Gold” ship from the Klondike (logging, Alaska, wartime industry, Boeing, tech). 

It’s bad and adolescent advice, a meme that maims. It advises us to just wait out the downturn and expect an upturn to the same old prosperity, company-town, other-peoples-money formula. Better, more rational advice would be to retool, rethink, adjust to new realities. Our boom-and-bust DNA makes us wait and dream, not stop and be realistic.

A related bad myth is the 1962 World’s Fair, which put the city on the fantasy map. We may be small but oh, my! We’re the city of the future, of the Space Age. The World’s Fair set us on the unsustainable course of having too many major-league, big-budget arts institutions (Symphony, Opera, Ballet, Museum, Theater!!) and major league sport teams and world-dominating companies. I remember Bill Gerberding, the very successful University of Washington president, who once recounted the advice that Regent Gordon Culp gave the new president at the outset: “Aim High!”

In short, Overswing! 

Well, now we are at another inflection point in our city’s history. Various two-by-fours have been smacking our heads. Boeing’s troubles. Amazon’s migration. The mortgage recession, the Great Recession, the pandemic, chronic inequity, the City Nobody Can Afford, political fantasies, and mayors who cannot govern. 

A pragmatist would say it’s time to regroup and retrench, not just resume and not to take refuge in denial. Face it: Seattle is a mid-sized city that ought to scale its dreams to its budgets. We can congratulate ourselves for passing an eye-popping $53.8 billion Sound Transit 3 bond measure in 2016. Instead, what about debating whether the Ballard/Downtown/West Seattle rail transit with new downtown tunnel is a neighborhood wrecker and beyond our means to afford? Any recognition that hub-and-spoke transit mostly works when lots of commuters are heading downtown? Hello?? 

Seattle, particularly at these moments of soul-searching, has normally opted to “aim high” rather than “think hard.” But why be major league when you can be distinctive, right-sized, generative (not imitative), regional, and sustainable? Our model cities should not be outsize ones such as New York, but good-sized ones such as Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Boston. We need to find the right league to play in.

Speaking of leagues, a test case is the decision about Husky Football, where the current temptation is to follow Los Angeles and the Fox Sports Channel by going big. But look what we would be kicking aside, all that Pac-8 tradition. As Rick Reilly writes in The Washington Post:

“College football is slaying its history. It’s selling all its tradition and fans and rivalries down the river on an out-of-control steamboat with a drunk donkey at the wheel. The lunacy really kicked in on June 30 when USC and UCLA bolted the Pac-12 conference for the Big Ten (which now will have 16 teams, if that makes any sense).”

Going big is over-rated. The joker in that deck of gambling cards is going generic and being controled by distant masters. Wake up, Seattle! Embrace your middling, independent self!

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Planning to be a right size city, is like planning to be rich. Are we talking about what drawing up lists of what we’d like to buy, or do we know some way to make it happen?

    How do we keep growth down to manageable limits?

    Without a plan to do that, how do you convince people that it’s responsible to cancel the big infrastructure, when we might soon suffer another bout of unsustainable growth?

    • This is not some complicated message — most of the public grasps it already. Planning for the right kinds of growth is what is needed, not building inappropriate mass transit infrastructure at the cost of decades of heavy regressive tax impositions. Constantine simply should announce employment trends mean Sound Transit’s rail line extension proposal no longer is justified. The ST3 ridership projections are not realistic, so the tax costs would be excessive.

  2. Hear, hear. The grandiose Sound Transit train line extensions are for armies of future commuters who will not materialize. The civic leaders now should be planning for a realistic and right-sized future, one featuring a large population working most days from their residences.

  3. I’m with Gordie: “Aim high” But a caveat: “No ready aim fire.”
    As concerns infrastructure, Seattle like Portland needs to plan not for today but for 50 years from now. And a tax structure that will make all of us, including our children, pay for it.
    Planners these days are pushing “the 15 minute neighborhood.” Next year it will be something else.
    Probabilities are we will increasingly rely on what you describe as the techno-whizzes going to their garages and inventing new stuff, and the 2 car family will include an electric one.
    I can’t comment on West Seattle- Ballard project, but can analogies to an energy project I do know about : The NW- SW Intertie and Canadian Treaty. They were ridiculed as unnecessary. Arguments were that California could use gas for its air conditioning and no one would buy the Canadian power that became available.
    Against planners thinking, “we aimed high” and Gordy Culp was a key player in making this happen.

