Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seattle: world class or a regional city? Strange that we're still having this conversation

So I filled out the absentee ballot for Washington, King County, and Seattle elections, flipping through the official voters' guide to make sure that I actually understood what and who it was I was casting my votes for. Although most of the offices were non-partisan, the differences in ideology between the candidates stood out in clear contrast. On the one hand you had people who were originally from all over the country, who had been to elite schools, and who had impressive resum├ęs. On the other, candidates after candidate who made the fact that they'd been born and grew up here a central feature of their campaigns, with lots of anti-tax and anti-government sentiment usually following. What they were saying couldn't have been clearer.

Quite frankly, the reason that Seattle is considered one of the best places in the country to move to is the atmosphere that welcomes smart and talented people and values them. Everything else follows. Some of this has come about as a result of the airplane industry, some of it came about because of Microsoft, and some of it just came about because of individual citizens believing in Seattle. Without those three factors Seattle would probably still be a town based on the lumber industry and on its Port, one of the busiest on the west coast. And if that was the case, it would unfortunately be considered one of a second string of cities that may be important regionally, but that don't have tons of nation wide significance.

Yet here we are fighting this sort of culture war that I've found out has been percolating since the '80s, between folks who want Seattle to be more isolated, closed, and less prominent, and people who want to continue its status as a world class destination point in the U.S., encouraging the sophistication and cutting edge features that make it so. I wonder if the people who want xenophobia towards newcomers--a trend that increases exponentially the farther outside of the city limits people get--have an inkling that more people from the outside ultimately benefits them in that they get better schools, better urban infrastructure, interesting stores (even nice chain stores) that otherwise wouldn't be attracted, and business opportunities that similarly wouldn't be present if Seattle wasn't a magnet for cutting edge folks in multiple fields.

The logic plays itself out in different ways, in different places. In Olympia, about an hour and a half south of Seattle and surrounded by small rural towns, people rose up in the wake of 9/11 and the protests against war by the faculty of The Evergreen State College---where I graduated from--and demanded that the place be closed. Evergreen of course is a progressive institution not just in atmosphere but in educational approach. They didn't succeed, but it's telling that their response was to try to close an institution of higher learning.

The broadening of a pool of talent both in government and in society in general is a process that all big cities have gone through at some point in their lives. It's just too bad that some of the people who make a big deal about being lifelong natives prefer their city to be more like Fargo than San Francisco.

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