THE LATE COLUMNIST Emmett Watson invented Lesser Seattle, a nifty literary device by which he could voice concerns of Seattleites who were tired of change and newcomers. "Keep the Bastards Out" was Lesser Seattle's stirring motto. I naively believed that Watson really believed in Lesser Seattle, so I was shocked to learn this was not the case.
The last time I saw Watson was about a year or so before he died in 2001. I bumped into him at an eatery on First Avenue, and we shared an impromptu lunch. As we looked out on bustling, Amazon- bubbled Skid Road, I asked him if all this yuppification wasn't driving him nuts. No, Watson said, he actually quite enjoyed it. It gave the city energy.
Watson embodied a classic Seattle duality: We want the vitality of a growing, innovative, vibrant city, but we want to pull up the drawbridges when we want to. We want to be a model world citizen, yet underneath beats the heart of a xenophobe—or should I say a mossback? In the Northwest, mossback was an epithet newcomers used to taunt the old settlers.
This tension reflects the frontier experience here. As early as 1854, mere moments after the city's founding, some early Seattleites were already complaining about the newcomers (we can only imagine what the Indians were saying). Of course, in a city named "New York Alki," you'd think everyone would know the plan. But many folks came West to escape the world, while others came to re-create it. Both were starting over.
And both were infused with a kind of utopianism. For those escaping the old world, moving here offered independence. One emblematic early incentive for (male) settlement was the territory's liberal divorce laws. You could shed the past—and the wife—and become a rugged individualist. Thus, the region became peppered with free-love colonies and commie enclaves on up to today's militia compounds and tree-sitting sites. The defense of this world against the old was all-important.
THE BUILDERS CAME in two flavors. One wanted to transfer all modern amenities to the wilds and make a buck doing it. Men like city engineer R.H. Thomson were inspired to create a blank slate (cut the forests, level the hills) and build a city from the bottom up. Soon there were roads, canals, and sewers, followed by skyscrapers, bridges, freeways, and jets. The other type of builder saw a different kind of city: a modern, cosmopolitan place that combined old and new, East and West. This group gave us boulevards, greenbelts, world's fairs, co-ops, unions, even software. The two strains of city building are intertwined, which is why an arty gloss frequently coats our popular commercial enterprises. Seattle is about quality of life. Making money is fine as long as we're also building a better world through top-notch espresso.
The new monorail embodies all these Seattle contradictions. It is a populist project heavily supported by big developers. In defiance of Seattle's role as the capital of Pugetopolis, it's a secession movement from the failed regionalism exemplified by Sound Transit. The project's goal is to encourage urban density (old world) but in a slick new way (monorail is cool!). And coolness counts for a lot. The old-timers who fought to preserve Seattle's classic character—its views, the Pike Place Market, and Pioneer Square—have lost this battle. Mitigation money for running a modern monorail through a historic district? Forget it. Tear down the old Century 21 monorail? Sure, since it's been milked of its symbolic capital. A new generation of pseudo-utopian builders is determined to add layers to the city because they're convinced that rising above it all is somehow high-minded, though it really echoes suburban escapism because, you know, the streets are so uncool.
IT SHOULD BE NO surprise, then, that the monorail passed, or that it passed so narrowly. We've had three chances to say no, but could not. Now we must build a project that is a genuine expression of Seattle's confused, sometimes incoherent character: part hype, part dream, part smart, part smug.
Lesser Seattle, indeed.