Pacific Northwest | August 10, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 10, home
Home delivery
Search archive
Contact us

Changing Visions | Part 7

Memo To Assignment Editoress:

Dear Boss,

Like Diogenes who carried a lamp in daylight to look for an honest man, I'm out here looking for leaders as you requested.
The Best Of Your Bright Ideas
ThumbnailThree winners take honors in our "If I Ran This Place" contest
I think I need a bigger lamp.

You'll remember our series of stories called "Changing Visions," which explores how Seattle & Company is either changing too much or not enough, and generally seems in a muddle. Lots of smart readers wrote in response, some suggesting I was the one who was muddled, and others mourning our region's lack of vision. Some said we're missing "the leaders to sell that vision to others and then bring the vision to fruition," in the words of Don Johnson of Kirkland.

Missing leaders? Doesn't everyone want to be in charge these days?
Our correspondents weren't talking about the need for more managers, your editoress. Our Dilbert world is awash with administrators, all of them furiously busy chairing committees, reorganizing teams into pods and pods into teams, and amending policy memos. Their job is the necessary one of sustaining the status quo, and "the vision thing" gets any sensible manager upset. It means more work.

Similarly, our readers weren't talking about the career politicians who craft compromises, assemble pluralities, pass budgets and stand for re-election. Vision to those folk is the kind of thing that gets an electorate all excited and disgruntled, and at its extreme took Louis XVI to the guillotine and the Romanovs to the cellar.

And our e-mailers weren't pleading for more prophets, missionaries, snake-oil salesmen, consultants, rabble-rousers, talk-show hosts, scriveners, conspiracy theorists, NIMBYs, movie stars, think-tankers, talking heads, folk singers, anarchists, philanthropic billionaires, lawyers, protesters, Monday-morning quarterbacks, analysts, second-guessers or the generally peeved. There are lots of them already.

No, they long for that rare charismatic individual who can recognize what's going on in the Pacific Northwest, visualize a better future, and articulate our hopes in so compelling and logical a way that, in retrospect, his or her ideas seem inevitable.

They want progress, growth and change defined. Growth of what? (Not traffic.) Change why? (Not tail-chasing ego.)

Here's what Susanne Croft of Spokane wrote about her (former) hometown:
Oh Seattle -

I mourn how you've grown up

Glassy-eyed stare,

Breasts bared to anyone with a buck,

Lipstick slicked and spike heels.

Where have you gone,

Graceful girl who chucked and cried with me

And sometimes sat quietly to hear God?

I miss you.

Trouble is, deciding what we truly want is just about the hardest thing there is.

After all, chief, if I'm such a wise guy, what would my vision be? The initial blurry paradise that comes to mind is sort of a cross between a tropical resort and Rivendell in that "Lord of the Rings" movie, the place with all the waterfalls, marble terraces, and no apparent need to make a living. Nary a factory or freeway in sight.

Not too practical for Pugetopia, is it?

So I mused a little more. I'm not by instinct a big-city guy: I think the entertainment a populous place can provide carries a steep cost of higher prices, traffic, noise, hostility and inequity. Ancient Athens had about 150,000 people at its peak and seemed to do OK. No baseball team, I'll admit.
So I envisioned a decentralized Puget Sound of smaller, more manageable cities of 100,000 or so, each centered on a harbor or bay and each developing a distinct character based on its product: airplanes here, software there, lumber thataway, boat-building and shipping on that inlet, biotech on this one, and so on, all linked by fiber optic and bullet train.

Businesses would be home grown, not chains, and each burg would be limited to a dimension — about 4 square miles — that you could walk across in an hour. More of a confederacy than a metropolis, and deliberately, relentlessly small league in order to, as the late columnist Emmett Watson would say, "Keep the Bastards Out."

