Since I've lived in Seattle for a grand total of 11 days, my editor thought it might be productive for me to attend the launch>"/>
Since I've lived in Seattle for a grand total of 11 days, my editor thought it might be productive for me to attend the launch party of the Friends of Seattle (FOS), a self-described advocacy group "committed to creating a more livable and sustainable city." Their number one goal? To "prevent the viaduct from being rebuilt or retrofitted." Even as a new Seattleite, I was skeptical. A lot of it may have to do with having spent the past four and a half years in Washington, D.C., where civic debates often have a longer half life than plutonium. I couldn't help but question the efficacy of yet another group-however well-intentioned-trying to push the viaduct boulder up the hill.
But I was also curious. After all, it only took me a couple days in Seattle to realize that I had escaped a place where people need to know 1) what your party affiliation is, 2) where you went to college, and 3) what you do for a living, before pursuing further conversation with you, only to land in a city where your social palatability depends on where you stand on the viaduct (full disclosure: I had to look up the word in the dictionary). According to the FOS, about 250 people had RSVPed for the event, so I figured it couldn't hurt to find out who FOS was, what they were about, and why they thought they'd make a difference.
I arrived at Belltown's Twist a little before 6 p.m and was greeted by a Death Cab for Cutie tune. With a $10 donation, attendees bought themselves an FOS membership and a drink ticket redeemable for a "Bud Light-Rail," "No-Viaduct Vodka Tonic," "Liveable City Lemon Drop," "Metro-Natural Margarita," or "Gin & Sustainable Soda." The crowd was mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings dressed in dark business wear. From the windows behind the bar, you could see cars zooming along the viaduct.
Kathleen Sullivan, co-founder of Internationalist Magazine and a FOS steering committee member, signed me in and introduced me to FOS co-founder Gary Manca. For a leader of a political action group, Manca was endearingly unpolished. "Gosh, I've never really talked to a reporter before," he said. (He may want to consider enlisting his girlfriend, who tells me she used to do media training for a local PR company).
Manca is a 29-year-old first-year law student at the University of Washington who grew up in Mt. Baker. He says that with an estimated 1.4 million new residents expected to move to the Puget Sound area by 2040, "we should grow up, not out, to meet needs. But unfortunately you get these newly developed areas that have no soul, without the things that make an area unique."
It's a common gripe, but last summer, Manca decided that he was tired of bitching. He recruited a group of friends from school, work, and volunteer gigs, hashed out a platform, and started FOS. Sullivan summarizes the birth of the FOS thusly: "Gary got us all together and said, ‘Hey, are you sick of driving everywhere?' Yes. ‘Do you hate the viaduct?' Yes. ‘Then let's get together.'"
By 6:30, the place had filled up to close to the anticipated attendance, and it was difficult to get from one side of the room to the other. City Council member Nick Licata wandered in and was impressed with what he saw. "I've organized a lot of events in my life, and this is a class A event," the councilman declared. Licata was hoping to sway some opinions before the night was over. "I wanted to talk to the mix of environmentalists and sustainable development people and I wanted them to rethink the viaduct as an environmental solution," he said. "I think the surface option just brings more traffic to the waterfront."
Two more FOS co-founders, Sean Howell and Dean DeCrease, told me that FOS is unique because it's a 501c4, not a 501c3 (which benefits the community at large), which means FOS is more of a voter group. Howells said that FOS also has a comprehensive platform rather than focusing on a single issue (the viaduct is merely its current focus). "The groundswell of sustainability is huge, but it's all fractured," DeCrease said. "It's been a series of failures. Look at the monorail. We have a populous that wants change but a political problem getting change to occur."
Apparently, what FOS hopes to do is, instead of agitating at City Hall or building consensus amongst disparate groups, to get enough Seattleites on board with its vision that it becomes the bloc of voters that politicians must appease. The FOS also has a PAC, dubbed "the victory fund," which it hopes to use to either install politicians that share its goals or support politicians that are taking flak for their (pro-FOS) stances. I have no idea how groundbreaking this makes FOS (again, been here 11 days), but it sounds like a reasonable mission.
Around 7 p.m., Manca introduced city councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who gave what sounded like an abridged version of his environmental stump speech. "This is an awakening," Steinbrueck said. "I read [the FOS] web site and I couldn't find a single issue I disagreed with."
"We can't wait forever," he went on. "Seattle and the state of Washington are at least 70 years behind in terms of a fast transit system. We're the most car dependent city on the west coast." (The sourcing for Steinbrueck's last statement is questionable, what with all of Southern California's love affair with cars)
More Steinbrueck: "All the green roofs we build will not decrease global warming. But guess what will? Getting out of your cars." Finally: "We're going to tear down the viaduct." Which drew the loudest cheers of the night. "Help stop this madness."
A man behind me gave his buddy a thumbs-up. "If there's politics and there's alcohol, I'm there," he said. Then Manca, who appeared to have warmed up since talking with me, followed with a brief introduction of FOS and wrapped up with a pair of rhetorical questions: "Who the hell are we? We're an agent for change. What do we want from you? Action."
By 7:45 p.m., most of the attendees had finished their free drinks and dispersed to parts unknown. I found Zander Batchelder, president of the Belltown community council and pro-tunnel, leaning against a column. He lives just a short walk from Twist and came to see what the fuss was about. "I like that it's a young crowd," he said. "That's good to see."
One of the things I won't miss about D.C. is the inferiority complex it has with other East Coast cities, namely New York. But throughout the night, I heard Seattle on the losing end of comparisons to Vancouver (understandable, I guess) and Portland (not so much). I asked Batchelder about this angst. "Portland's got mass transit and working growth limits," he explained. "Portland's got it figured out."
"But neither Portland nor Vancouver have a sculpture park," he continued, chuckling. "We can lord that over them for a couple of weeks."