What is Seattle? And what is it good for?
What is Seattle? And what is it good for? Charles Mudede

What's revealed in Gene Balk's story on a new Atlantic Media/Allstate Regional Renewal survey of 400 Seattle-area residents "on their perceptions about living here?" That Seattleites have no idea what their city is or wants to be. Seventy percent of the respondents think the current boom "is benefiting only a few," but almost as many think the region is moving in the right direction. Sixty-five percent also think Seattle is a great city for young people, but only 47 percent believe high wages have had a positive impact. Also, they don't think Seattle has achieved world-class status, and they love Amazon more than Costco. And they believe the world of Pike Place Market, and that the MoPop museum is a better tourist attraction than the world-class Downtown Public Library.

What can be said about this confusion? Yes, the sample is small, and so the results are likely to be less consistent (and more wacky) than one polling 1,000 or more residents. But considering the desperation in a number of the proposals that Amazon has received for HQ2, it should not surprise us if the ambivalence expressed by many of the residents in the sample of 400 was also found in much larger samples. We live in a time when cities in the US are only seen and appreciated as economic engines. The size of your corporate community and GDP are what determine the success or failure of a city. I call this TINA urbanism, and its supporters stand it in distinction from a socially spirited urbanism that emerged with the New Deal but that they claim failed with the inner-city riots of the 1960s and white flight. At that point, money and corporations relocated to the suburbs and stayed there until the 1990s. Amazon, above all, represents the return of the corporation to the urban core and the decline of the suburban office park. Indeed, Microsoft is singing this new tune as well. It recently opened a huge office right in the middle of downtown Vancouver BC.

The frenzy found in the proposals Amazon has received has TINA urbanism as its source. There is really no other city but the economic one. Much of the ambivalence in the Seattle survey has is caused by a conflict between the feeling (if not suspicion) that there must be more to a city than money, and the reasoning that the logic of the city is to grow according to the laws of the market. Break with these laws, and you end up like Detroit (collapsing population, rising crime, decaying buildings and services). Because the feeling and reasoning will not reconcile, our imagination of the city suffers. No one wants to go back to the Good Times. But to see and imagine the city better, they actually need to go back to the progressive movement at the end of the 19th century. Urbanism as we understand it has been all about keeping that movement and its deeply democratic principles out of history and planning.

I will end this short post with a few lines from T.S. Eliot's poem Choruses from The Rock:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.