I'd want lots of universities and artist colonies, of course, with more ferries and fewer roads. Each valley would be a haven of farmland, and each river a forested corridor linking salt water to mountains and letting species migrate from ecosystem to ecosystem. I'd let Eastern Washington become its own state, to eliminate a lot of legislative angst, and maybe get rid of counties as an anachronism, or at least rethink their size, location and function.
My Pugetopia would be clean, technological, slower-changing and more like Switzerland or New Zealand than New York or Tokyo. Pro-growthers, spectator-sport fanatics, get-rich-now entrepreneurs and the professionally victimized would flee my determined dullness like fleas from a shampooed dog. But I think other kinds of folk would like to come.

In my little Rivendell, people could elect to have more time. Parents would be paid to stay home with preschoolers. Families would get a tax credit for every hour their TV stayed off. Dads could earn overtime at work by helping with their kids' homework at home. I figure we'd save enough in social spending, by encouraging better parenting, to make all this pay for itself.

Not going to happen, is it?

So then, your editoress, I narrowed my vision and borrowed some ideas from the readers who wrote in. Here's a new transportation priority, for example: no more freeways, light rail or monorail until we've completed the dang sidewalks. Not just in Seattle, but a system of sidewalks, walking paths and biking paths in every neighborhood, everywhere, from Blue Ridge to Tukwila, and beyond. Kent! Marysville! Tumwater! All linked by path! Revolutionary transportation device: the human leg.
How about reclaiming Seattle's meager pockets of downtown parks from the street people and building more? Yep, there would be just a touch of Singaporean ruthlessness in my utopia, offering the homeless either a maintenance job and subsidized housing or a ticket out of town. Readers said we certainly could design better urban neighborhoods that include state-of-the-art soundproofing, open space, child facilities, retail that supplies basic needs, adequate room sizes, and architectural detailing so exquisite that more will choose to live there.

Another idea was to not just grudgingly allow, but actively encourage — nay, pay — employees to work at home. In one fell swoop you've lowered your overhead, solved traffic congestion and saved them the equivalent of weeks of vacation by eliminating commuting time.

Recognize that buildings do not go up in isolation but profoundly affect their neighbors and neighborhood for decades to come in their size, style, shadows, color, quality and even in the kind of trimmings they have. Make them integrate with city and region with design review and architectural competition. Create an aesthetic ethic.

Or maybe that's too picky. So here's not a vision but another ethic, an ethic from which all visions could spring. D.C. is always going to be a political center, New York a financial center, Los Angeles an entertainment center. The ethic of my Pugetopia would be as an eco-center of sustainable technology, the continual reinvention of our civilization to keep it in harmony with its environment: a place inspired by the civilization of our original aboriginal inhabitants, the Salish tribes. The primary purpose of this ecotopia would not be to save the birds and the bunnies, or to improve human health. It would be to save the American soul. Western Washington would be the place in America where the natural world, not the artificial world, took precedence. We'd have pride in our parks, not patchwork. We'd have our own first-salmon ceremonies.
OK, a lot of movers and shakers will dismiss my vision as hopelessly regressive. Too many judge their self worth by the status (whatever that means) of their city. Their idea of hip is having a local outlet of a snooty chain store. The winners at the top of the heap win biggest in big cities, and their Pugetopia is clearly to make Seattle into Chicago or Shanghai, because they'll be cashing in at the same time I'm whining about soaring housing prices and mounting social problems. (Though why the bigger-is-better crowd doesn't just move to those cities is beyond me. Oh, yeah — Boeing did.)

Why is there such shallowness to our evaluations of our own well-being? And why do contemporary Northwest officials seem to lack the stature and gravity of statesmen past? Who today has the state-building clout of a Scoop or Maggie, the vision of a Tom McCall or Dan Evans, the liberal courage of a Wayne Morse or William O. Douglas, the moral weight of a Mark Hatfield or Frank Church, or the community drive of a Jim Ellis or Eddie Carlson? Who is the next J.D. Ross on energy, or John Stanford on education? Who is making us believe in ourselves?

