Grey Matters: Sweet Harmony

Knute Berger on a new year, a new president and a newly engaged Seattle

Category: Articles


After almost a decade of being out of step, the nation is finally playing a beat Seattle can dance to

Seattle is entering a new year, and a new reality. Or an old reality. Or maybe just plain old reality. For most of this century’s first decade, we’ve been a city on the outside, an anomaly when it comes to national trends. We were greener and bluer than most of America, and have felt at odds with Washington, D.C., and its Karl Rove–based unreality. So much so that people began to refer to us as a lonely urban isle in a small, liberal archipelago. Even our mayor, Greg Nickels, found more common cause with foreign governments than his own as he urged everyone to get right with the Kyoto environmental accords.

But it’s a new year, and we’re ushering in a new national administration—one that seems much more aligned with Seattle’s world view. The image that said it best was the cover of Seattle Weekly the day after the November 2008 election: a cartoon of the Uptight Seattleite columnist basking in the warm rays of Barack Obama’s sunny campaign logo. At last, even the city’s biggest PC nitpicker could take a day off.

Seattle enters the new year with optimism, despite a national economic crisis, two wars, and troubles on the home front for companies ranging from Boeing (a strike, problems delivering the new jet) to Starbucks (cutbacks and retrenching) to Washington Mutual Savings Bank (subject of the largest savings-bank collapse in U.S. history). Even Microsoft and Amazon have slowed hiring. The growth industry is easing, too: While the cranes still dot the downtown landscape for projects in the pipeline, the credit crisis has halted many planned developments.

Even so, Seattle remains committed to public spending. While people worried about their personal pocketbooks, they were willing to open them up for important improvements. Voters approved $18 billion for a new round of light rail expansion, $73 million to fix up the Pike Place Market, and almost $146 million for city parks, open space and community gardens. Despite national recession, Seattleites are still willing to bankroll quality of life, though their own 401Ks and IRAs may be shrinking.

Seattleites also joined state voters in re-electing Governor Christine Gregoire, who has sometimes been at odds with city leaders over major projects. She opposed Nickels’ waterfront tunnel project, for example. And she will start her new term this month with a mandate to cut the state’s budget, which faces a gaping $3 billion-plus deficit. Yet Gregoire has also promised to jump-start two Seattle projects stuck in gridlock: the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 bridge (a bridge to somewhere, that being Microsoft). The global financial crisis may be scary, but for many people the prospect of doing nothing about our local problems is unacceptable.

The new year finds Seattle in sync with national policy on rebuilding the economy with alternative energy, cleaner fuels and tax breaks for green innovations. For years, Representative Jay Inslee, who represents Seattle’s suburban arc from Bainbridge Island to Shoreline to Redmond, has pushed his New Apollo Project—a kind of New Frontier–style national, put-a-man-on-the-moon effort like John F. Kennedy’s—aimed at solving our energy and environmental crisis. With Democrats in control of Congress and Obama talking much the same talk, Seattle-inspired initiatives like Inslee’s could actually take off. Instead of ecotopian outposts marching to different drummers, the new year sees cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco nearer to the mainstream, no longer lefty outliers.

Another thing to look forward to: Obama has