Who Killed Lesser Seattle?

Our boomtown has gotten too big for its britches.

Lesser Seattle was the invention of the late Seattle Times and Seattle Post- Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson, the premier purveyor of three-dot journalism in this city during the second half of the last century—a blogger before his time. Watson’s Lesser Seattle campaign—slogan: “Keep the bastards out”—served as a blessed antidote to the kind of boosterism that has long dominated this city, where the downtown was built not so much on landfill as on the bullshit generated by wave upon wave of frontier boomers. Tacoma may have been the City of Destiny, but Seattle is the capital of hyperborean hype. It wasn’t enough to be simply Seattle—we had to be New York Alki, Greater Seattle, the Emerald City of the Land of Ahs, located just over the rainbow in God’s Country of the Great Northwest, Gateway to the Pacific Rim, Alaska, and the Yukon, and Century 21.

Watson’s Lesser Seattle was a wonderful editorial device that permitted him to pooh-pooh the civic poobahs and appeal to his readers’ rather quaint form of inbred xenophobia. Seattle has thrived on growth and newcomers, but we disdain outsiders, meaning anyone who arrived more recently than we. In the 19th century, the settlers disdained the folks who arrived in palace cars; we ejected the Chinese bodily and shipped them to San Francisco; later, we enthusiastically interned Japanese Americans; and in the civil rights era, we were one of the most segregated cities in America. Cars are still on the road bearing bumper stickers declaring “Washington Native” or “Don’t Californicate Washington.” Hating growth and outsiders used to be a sign that you belonged. It was something we could all have in common—even as we fleeced the new immigrants by selling them overpriced real estate.

The problem with Watson’s Lesser Seattle was twofold. One, most of his readers didn’t really believe in it. Two, neither did Watson. It was a pose, a posture, a way to give his column the salty taste of clam nectar. Watson actually loved the energy of the bustling boomtown, as he confessed to me over lunch one day in Pioneer Square during the era of dot-comania. I felt for a moment as if I had glimpsed the man behind Oz’s curtain. The lovable curmudgeon turned out to be a sweet old Chamber of Commerce–lovin’ teddy bear.

The moment of revelation—and betrayal—comes to mind now because Lesser Seattle has always been an important leavening agent when it comes to Seattle’s sense of self-importance. It was a reminder not to forget our humble roots. It served as a kind of talisman against vanity, overreach, and hubris. One of Seattle’s charms is that we don’t quite buy all the bull we dish out and are restrained by the Scandawegian disdain for those who get too big for their britches. In that sense, Lesser Seattle lived in the hearts of millionaires who drove nothing fancier than a VW bug and wore nothing trendier than a bargain parka from the old Eddie Bauer annual sale.

In the civic arena, Lesser Seattle is barely a memory. The big ideas of Paul Schell are being replaced by the broad-shouldered, developer-friendly mania of the Greg Nickels years, when no project shall go unfunded. Bury the viaduct? A fleet of new trolleys? Light rail? Bust the cap and build more skyscrapers? New sports complexes? A rebuilt South Lake Union? Nickels’ city is the billionaires’ best friend. Condos, multiuse developments, public-private partnerships, mass transit: For these dreams, no price tag is too high.

Remember when Seattle politics were dominated by the neighborhood movement? Remember when growth skeptics like Charlie Chong were a political possibility? Remember when think-small guys like Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata hadn’t caught civic elephantiasis, the symptoms of which include a swelling of the love organ for massive public projects?

Remember when the city cared about historic preservation? Now we dream of new toys that trash our heritage, our public spaces, and the rules and regulations we once carefully crafted to preserve the quality of life.

In the Norm Rice years, we planned for urban villages, but the new vision is a kind of Manhattanization of the city. Density is good, in and of itself. Growth is inevitable—in fact, encouraged. This is a city that could have been loved by developer Ken Behring, the California brute who bought the Seahawks and then wanted to do us a favor by stripping our suburban hillsides and replacing the trees with gated communities for rich folks. Growth is a tsunami, he said, and we cannot fight it. When we did, he threatened to take the Seahawks back to California with him. We ransomed the team by selling our civic souls to Paul Allen and building him a stadium we didn’t need. Then we accepted his notion that growth, indeed, is unstoppable—no, damn it, desirable.

Big is better. We love our new library but can’t be bothered to pay for the books that go in it or the hours to keep our neighborhood libraries open year-round. We built a new opera house without the money to pay for it. We tore down a domed stadium before we’d finished paying for its construction or repair. We’re building more monorail before completing light rail, we’re building light rail before fixing the roads, we’re balking at fixing the viaduct unless we can gold-plate it, even as it becomes a tottering death trap. No urgency here: Let’s build a boulevard!

The city we loved is being choked by gigantism. The small, livable, sensible, sustainable city we once purported to love is dead. Lesser Seattle is a corpse rotting in the rain.