    Today we send surplus hydro power to California, and they don’t run the gas plants. In the winter we get it back for heating. Winner: Everyone and less global warming.
    This was a regional effort and while the Seattle World’s Fair was a local example, good things can happen when you swing

    • Your analogy does not fit. Excess hydropower can be sold to California. Excess mass transit capacity to and from this region’s office districts only is waste.

  4. David, if our comparable cities are Boston, Copenhagen, and Melbourne, then we’re exactly on the right track with our planned infrastructure if not in need of playing catch up. A quick back of the envelope calculation shows that those cities all have a ballet, opera, and symphony; heavy or light rail mass transit systems that dwarf Seattle’s; and art museums that match or exceed our own (with Melbourne home to a national gallery). Copenhagen is a national capital so it has cultural institutions beyond what any non-capital mid-sized city would likely have — I would love for Seattle Design Week to become anything as ambitious as 3daysofdesign in Copenhagen, or for us to be home to an internationally renown architecture and urban design firm like Gehl. (Olson/Kundig is great but not nearly as influential.) On the sports front, Boston has all five major sports; Melbourne is home to the Australian Open.

    Aiming at the New York level means two international airports plus a domestic one; two of every major sport; truly world-class, agenda-setting cultural institutions like MoMA, Whitney, Met, Lincoln Center; having a major diplomatic presence (United Nations); and being a major media capital to boot.

    Seattle is not aiming to be New York; it’s playing catch up with Boston, Copenhagen, and Melbourne. In short, to follow your prescription is to stay the course.

    • Ah, Seattle is never going to be Boston, Melbourne or Copenhagen no matter how hard it tries to catch up.

      If want people to blame, start Seattle’s dysfunctional government. Seattle should have the very best public education system in the USA, thanks to Bill Gates. Mr. Gates was ready to build a dozen well funded charter schools to help lower income families get the education rich Seattle families get from private schools. But the pols and teachers union didn’t like Bill’s ideas, so he took the money elsewhere. What other tech billionaire has spent $$$$$ to give the City anything? (except higher home prices 🙂 ). Why don’t our Captains of Industry want to spend on libraries, museums, parks…. anything for the public good? Because most Seattle folks are small minded, a know-it-all critics. Seattle is, and was, small time regional city at heart.

  5. This all sounds like geezer-talk. I recognize it because I am one. Through my life I listened to older people complain about different sets of problems. They were almost always wrong. Meanwhile, younger people just went ahead and did what seemed right for them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. We live with it.

    Not sure about Melbourne, Copenhagen, (forgot the third one). I like Trieste, Tucson, Rome, Honolulu all for different reasons. They all have their own problems. I like Seattle too, except for all the bike lanes and bus lanes.

  6. I think light rail is already a disaster— after all the years it has been up and running elevators still don’t work and there is no sign of public safety improving. Why it is on track to continue expansion I do not understand. Is there any way it can be stopped?

  7. Why do we need another downtown tunnel? Riders would rather see more frequent service in the existing tunnel.
    Why do we build a light rail up the West Seattle Junction for 3-4 billion dollars when an aerial gondola could accomplish the same sooner, cheaper and with far less disruption as westseattleskylink.org shows.

  8. If the Ballard line is built rather than a bus downtown I would get on a shuttle to take me one mile North to allow me to wait for a train. Of course the buses North of Ballard will be also directed to the train so it will arrive full so at rush hour stand. Worst service for 13 billion.

  9. Well done, David. You’re so right on the ST3 taxes issue. These kinds of decisions are are driving us toward a larger affordability tipping point. Housing is one thing, but water, sewer, and garbage rates are quietly (so far) way out of line compared to comparable cities of our size.

  10. Somewhat off-topic (unrelated to long-term planning but still germane in regard to making Seattle “better”) — it is SUCH A PLEASANT DRIVE from the airport to downtown! Just cleaning-up the garbage and sweeping along the I-5 shoulders (and NB 509… especially) along with covering up the nonsensical/ugly graffiti on the retaining walls and bridge substructures… that would be a good start. And… stay on top of it. It is inexcusable (WSDOT).

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