THE SUN SETS ON another night in Seattle, amid a cascade of concussion grenades and rubber bullets. A wide-eyed, freckle-faced KING 5 reporter looms out of the tear gas fog and shouts at the camera: "I've lived in Seattle all my life, and I've never seen anything like this," before he's jabbed out of frame by a riot-geared storm trooper. Neatly coifed anchorwoman Jean Enersen shakes her head. "What is happening to our city?" she tsks.

The question is not so much what is happening to our city, but rather what is happening in our city. Because this is a happening, of the most organic, populist kind. Until one small contingent started breaking windows, looting, and tagging buildings on Tuesday night, the mass demonstration was a highly charged but contained performance. The event featured singers, musicians, rappers, dancers, and jugglers. Protest groups dressed as animals, vegetables, and Superman. They formed choruses, made speeches, and marched with Busby Berkeley precision. Even the police were (gas) masked and costumed for riot. This "street theater" is just the kind that shoved Seattle into the 20th century, and just the kind we needed to see again.

Now all we have to do is get past our own self-image. An initial media blitz treated Seattle like a wallflower just asked to the political dance: The World Trade Organization had chosen this place -- of all places! -- for a showdown between global trade and labor interests. The subsequent shock and dismay expressed by Mayor Schell and the mainstream local press about the violence that erupted suggests that our fair city of even tempers and peacenik millionaires had somehow been desecrated -- that these demonstrations took place on a virgin stage.

Senator Slade Gorton worries that scenes of protesters and the police locking heads and batons could put this host city out of the running for future conventions. (Massive riots in cities like L.A., New York, and Washington, D.C. haven't put a dent in their convention bookings, but then nobody ever confused those cities with Catholic schoolgirls, either.) Representative Jim McDermott is more realistic, calling the recent protests a "coming of age" for Seattle. A Seattle Times article quoted McDermott on the WTO fallout: "There's a lot of talk of Seattle as the capital of the Pacific Rim. If you're the capital of something, you take the good with the bad. If you want to be a sleepy fishing town by Puget Sound, you can be that."

And here's the rub: Seattle hasn't been a sleepy fishing town for a very long time. Slade shouldn't worry; Schell shouldn't be shocked. At least on the cultural and economic fronts, the Seattle that moves into the next century bears an uncanny resemblance to the Seattle that moved into this one.

The United Steelworkers, for example, probably felt right at home demonstrating on our streets. Although labor has gotten the backstage treatment during the last few administrations (it's been a while since I've been urged to "look for the union label"), Seattle has a particularly potent labor history. In 1900, labor was a critical component of local culture. Over 40 labor unions met regularly in Seattle. Waitresses unionized, icemen organized, and newsboys struck. The Barber's Union Ball was the cultural event of 1901. Meanwhile, the Spanish American War had opened international markets and cross-Pacific trade routes, making trade and foreign labor big issues here. In 1899, protesters challenged the use of Asian laborers in local jobs. In 1999, labor protesters fear local jobs will go to Asia.

Seattle's current prosperity, rapid corporate and consumer growth, and hefty real estate price tags are also not-so-instant replays. In the late 1880s, Seattle's Great Fire leveled the wooden pioneer town. British writer Rudyard Kipling, cruising through the Pacific Northwest not long afterward, sketched the business district as a "horrible black smudge." Not for long: The fire prompted a development and construction boom that doubled Seattle's population within a year, turning it into a bona fide city. Less than a decade later, Seattle served as primary outfitter and transportation point for the Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle dipped into gold-rush banking in 1898, quickly establishing itself as a major financial center. Frederick Weyerhaeuser bought nearly a million acres of timberland and set up shop, with Boeing not far behind. Wealthy investors rode in on the Great Northern Railroad and stayed. The population doubled again, creating high demand for housing and retail, and -- like today -- aggressive downtown development and costly living. A 1901 editorial in The Seattle Star noted that "[the high cost of living] is becoming a serious question with every body who is not wealthy... where this thing is to end, for end it must. The breaking point is not far away."

To suggest that recent unfortunate events surrounding the WTO convention reflect a similar breaking point would be to overstate the case. Still, the media's stubborn insistence that "this is not what Seattle's about" rankles. Implicit in this response is an outmoded image of Seattle as a shy, provincial town coming of age in a more worldly world order.

That image was long in the making, and borne out by the city's fin-de-siècle cultural scene. As in 1999, Seattle in 1899 was a prosperous, multifaceted city on the verge of becoming an international player. Unfortunately, though, Seattle's economic dependence on imports translated into a dependence on cultural imports. In the late 19th century, Seattle was a hotbed of homegrown entertainment as well as high-profile activism. Union halls, dance halls, and the Luna amusement park competed with rowdy "box-houses" (saloons with theaters attached) such as the People's Theater, where one might see "Lady Osmena change clothes in total darkness in a lion cage" (from Murray Morgan's Skid Road). Seattle's local culture tended to be popular, public, rough-edged, and easy to dismiss as unsavory. Local artists eventually faced the same concerns as local labor. While more organic performance clearly spoke to Seattle, the city's mainstream theaters cultivated a more profitable audience profile by importing performance from established cultural capitals: Shakespearean troupes and Broadway shows from New York. Sarah Bernhardt came from Paris in 1891 to perform a four-act play entirely in French.

As the century ends, Seattle's cultural establishment seems equally out of touch with community tensions and concerns, laboring under the same false, self-serving image our media conveys. Venues such as the Rep, the Intiman, and KeyArena will usher out the century with musical comedies, Christmas stories, and Bette Midler's Divine Miss Millennium Tour -- the same holiday fare that's playing in every U.S. city. But is this what Seattle's about? I'll venture the real Seattle's still playing nightly on our downtown streets -- popular, public, and no longer so easy to dismiss.

Support The Stranger