When I moved to Seattle in 1990, I felt as though I’d come home. From excellent examples of progressive local governance to the burgeoning high-tech economy, I felt that this was where America’s real future had to lie. Great, well-funded public transit; an urban culture that encouraged abandonment of automobile-based transportation, a political culture that was commited to transparency and public input. Everything I ever wanted in a regional government. Best of all, failing sports teams which would surely relocate within the decade, leaving me alone with my fellow bookish rock nerds to play with our computers, walk to work while reading, and practice open democracy free of the warping effect of corporate politics.

When the day before the Gulf War began, people filled the streets of Seattle in protest, I knew I was home, and that whatever happened to the rest of my hopeless native country, the region would remain an island of sanity and a beacon of hope for late industrial democracy.

I was one-hundred percent wrong, and I must say, it pisses me off.

ITEM: Seattle libraries will close doors for a week to save money – including the library system’s web site. See the library’s press release. This despite Seattle being the home of Amazon and reputedly the urban area of the United States with the highest per-capita consumption of books (a totem of local boosters which I was unable to document on the web).

ITEM: not one, but TWO publicly funded sports stadiums built after Seattle city residents vote repeatedly against said monuments to the betrayal of the democratic process. After construction, stadium tenants sucessfully hijack an innovative1% for art” tax on tourist-related activities (hotel, restaurants).

ITEM: Seattle traffic reported to be second worst in the nation, due to the inability of area political institutions to defuse the predictable effects of sprawl on the automotive population of the region. One consequence of the failure: Boeing’s decision to abandon the region, which will eventually move production away from Puget Sound, specifically because of traffic. Note to regional politicos: Sports team migration good, heavy industry migration bad. Why, I personally know a huge Mariners fan in New Jersey, which currently is shamefully bereft of pro baseball!

ITEM: A mature, well-thought out plan for regional light rail confirmed for construction by voters as early as 1996 becomes a monumentally expensive boondoggle, replete with bookeeping problems, closed governance practices, enormous cost overruns, and a complete lack of accountability – all without having laid one mile of track by 2002.

ITEM: a grass-roots effort to address two of these problems – transit and traffic – which also encapsulates the quirky, idealist vision of the future which drew many to Seattle in the 1990’s, an urban monorail project, is fought tooth and nail by members of the local political class. Despite the monorail having been overwhelmingly approved at the ballot box no less than three times thus far, there is another public vote upcoming, and news comes this week of the emergence of both a formal opposition group, led by the truly nasty Henry Aaronson, a Mr. Burns clone if ever there was one, and of the long-simmering rivalry between the monorail and light rail groups.

ITEM: Seattle suffers a riot at Mardi Gras in which one person is killed. The media presents coverage that clearly presents a message of profound racial division through video and photography only, while verbally scrupulously avoiding any mention of race. No serious discussion of the riot as an expression of racial tension in the region took root in the region’s media, despite notable attempts to initiate the discussion. Indeed, only one media organ, The Stranger, even had the courage to call bullshit on the use of racially charged imagery in the coverage, but even this paper avoids seriously looking at racial tension in the city.

ITEM: in the decade of the 1990’s, the price of a first-time home buyer’s purchase is documented to grow by 57 to 78 percent while at the same time the median home sales price moved from $97k to $197k, according to county data, effectively guaranteeing that a household with an aggregate income of less than $85k cannot own property in the city.

Add it up: ineffective political leadership. Loss of foundational industry. Inflationary housing prices. Loss of citizen faith in the political process. No solution to problems of growth and development.

This place, still beautiful, is clearly on its’ way to abject, Detroit style civic collapse. Traffic is the single most important problem to solve, and unfortunately, no solutions appear. Geography alone guarantees that we can’t add freeways, and as demonstrated by LA, more freeways only bring more cars; and it’s clearly the car which is the root of our problem. It’s not possible to pry Americans out of their beloved rolling castles; my conclusion is that there is no solution to Seattle’s problems.

2 thoughts on “Seattle's shameful failures of governance

  1. What, no mention of WTO? I got gassed while taking a break from work (too close to the protesters in the “no-protest zone”) and watched police beat down an old lady and smash up endless shop windows with their gas canisters.

    Rioters indeed.

  2. WTO was a pain in the ass (literally, I’ll show you my blood-spattered pants) but I have to say I don’t really feel like there was anything that could be done.

    Although I did see the cops actively target an elected public offcial with a flash-bang grenade. It’s like what happened at WTO means something completely separate to me than the rest of this stuff; it had a much more profund personal effect, and I think the only way things wouldn’t have gotten crazy in Seattle at that time is if the conference had been elsewhere.

    Additionally, I feel pride in the events I was lucky enough to see and experiences I was able to have.

    Not the actions of Mayor Schell, surely – free speech “zone” my tattered and bloody ass – but the response of, among other things, my neighborhood. I guess since there were positive things in my personal view of the week I’m less angry about it than these other things, even though, realistically it sure counts as a great example of ineffective city and regional governance.

    Hm, this is worth reflecting on. Even though the monorail stands every chance of actually passing and getting built – surely a better chance, at this point, than the light rail plan – I get red-in-the-face about the ongoing, pointless and cruel efforts to stop it.

    I think it comes down to this: WTO successfully communicated both an alternative political vision and the crisis in democracy in Seattle, the United States, and the Pax Americana. From that perspective, whatever the idiotic and ineffectual local political response to the events at the time and following, I view it as a positive thing which I was privelieged to witness and in some small way contribute to. So I’m not mad enough about it to add it t the list above.

    Thanks for asking.

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