That didn't stop Diers from traveling, at his own expense, to Cuba in late March to deliver an official declaration, signed by Mayor Schell, of a partnership between his department and the city of Havana. (Seattle already has so many sister cities that the City Council has imposed a moratorium.)
Diers made the trip almost exactly a year after council members traveled at taxpayers' expense to Singapore to "steal some of their better ideas," as Bob Watt of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce put it at the time. In Singapore, the streets are always clean, Sidran style; citizens are fined for failing to flush a toilet, and killed for selling drugs. But while city planners around the country are increasingly charmed by Singapore's elegant police state tactics, Diers sees socialist Havana--where everyone has health care, old men play dominoes in the street, and "the music is wonderful!"--as a better model for Seattle.
And so in May, Seattle and Havana will plant trees in each other's honor. There are plans to send the man who designed the Fremont troll to Cuba for a consultation, and stores in Havana have already started selling the Seattle-style worm bins, which so impressed a Havana official who was here in March, speaking at a gardening conference.
At the conference, Diers--who led Seattle to the number one position in the American Community Garden Organization (we have more p-patches than any other city)--was equally blown away by what he heard about Havana's gardening program. While Seattle has 49 city gardens, he points out, Cuba has thousands, "and they're all organic!"
Of course, Cuba's gardening finesse isn't just due to a burning love of nature: the U.S. embargo makes pesticides and fertilizers inaccessible, and it's hard to grow food outside of the city because there are no refrigerated trucks to transport it. "You always think of organic vegetables as a privilege for the rich, but Havana is a city of organic vegetarians," Diers enthuses. "Of course, they all wish they could eat pork."
Various Seattle social justice organizations have been sending delegations to Cuba for years, but alas, the relationship can't be made legitimate. Sister city relationships with Cuba aren't recognized by the U.S. State Department--and a federal media relations officer didn't like the sound of a relationship with the Department of Neighborhoods either: "The Cuban regime is not a democracy so we do not have relations with government officials, even on the municipal level." Uh-oh.
"I've been half expecting to hear from the State Department since I started this," shrugs Diers, who Mayor Charlie Royer hired to head the Department of Neighborhoods 12 years ago--several years prior, as an activist, he had impressed Royer by releasing a live chicken into his office (signifying the mayor's chickening out of supporting a housing project). Diers' original job description was all about implementing city plans to deal with growth. But he wasn't too into that: "I've tried to concentrate on an aspect that wasn't mentioned in the original job description--community organizing."
Diers' work on community gardens and his commitment to grass roots planning has made our Department of Neighborhoods famous everywhere but Seattle. The department recently won an award from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and a $100,000 grant to implement some of its programs in other cities. Diers is frequently invited to speak about Seattle's programs: just last week, the Houston Chronicle ran a glowing 2,000-word front-page feature on him and the department.
What does it take to get a tiny, four-person department in a second-tier city written up in The New York Times? It's got a lot to do with going to Cuba instead of Singapore, says Diers. "Usually governments see organized communities as a threat. But I've always tried to work from the bottom up."