Letter From Washington

Civics ?a Starbucks

Running government like a modern marketing machine.

Only a decade ago, Seattle had the personality of an underachiever. Like the Seahawks, we performed best when underestimated. Now, thanks to Microsoft and Ken Griffey Jr., the town swaggers like an overdog. Whatever it comes up with–software, coffee bars, jetliners–the rest of the world will shortly embrace.

It’s a remarkable shift in self-image. Famously bourgeois, Seattle used to pride itself on being the city of the “last move,” a place where people came once they had resolved to stop roaming, settle down, and join the PTA. Now, Seattle has joined the ranks of “first-move” cities, places like New York and San Francisco where young people gather for the clubs, the cool jobs, and a start in life before moving somewhere less expensive to put down roots. Seemingly America’s current model of what a city should be (close to nature, tolerant, artsy, casually dressed, livable, egalitarian), Seattle has become a young town with a young outlook, high on caffeine.

The local model of success used to be a career at Boeing, with a long, slow ascent to the corner office by avoiding mistakes, giving generously to United Way, and saluting authority. The new model is Microsoft’s (or Cellular One’s or Starbucks’ or Darwin Molecular’s) post-bureaucratic, high-autonomy, grad-school culture. The formula goes this way: Take a basic problem (can’t get a good cup of coffee), assemble good data and brutally smart people to think it through in a tradition-dissing way (treat coffee as coffee-flavored milk and make it seem part of Italian piazza culture), test-market everything, and then hype it as instant gratification, like American pop culture, to the entire world. The story trails off when you retire at 40 with a few million bucks and no idea of what to do with your life.

There’s a downside. Seattle used to enjoy a vibrant civic culture, thanks to those last-move, get-involved types. (Lawyers choosing between Seattle firms used to ask which one gave them the most time for pro bono work. Now it’s which one has the best health-club privileges.) Civic Seattle created and protected leafy, in-close neighborhoods. With little history to preserve, the city nonetheless mastered deep preservation, as with the Pike Place Farmers Market. We recycled. We kept our downtown viable, though too generic. We retained a middle class, largely avoided an underclass culture, and parlayed public dollars into a smorgasbord of near-big-city arts organizations.

But politics in Seattle now badly lags behind the economic sector. City hall seems clueless about computers and the other managerial revolutions transforming American businesses. Lulled by its press notices, addicted to the muffled niceness of endless process, anxious because of the anger of tax-averse voters, sluggish from one-party rule (the PC branch of the Democratic Party), the town is now a national underachiever, politically speaking.

What to do? Apply the new managerial formula. I’m in a group called “Forward Seattle” that is thinking through what this would mean. Our goal was to come up with a list of urban solutions that are substantive, not Clintonesque in their marginality. We favored scaled-back but affirmative government. We sought suggestions that were specific, catchy, aimed at basic concerns (how can I afford to send my kids to college; or, how can I buy a starter home?).

Here’s what our new, progressive urban politics looks like, organized by six imperatives.

1. Decentralize. Seattle has a “heavy-government” culture, from years of unchecked growth and incumbent-protective behavior. So, move selected functions down to an elected, district level; others up to regional governments; and still others out to the nongovernmental, nonprofit zone of civil society. For instance, we are intrigued by Bobby Kennedy’s old idea of community-development corporations made up of residents, local businesses, and philanthropies to create jobs, housing, and public order, and to revive retail.

2. Basics are basic. Cities, like those disjointed corporate conglomerates of the 1970s, can easily forget their core missions, which are to provide a quality physical environment (streets, transit, parks) and solid basic services (libraries, schools, hospitals), and to ensure public order. Seattle has taken on so many trendy soft services that it starves its basics budget, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

3 Change the cultures. City hall needs the culture of innovation of Seattle’s new companies. It needs to hire some of those “first-move” workers. The public debate needs less civility (Seattle has a crippling excess of “niceness” already) and more “transparency”: What are we really going to accomplish at this meeting? Is it something whose results can be measured concretely? Urban liberals need to admit that an improved moral and social climate is an essential dimension of a healthy politics and economy. The impact of policies on civil society, family stability, and citizenly behavior is a valid calculation.

4. Gain market share. The key problem for cities, Seattle included, is the emigration of the middle class (black and white) when children become school-age. The emigrants take away tax base, civic volunteers, and peer models. To counter this requires more than the usual sermons and shaming exercises. So, increase the benefits of city residency. Examples: unlimited bus usage for $5 per month; guaranteed access to medical insurance; $500 in college-tuition vouchers for each year attended at a Seattle public school; subsidized day care. Make these benefits universal (not means- or race-tested). But tie them to some reciprocal citizenship requirements, such as a good voting record and staying current on child support.

5 Dense democracy. Citizens are disaffected with government but hungry for participation, for community, for gathering in third places (institutions between home and work place, like corner coffeehouses). Sociable, courteous, midsize, and safe-feeling, Seattle seems a good city for mediating institutions and middling political action to solve common problems. Here’s an example, borrowed from Korea: Saturday Schools, where students can get rigorous instruction in languages, math, computers, the arts. Such schools, meant to augment what urban ones have dropped, would be open to all, pay-what-you-wish, with no grades, taught by teachers-to-be and erstwhile teachers in a demanding environment to counter the diet of self-esteem at public schools. They should be spontaneously generated, with no connection to the school district or the city government.

6. Make places. American cities lack places that seem rooted in a landscape, “many-memoried” (as Henry James wrote of European streets), that produce casual encounters with friends and strangers. The downtown obsession of American cities, Seattle especially, has produced few public spaces (though numerous merchandising forecourts) while also starving the have-less neighborhoods of public investment. So, make neighborhood planning pivot around the notion of “complete” neighborhoods, where lots of services–jobs, dry cleaners, groceries, flower shops–are within walking distance.

Seattle, if you look beyond the media fantasies, has a half-finished, temporary feeling. Now that Congress and the suburban Republicans have made it clear that there won’t be much of an urban policy coming from outside the cities, even unusually advantaged cities such as this one might finally realize that they have to find the resources within. With prosperity, a talent inflow, and vast philanthropic prospects, Seattle has a chance (and the chutzpah) to develop its next export, a recipe for a new urban politics that does more than manage decline.