One apologetic theory is that those folks are already here but not yet sanctified by time. Politicians become statesmen and stateswomen in part by simply hanging around, the thinking goes, and someday we'll build statues to leaders we harass today, including the new generation of women. They've got bold ideas, supposedly, but we media types just don't amplify them.
Still, is anyone talking about what our regional values are? In all our manic preoccupation with economic statistics, league standings, tech booms, WTO, one-upsmanship and world-class whatever, are any of our leaders talking about the quality of life? See any charts of that on the business page? Judging from the mail we've gotten about these stories so far, boss, ordinary folks think the answer is no.

Or, planners and developers are already quietly building Pugetopias, from urban experiments in the middle of Seattle to island retreats to master-planned communities that reintegrate home, work and play in Issaquah and Dupont.

Maybe. I'd like to think so. But then why are so many people complaining that Seattle has been getting worse, not better, after all those most-livable-city rankings?

ANOTHER THEORY is that people don't want visionaries. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell was a good visionary and poor manager who got bounced after one term. Gov. Gary Locke is a good and affable manager and mediocre visionary, who won't be running for another term. We look for leaders who won't upset us. Can you imagine trotting out Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" today? People are too busy calculating their share of the latest tax cut.

Corollary is that we've become a society unwilling to be led. The baby boomers grew up in an era of protest, and some still see their political identity as outside critics who oppose, endlessly, no matter what. These "liberals" have aged into what amounts to cranky conservatives, suspicious of change and indignant of power. Generations X and Y, meanwhile, grew up in an era of me-first individualism and have a profound suspicion of community, government and cooperation. With the left gnawing on one ankle and the right on the other, it's hard to lead the way.

"Personally, I think this region has been hamstrung by a leftover pioneer mentality which places individualism above all else, especially the common good," is how J. Christopher Kirk of Seattle put it.

Maybe public service comes at too high a cost. Our growing civil immaturity — a shrinking from moral education, a coarsening of language, a dumbing-down of entertainment — has made our debates nastier. "The people with an ax to grind are most vociferous and drown out the common good," Dan Lee of Normandy Park described in another e-mail.

Run for office? Candidates must disclose their finances, brace for attack ads, endure abuse at public hearings, and are vulnerable to scandal for transgressions that were winked at decades ago. Warring special interests have learned to simply beat the visionaries down, creating political chambers of predictable mediocrity.

Certainly we've developed a culture that combines moral confusion with righteous intolerance, and it snares leaders ranging from Bill Clinton to "Book of Virtues" author Bill Bennett: two gamblers in a society that at the same time has embraced gambling. Does anyone in authority know right from wrong anymore? Certainly there is a gotcha! culture in post-Watergate journalism that may be destroying politics even as it polices it — and political strategists have learned to use smarter, more aggressive journalists to further their own agendas. The leak has become a dagger.

Maybe society is simply too complex for visionaries to lead. The Roman Empire lacked economic theory to adequately understand its own trade and taxation, which is one reason it fell. Maybe we lack the necessary theories to understand our own world in an age when computing power doubles every 18 months.

Or maybe the real reason for lack of vision is that there is no need for it, that we live in the richest and most powerful society the world has ever known and thus can afford to think more about entertainment than policy. We're happy, dammit.

"We have so much to be proud of. This Seattle bashing is getting very old indeed," wrote Chris Barnes of West Seattle in politely telling me that my conclusions are "quite flawed." Others joined him to say that Seattle is in a natural evolution with its own attractive style, in which the benefits of growth outweigh the costs. Deal with it, they told me. Get with the 21st century.

"I have never lived in such a selfish, ignorant, myopic and self-congratulatory area," countered Elizabeth Simpson, a native Washingtonian who has lived in London, New York, Brussels and Portland.
Maybe we're just not in the habit of thinking about what we truly want. Clarity is a rare virtue. Life gets in the way. Our leaders are not in control of Washington's future because we, the people, don't have a clue what we want that future to be. Life is changing so fast that we're struggling just to hang on.

Chief, I'm not as smart as Diogenes. I don't know where our vision went. So I think I'm going to take my lamp and follow Suzanne's advice:

Go sit quietly somewhere in Seattle and try to hear God.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times staff artist.

Today Archive

Advanced search

advertising home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company


Back to topBack to top