Seattle: Better or Worse?
By Jean Godden
The naysayers are whining again. They say that Seattle is losing its soul. They believe that, as Seattle has grown in population, developed an impressive skyline and become a storied destination, it somehow lost its essence.
Don't believe those ill-tempered trolls.
The Seattle that I know has always been another word for change. The city has a dynamic, not a static, existence. Seattle has two characters: Its physical dimensions and its spiritual essence. While its dimensions have changed radically, the city's character has remained essentially the same.
There is still a Seattle spirit. Civic enthusiasm has been a hallmark ever since Chief Seattle welcomed newcomers, inviting them to settle here. Nevermind that, along with his friend Doc Maynard, the chief was also trying to sell them his brand of smoked salmon. Seattle has always had a strong entrepreneurial streak.
The history of the city -- brief by comparison with East Coast metros like Boston and New York -- tells that story, over and over again. Some people call it "The Seattle Spirit" and it works as a companion to the "soul" that some grumps think Seattle is losing.
Right from the beginning, the site where Chief Seattle wanted settlers to homestead was not ideal. Downtown hills were then so steep that Seattle Symphony musicians would arrive winded when forced to climb three blocks from the warehouse where they stored their instruments. Rather than arrive out of breath, they devised a pulley system to ferry instruments uphill. Newcomers often were startled to see a tuba or a cello zip past them on the street.
As the late historian Murray Morgan tells us, the rest of the residents couldn't rely on pulleys, so they regraded the city, taking the tops off the hills and washing away as much dirt as was moved digging the Panama Canal. That made it possible for a modern city to rise on the half-drowned acreage between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. That is the Seattle spirit. There are dozens of examples of Seattle spunk, including the determination of a bunch of businessmen who, when Seattle got stiffed as a railroad terminus (Tacoma won that competition in 1873), they set out to build their own spur to the coal mines of Newcastle. Then there was an early day volunteer effort to dig a ship canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound.
Seattle spirit is still with us, even though some of our iconic brick and mortar institutions have sadly not survived the arrival of 57 newcomers every day. In recent times, we have said farewell to Shorey's Bookstore, the Shanty restaurant, Chubby and Tubby's hardware store and to print editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Yet we retain many of the elements that speak of Seattle spirit: Pioneer Square, the International District, Pike Place Public Market, five historic theaters, the Pacific Science Center's arches and the Blue Moon Tavern.
Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who modestly accuses himself of being a curmudgeon, writes about the threatened loss of Seattle's soul. To fill his column, he requests others to weigh in. It's an old ploy that, as a former columnist myself, I sometimes used on summer weekends.
But be assured, Seattle is better than it was, better even while we're missing a few icons. Who would trade the South Lake Union Park for those old industrial laundries? Or exchange fleet-footed runners jogging the Burke-Gilman Trail for once snoring Ballard drivers?
It's true traffic isn't as smooth as it once was and prices have climbed high, but this city remains vital, ever changing. Seattle preserves its crazy go-for-broke spirit. Let's face it, most American cities would sell their souls for what the Seattle spirit takes for granted.