Seattle is a story

Paul Constant

June 25, 2019

Like so many of the best ideas, Serin D. Houston's book Imagining Seattle began with a single very long walk. Houston recounts the walk in the book's introduction:

By the end of that October day in 2005, the contours of this urban context infused my body. The wonderment in my eyes reflected the array of façades and landscapes I had encountered during this walk. The savory aromas I smelled spoke to the multiplicity of people and cuisines populating Seattle. The dirt clogging my pores revealed the grit and grime of this mass of living and nonliving beings. The sounds of the lapping waters of Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound emphasized the fluvial activity sculpting the city. The quickening of my heart rate beat out the fear and dislocation that often accompany dark city streets. The wincing of my feet reminded me of the many paths and travels that have brought people to and from this place. I had lived in Seattle for over a year at that time, yet I was experiencing the city entirely anew.

Try to forgive Houston's florid language here — it's seriously the worst writing in the book — as a representation of her enthusiasm. Those of us who were not born and raised in Seattle can likely remember the first time we realized that our idea of the city was far too provincial. The fake boundaries we established in our mind were blown away, revealing a much larger, and more complex, city to reckon with.

Imagining Seattle is a book about the distance between the Seattle that we mythologize to ourselves and to others and the real Seattle that we actually live in every day. Houston correctly identifies Seattle as a kind of dream state, a story of boundless successes and enthusiastic inclusion that may or may not bear any similarities to the real Seattle's history and government.

Through her ethnographic research, Houston asked Seattleites to explain the city to her. Many of them told stories like this:

"Seattle is a rich town. It's got some of the largest corporations in the world here — some of the richest families in the world here. IT's got a deep seaport out there that's second to none. You know what I mean? It's got a world-class airport. It's got one of the biggest medical centers in the world — University of Washington...I mean, do you see any ghettoes here? Do you see any slums? I mean, you have got to run a long time around here to find any poor, P-O-O-R, neighborhoods. Seattle is a very wealthy town."

And that's definitely the story that Seattle most commonly exports these days: an American tale of bold entrepreneurship rewarded with incalculable wealth. But though that story has been told by Seattle endlessly over the last century, any longtime resident could easily identify the lies in it.

Just as there's wealth everywhere in the city, you don't have to look very hard to find deep pockets of poverty — especially since that poverty now takes the form of the countless tent cities that are being chased from bridge to bridge by authorities. But you can find poverty just about everywhere in this city, from the minimum-wage workers who are barely scraping by to the families who are one mortgage payment away from being kicked out of their rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Let's be clear: Imagining Seattle is an academic text. It's densely sourced and deeply considered. Houston rakes through the city's history and culture to find the most egregious times that some less-powerful group — from the indigenous peoples who were here for centuries before the "pioneers" of European descent showed up, to the much-maligned Asian-American workers who helped bring the railroad here, to the Black Americans who came here in search of something new only to find a very old and very familiar prejudice. She compares the story of Seattle to the history of Seattle and she finds the city wanting.

Alongside the colonization of the area that became Seattle, in the name of modernization, economic possibility, and city recognition, "city workers erased Seattle's mounts to make new real estate, remove unwanted residents, and cleanse neighborhoods" the wake of the 1889 fire that destroyed much of the downtown business district. Physically altering the landscape revealed the power of humans to dominate and exploit nature...The flattening of the hills, the filling of the swamps to make the harbor, the damming of rivers, and the displacement of lower-income and black, indigenous, and Asian communities characterized the late 1800s through the early 1900s and demonstrated the investment in gaining recognition as a noteworthy city.

Of course, every city is built on exploitation and blood. But Houston makes a compelling case for Seattle's exploitation as something unique. Our progressivism supposedly knows no bounds, here: we are obsessed with environmentalism and opportunity and diversity in a very deep way, and we try to build our laws to reflect those commitments. But because our laws are built to reflect the Seattle of our dreams, they fail to address the Seattle that is. For all our liberal piousness, we fail to see our own deep and systematic failings.

Perhaps with the help of deeply researched, rigorous academic texts like Imagining Seattle, we can break through this distance between the imagined and the real. Officials are at least starting to use the correct language to discuss the city. And near the end of the book, Houston cites a new chance to share Seattle's prosperity with nonwhite and poor populations:

Described as a "creative, community-driven response to the pressures of extraordinary growth in Seattle", [Othello Square]( will be located adjacent to the Othello light rail station, in the New Holly neighborhood...The multi-building complex is designed to include an early learning center, a health clinic, ground-level retail stores and restaurants, job training opportunities, a charter public high school, affordable housing for rent and purchase, small business incubators, and a community-owned and operated multi-purpose Multicultural Center, which aims to be an anchor point for eight distinct ethnic and cultural groups in Southeast Seattle.

Even here, it seems, Othello Square is still embracing the language of modern Seattle — is there any problem too great that it can't be solved with retail and restaurants on the ground floor and living spaces above? But at least attempts are being made to include neighborhoods that to date have been crushed underneath, or passed by, the rise of Gates and Bezos. Maybe one day, we'll tell a story of Seattle that closely resembles what it's actually like to walk from the northern city limits all the way down to Renton: a Seattle for all, not just the wealthy white men who have centered themselves in the city for the last century and a half.

Books in this review:
  • Imagining Seattle: Social Values in Urban Governance
    by Serin D. Houston
    University of Nebraska Press
    May 14, 2019
    276 pages
    Provided by Publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound