Back to the Future
Knute Berger Says There's Only One Way to Look at Seattle: Backward
A "mossback"—a term that refers, colloquially, to someone who's been in the Northwest so long that moss has grown on his back—is someone who believes things would be better if only we could turn back the clock. To what point, exactly, is unclear, but the nearest respectable time stamp appears to be approximately 1970, when Seattle was in an economic slump, no one thought of moving here, and land values (and, therefore development) were at a standstill.
This is the worldview of Knute "Skip" Berger, a former editor at Seattle Weekly (where, full disclosure, he was my boss for about six months) and current columnist at Crosscut, a regional news website created by and for other white men of Berger's generation. Like many well-to-do white men, Berger feels oppressed by "nanny statism," development, and change. Unlike most white men, he has a platform—and, now, a book.
Pugetopolis—a collection of Berger's columns and commentary pieces for the Weekly, Seattle magazine, Crosscut, and other publications—posits that Seattle is turning into a nightmarish megacity. It's become a sprawling megalopolis where bungalows have fallen victim to megahouses and townhomes, nanny laws have regulated fun out of existence, and the neighborhoods that made Seattle worth living in have been destroyed by dense developments populated by tradition-hating new residents who tax good working folks out of existence even as they whiz past them on their recumbent bicycles. Pugetopolis is full of references to "nanny liberals," "radical cyclists," and "urban gentrifiers," but it contains little evidence that Berger has actually met these folks. And why would he? They live in their "shoeboxes" in the sky, too stuck on themselves and their fancy urban lifestyles to care about the lovely little burg they've invaded and ruined.
Who is this book for, anyway? Newcomers and naysayers who stand to learn a thing or two from someone who lived here when things were really good? Surely not outsiders, who'll undoubtedly be confused by references to McNeil Island, Klondike, and Dan Evans? That seems unlikely. So let's assume it's for fellow mossbacks—hoary old-timers, self-defined or otherwise, who, like Berger, feel oppressed by modernity.
How else to interpret Berger's fear of "Pugetopolis"—a fantastical future megacity, centered on Seattle, populated by "affluent global transients" who live in "generic high rise[s] with concierge service" and believe "that we can enhance the quality of life without limiting growth and consumption"? These are chimeras, not people. Berger's hatred for them—he insists, "urban policy that promotes dense development... is driving the cost of city living to impossible heights"—borders on hysteria. His Pugetopolis bears little resemblance to the Seattle most of us experience every day.
What's frustrating about Berger's philosophy is that it offers complaints but no solutions. In many cases, he complains about a development in one breath and grouses about its solution in the next. For example, Berger decries sprawl in one essay, complaining, for example, that "growth will continue to erode the very qualities we love unless and until we find a different way of relating to—and living in—this lane" and condemns laws that try to contain growth in the next (decrying density, limits on development, and transit proposals that make it possible to live in the city instead of the sprawling suburbs). At times, this cognitive dissonance takes the form of nearly incoherent, Zen-like koans—"You cannot grow your way out of the consequences of growth," he writes, which sounds clever but makes little sense.
Let's unpack Berger's Pugetopolis complaint: Growth is bad, and growth won't fix it. The problem with that statement is that there are different types of growth, including good growth (in the view of this paper: dense, transit-oriented growth that makes it possible to live in a way that doesn't harm the climate) and bad (in Berger's and The Stranger's view: sprawl). Given that we can't build a wall around Seattle (or pass laws saying that no one else can move here), we're going to grow. The pertinent question is how.
Berger has no answer for this, except that we can't keep doing what we've done or we'll keep getting what we've got. This may be a truism, but it isn't a solution. Throw a solution at Berger—density, for example, Mossback's favorite bugaboo—and he'll respond by giving it a label like "vertical sprawl," which sounds bad but means nothing. (Building vertically is exactly the opposite of sprawl—unless we're going to start building roads in the sky.)
Similarly, throughout Pugetopolis, Berger criticizes the "Manhattanization" of Seattle—a term that to you and me might imply skyscrapers, cabs on demand, and decent pizza, but to Mossback means transit, bridges, and street repairs. No reasonable person would argue that bridges and urban renewal will turn Seattle into a city of 10 million people; it won't, nor is that anyone's goal. What Berger opposes, it seems, are investments in infrastructure that make Seattle an attractive place to live or visit. Don't build it, he argues, and they won't come. Ironically, many of the icons around Seattle that Berger most cherishes—the brick-paved charm of Pioneer Square, the rundown stalls and weird underground warrens of Pike Place Market—are models of and magnets for the kind of urban density Berger despises.
Berger is equally off-base when he takes on those who choose to live without a car—the "brave new bionauts," he calls them. Or, more to the point, "moochers," because people who go carless sometimes take rides with other people, a practice more commonly known as "carpooling." But going car-free, in Berger's view, isn't just selfish—it's misery, because living in a city means being able to drive all over, including to other neighborhoods. That's a predictable perspective from someone who opposes density, but it will be unfamiliar to anyone who lives, shops, goes to the gym, and works within a walkable or bikeable radius.
Berger's writing is clever and often funny, and when he sticks to subjects on which mossbacks and non-mossbacks alike can generally agree—for example, the issue of gay marriage, of which he writes, "the civil benefits [of marriage] are valuable enough that denying them to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination that has no rational justification"—he's pellucid and a joy to read. (He's also often genuinely funny—as when he writes that "Cosmopolis, near Aberdeen, was named by people who reckoned it might one day be the center of everything. Its 2006 population: 1,679.") But when he veers into social commentary—criticizing Seattle as a "nanny state" for encouraging recycling, for example—he sounds less like a civic treasure than a scolding elderly relative.
Fundamentally, calling oneself a mossback is an excuse to say "no"—no to growth, obviously, but also no to environmental solutions, no to transit, no to innovations that might make life easier and more enjoyable, no to laws that help us all live together more happily and effectively in an increasingly crowded and complicated world. (One Mossback column, not reproduced in Pugetopolis, was actually called "The Joy of 'No'"; in it, Berger wrote "saying no... is a vital part of how we do things.") Critiques like Berger's embrace a past that is lost. And they're a luxury enjoyed only by people, like Berger, who won't be around long enough to see the long-term consequences of the policies they espouse.
Knute Berger reads Thurs Jan 15, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7:30 pm, and Wed Jan 21, University Book Store, 7 pm. Both readings are free.