AS YOU READ THIS, we are closer to 2050 than 1950. Unless you're attending Seafair. For many longtime Seattleites, Seafair is a treasured throwback to the '50s, when every guy was a World War II vet, local culture was J.P. Patches the clown, and the hydroplanes were the biggest annual sports highlight in a minor-league town.
Excepting the loss of the First Avenue bars and strip joints (most of them, anyway)once conveniently located for Seafair-docked sailors with weekend leaveSeafair remains firmly rooted in a mid-20th-century notion of summer fun. The odd collection of civic events are headlined by hydroplane races, the Navy's Blue Angels air show, and the Torchlight Parade. But the full roster of Seafair events, spanning four weeks and everything from White Center Jubilee Days to Silverdale Whaling Days, is by far the most elaborate, expensive, and celebrated part of Seattle's civic calendar. Many are heavily corporatized, with local and national companies lining up to associate their names with Seafair. There's no clear theme to the roster; a summer event, be it a fun run, a neighborhood parade, or a charity benefit, becomes part of Seafair if the folks who run Seafair decide they like it.
Seafair is run like a throwback to the '50s, too. Its board of directors is a closely knit club, consisting, essentially, of Rotary Club businesspeople who all once belonged to the same University of Washington fraternities and sororities. If you don't like their decision, don't bother appealing to a higher authoritythere is none. For all the civic resources poured into Seafair, it's a private affair, run by a staff and board of directors that answer to nobody.
LOCAL PEACE ACTIVISTS found that out in recent years when they objected to Seafair's decision to include Trident-class nuclear submarines (the USS Ohio in 1997, the USS Alabama in 2000). When a sympathetic City Council member approached Seafair on the issue, he was told, essentially, to go jump in Elliott Bay: Seafair paid its permit fees to the city and could therefore do what it liked. For decades, this has been Seafair's attitude. It pours money into the local economy and supports local charities and, therefore, earns a free pass on public-policy questions.
It gets a free pass in local media coverage, too. Compare, for example, the treatment Seafair would get if some drunken hydro fan fell off a log boom and drowned to the Mardi Gras fracas in 2000 that led to the death of Kristopher Kime. In both cases, a privately run civic celebration, heavily subsidized by local business interests, gets out of control due to the combination of large crowds and copious alcohol consumption. After Kime's death, politicians and talk-show hosts lined up to call for the cancellation of Mardi Gras; it survived the 2000 debacle, but with its wings severely clipped. Nobody would dream, ever, of demanding that Seafair be canceled.
BUT PLENTY OF Seattleites have that fantasy. Seafair's two biggest draws both also draw substantial public ire. Neighborhoods from Columbia City to Renton annually dread the hydros, with the traffic jams and beer-soaked crowds they bring. And for every fan of the Blue Angels, there's someone else, subjected to days of roaring jets, who fantasizes about a rocket launcher. More than a few people leave town for the duration, and take their dogs, too.
To be sure, Seafair has its retro charms; and, in a region with nine months of frequently gray weather, we take our outdoor summer celebrations seriously. But if Seafair were to be created anew, a host of facets now taken for granted in liberal Seattle would never pass musterfrom leering pirates and beauty pageants to the monthlong celebrations of militarism and alcohol. It's easy to imagine that a newly created Seafair would be quickly mired down in committees, public hearings, and controversy.
But beyond political correctness, the city of Seattle (and a number of area suburbs) are spending substantial resources while budgets are cut to the bone, and nobody's questioning it. "It's always been done this way" is an inadequate answer when so many other long-running programs vital to the public good are coming under the microscope. Even if one or another aspect of the public cost of Seafair is questioned, it doesn't matter unless the select club running Seafair decides it agrees.
This is not to disparage the contributions countless volunteers make toward helping all of Seafair's events happen. But Seafair itself is too large and too essential to Seattle's civic fiber to have so little accountability. A little transparency would do a lot to help Seafair become a party to which everyone felt invited.