Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Seattle Neighborhoods

We were told by some friends that the life in Seattle is concentrated in the neighborhoods, a series of urban villages. So today we used our rental car to drive around and explore them.

We started out in the Ballard area, a former shipyard and worker area with a Scandinavian heritage that is now becoming more gentrified. The narrow streets were lined with Craftsman bungalows, modest and attractive little houses in a variety of colors. We saw these small homes throughout the city and I liked them a lot.

We then spent some time exploring Green Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by a walking/biking path. Looking out over the calm waters lined with the bare yellow branches of willow trees, I immediately loved that area. It reminded me so much of the lakes in Minneapolis. Even the street was the same – Woodlawn Avenue instead of Woodlawn Boulevard. And there was a Baskin Robbins nearby, just as there was in Minnesota.

After lunch we walked the 2.8 mile loop around the lake. The path was packed with people strolling, biking, skateboarding, skating, walking dogs, pushing strollers, carrying babies in pouches and sacks. This was in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. I imagined it must really get packed on weekends.

While walking around the lake, I noticed there wasn’t much diversity, with the overwhelming majority Caucasian. I thought it was just the neighborhood, but a friend who had us over for dinner that evening said the city as a whole is not very diverse. The main immigrants were Asians and they have been here a long time already. Another person I met today told me that the demand for childcare is much higher than the supply. So I wonder why this city doesn’t attract more Hispanics or other immigrants.

We then drove through the bohemian neighborhood of Fremont and the upscale neighborhood of Queen Anne before joining a friend and his partner for dinner in their Eastlake townhouse, on the east side of Union Lake.

Bob and Eric have been living in Seattle for a few years and they were able to tell us about the local culture. They told us how the slower pace of life extends even to the freeways, where people will always let others in and the speed rarely exceeds 65 miles per hour, even in the fast lane. They told us about the opinionated, liberal population, how “hell would freeze over” before a Republican would be elected mayor, how all the city council members were elected at large. They told us how this made for lively debate, but in difficulty making decisions. How when a water tower was planned to be constructed in one neighborhood, everyone had an opinion about the size, color, and style. Since all were at large, it wasn’t possible to just defer to the person representing that neighborhood, but instead consensus had to be achieved on all the minor issues.

The film Sicko made the observation that Americans are a passive electorate because they are too afraid of losing their jobs, security, etc. to speak up. It seems that Seattle is an exception, an example of a community where people speak up, debate, and seek compromise. It may take longer and be messier, but maybe knowing their voice is heard contributes to the fact that they seem happier and friendlier than people in many other areas of this country.

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