Seattle Has Citizens, Not Just Residents

At the 2006 Folklife Festival, my first cultural event after I moved here on May 23, someone asked me to sign a petition. I don’t remember what it was about but I remember declining to sign it.

The next week I visited the curiously dense Northgate North complex which included a Best Buy, a G.I. Joe’s Sporting Goods, a Ross Dress for Less, and a Target stacked one atop the other. At the entrance to the Target, high atop this big-box parfait, was a small folding table and two more signature gatherers. They wanted me to sign something about education reform. I said no thanks.

Long before I received my 100-plus-page voter’s guide for the November 2006 elections, I knew that Seattle was a place where citizens, not just residents, cared about a great many things. I’m familiar with the signs and sounds of student activism after a decade of living near a college and two universities, but Seattle has thousands of residents who kept that idealistic spirit alive long after graduation.

A lot of the thinking around here is global. Although I’m not sure the Knesset knows what to do about them, I’ve seen plenty of anti-Israel, pro-Palestine protests downtown. (Also, as an ex-New Yorker, I’m amused by the lone counterprotester at these events holding an Israeli flag.) When Occupy Wall Street went viral in 2011, a group of confused activists occupied not Seattle’s Wall Street, but Westlake Park and later the grounds of Seattle Central Community College. The main result of Occupy Seattle was a huge boost in revenue for a local hot dog vendor. Prior to Super Bowl XLVIII, the most jubilant mood I’d seen in Seattle had been when Obama was elected, and later reelected, to the Presidency.

Beyond our national and global posturing, Seattleites rally around causes of local import as well. The 2012 happy riots in Capitol Hill Seattle celebrated not just Obama but also our state’s approval of a gay marriage referendum. Kshama Sawant, my recently-reelected city councilwoman, claims much of the credit for Seattle’s very high minimum wage, presently $12–13 an hour, rising to $15 in the next couple of years. Not only do Seattleites recycle, we compost: putting food waste in the garbage has been illegal for over a year.

The city’s loves of politics and passive-aggression have yielded a baby known as the Seattle Process which leads some ideas to die a slow or frustrating death. At a well-attended presentation proposing a lid park atop Interstate 5, the presenter noted Seattle’s rejection of the Seattle Commons in 1995. The Commons would have transformed much of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood into a Champ de Mars-style park flanked by modern office, residential, and shopping buildings. The Stranger, the city’s influential alt-weekly newspaper, opposed the Commons “on the grounds that it would have turned over too much control of the neighborhood to wealthy developers.” A decade later, without any new parks, the neighborhood was gentrified anyway; it now houses and hundreds of its upper-middle-class employees. Growth is coming whether we want it or not, answered the presenter to a question about future gentrification. Citizens can demand benefits for everyone, such as parks, but they’re not going to stop people from moving in.

As much as I dread the 2016 general election, it gives me great pride to attend a local open house about mass transit or read about plans to improve housing affordability. Seattle is a city that cares deeply about its own future. Considering that the city has been beholden to one huge company or another for over a century, I appreciate that the citizens here of all ages and backgrounds boldly speak up for themselves.

This is part 1 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.