Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Culture: Seattle Consensus

An outdoor portion of the Fun Forest in Seattle, Washington near the Space Needle was observed dormant on 27-December-2010; the site will now apparently be split between KEXP studios and a Dale Chihuly glass museum

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've long stated that Seattle rarely recognizes just how much it was culturally influenced by native peoples. The environmental influence often receives recognition, with Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe's famous speech taught in Washington state schools, whether he actually gave it or not. The far greater contribution, in my opinion, is primacy of consensus in decision-making. Building consensus--no matter how much it slows down progress--is more prominent in Seattle politics than anywhere else I've spent time in the United States, sometimes to an almost comical extent. A member of one of the Salish tribes inhabiting the area three hundred years ago might well recognize the process.

A case in point has surrounded the Fun Forest at the Seattle Center. Seattle Center itself was created for the 1962 "Century 21" World's Fair, and its various infrastructure largely re-purposed afterward. The Fun Forest has been a set of indoor and outdoor amusement rides that have existed outside the Center House for my entire lifetime. As the years have gone on, revenues at the Fun Forest have declined, and it was announced in 2009 that the Fun Forest would close before the end of the year.

Instead, the Fun Forest was still open earlier this week (though it will close within days) as debates have gone on within the city of Seattle about what would take its place. In the end, two alternatives emerged--new studios for world-famous alternative radio station KEXP 90.3 FM and a new Dale Chihuly glass museum. Exactly why Seattle needs a Chihuly museum when the Museum of Glass exists in nearby Tacoma has never been clear, and parodies of the proposal included the well-publicized Sir Mix-A-Lot proposal.

So what was the Seattle solution, after nearly a year of talks? Earlier this month, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn announced that the city would build both, along with a kid's playground as a partial replacement for the Fun Forest. If every problem could be solved this way, Seattle would do it. If it could build a replacement Alaskan Way viaduct, a tunnel, and a surface solution all at the same time, it would. When the city really has to make a choice, it takes even longer than when it does a grand compromise as with the Fun Forest site.

Somewhere, I think Chief Sealth and his peers are smiling.

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