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Democracy on King Street

Perhaps you’ve heard of the "Seattle Process." For more than 40 years, pundits have applied the term to the city’s painstaking determination to gather public input on public projects. In his 2004 book Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, author Fred Moody described it as “the process of seeking consensus through exhaustion.” Quintessential examples include the 2006 replacement of two water towers on Queen Anne Hill—a boondoggle that somehow took 13 years and almost $3 million to complete—as well as a mid-'90s monorail that was approved by four separate public votes before being aborted. Any time you see a group of Seattleites attempts to solve a problem by “unpacking” it, the Seattle Process is alive and well.

The Seattle Process feeds stereotypes of a city of shoegazing wallflowers who are paralyzed by analysis. It isn’t a compliment. But consider what the opposite might look like.  

In the mid-20th century, a megalomaniacal city planner named Robert Moses made New York City his own personal plaything. During his decades-long reign as a bureaucrat and appointed architect, Moses spent $150 billion public dollars on 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges—all without securing a single public vote. He was infamous for building low overpasses near New York City beaches so that they would be inaccessible to buses bearing the urban poor. After demolishing the majestic Pennsylvania Station and replacing it with a pale imitation, Moses’ crowning achievement was the Cross Bronx Expressway, a 6.5-mile serpent slithers through the center of its namesake borough, displacing more than 250,000 New Yorkers and condemning thousands more to poverty and unemployment by gutting the city’s industrial core. All of this happened, at least in part, because citizens had no say. 

Rising rents and cascading living expenses suggest that a similar upheaval is happening in Seattle. Development is displacing long-term residents. Where will endangered communities—a cohort that includes people of color, working-class people and creatives—congregate in the years to come? 

This week, I was hired as an Outreach Coordinator for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. In the coming year, my job will be to help turn the top floor of King Street Station—a century-old train station that the city acquired last decade—into an arts space that will last for generations to come. The transition will involve soliciting feedback from civic stakeholders in the cultural sphere, such as artists, gallery owners and arts institutions. It will entail hosting community forums. And it will culminate with a final report— available to the public in 2017—which will guide Seattle’s plans for the space.

The work we’re doing beneath the 120-foot tall clock tower at King Street Station is the pinnacle of the Seattle Process. It doesn’t get any more democratic than letting the public partake in a conversation about an institution that will serve it. In his 2008 book Recapturing Democracy: Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternatives, University of Washington professor of Urban Design Mark Purcell writes, “In its positive connotation, the Seattle Process values popular participation and meaningful debate.” It’s enough to make Robert Moses turn in his grave.    

When I attended a caucus for the 32nd District Democrats of Washington State, I noted how similar the process looked to what we’ll be doing for King Street Station. This resonance between art and politics is real. While we were waiting for a credentials report to come in so we could go about electing delegates, the singer Wanz (of “Thrift Shop” fame) treated us to an impromptu performance of an as-yet unreleased song. “If you need someone to stand beside you when the world has let you down, I will,” he belted out.

Historically, the availability of affordable housing in major American cities is tied to the presence of creative communities. One tends to follow the other. As that tie is severed by the dissolution of the city’s safety net, Wanz’s lyrics strike me as words the new King Street Station should live by.

In Seattle, San Francisco is often invoked as the worst-case scenario in a cautionary tale about runaway rents and unfettered privatization. But if the problems facing the Bay Area echo those of the Puget Sound, so should the solutions. Earlier this spring, venture capitalists Andy and Deborah Rappaport spearheaded the Minnesota Street Project, an affordable, mixed-use development for San Francisco galleries, artists, and white-collar knowledge workers. The Minnesota Street Project houses 30 artists who are selected by an application process and has attracted tech-centered patrons by aligning techies, artists and city government.

There’s no reason why a similar alignment can’t happen in Seattle. Expanding Seattle’s creative economy means creating inroads between disparate communities and King Street Station can become a creative commons that reflects the best the city has to offer.

We tend to forget that it was massive public investment in the 1950s and ‘60s—not simply private enterprise—that incubated the technology behind the Internet. Similarly connecting art and technology in the coming years could lead to unforeseen creative flowering. A hundred years ago, King Street Station was purposed for mass transit; what if it became the infrastructural hub for a municipal WiFi movement designed by artists working in concert with the city’s tech sector?

Miranda Campbell’s Out of The Basement: Youth Cultural Production in Practice and Policy makes is it clear that the networked economy of freelance creatives “relies on informal mechanisms that people from disadvantaged background might not have access to.” Situated near the historically marginalized populations of the International District and Pioneer Square, King Street Station may become an answer to nagging questions of inequality and inaccessibility. Deciding what King Street Station will look like will simultaneously demonstrate what democracy looks like. Hopefully, it looks like a work of art.

The first public feedback session for the King Street Station takes place on Tuesday, May 10, from 5–7 p.m. at King Street Station. Write to the Office of Arts & Culture at arts.culture@seattle.gov for more information.