Pugetopolis -- A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice: An interview with Knute Berger
Berger’s new book Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice (Sasquatch Books, 2009) is a collection of his provocative essays. On February 25, with Pugetopolis as the starting point, Berger debated his friend and fellow writer and reporter Timothy Egan, National Book Award Winner for The Worst Hard Time, at the Town Hall in Seattle. Although their exchange seemed more a civil discussion than a debate, Egan enthused about some advantages of Seattle’s dawning status as a world-class city based on technology and brain power, while Berger registered circumspection about seemingly endless growth and development. But both writers agreed, as Berger later wrote, that “our challenge is to find a way of living here that matches the place.”
Acclaimed Seattle novelist Jonathan Raban called Berger’s Pugetopolis “indispensable—a book that contains within its pages the beating heart of this city, its quarrels and conversations with itself, its dream life, its flights of braggadocio.”
In addition to his writing for Crosscut, Berger is editor-at-large of Seattle magazine, political columnist for Washington Law & Politics, and a regular guest on NPR affiliate KUOW-FM. He also was editor-in-chief of the Seattle Weekly from 2002 to 2006, where he wrote the award-winning Mossback column. He lives in Seattle.
Knute Berger recently sat down at his downtown Seattle office and talked about his hopes and fears for our aspiring world-class city.
Robin Lindley: What prompted you to put together this book of your essays?
Knute Berger: This is my first book, and I was prompted by a friend Lawrence Cheek, the architecture critic at the PI [Seattle Post Intelligencer], and he said, “I think there’s a good book of essays here.” It’s hard to look at your own work objectively, and I had written hundreds of pieces over the years, but I never sat down and thought “is there something enduring here.” He actually helped me in the process of going through my stuff and it began to gel.
RL: At the Town Hall debate, Tim Egan said that, when he met you, he thought you might be a Young Republican because you wore a bowtie and had the perkiness of Reese Witherspoon. I wondered about your journey as a writer and how your beliefs have evolved.
KB: I decided in sixth grade that I wanted to be a writer—not necessarily a journalist, but poetry and fiction also. I got the writing bug at that age, and when I got a chance to take journalism classes or work on a school newspaper, I did that. I got into it in a real serious way in college. I helped start the newspaper at Evergreen [State College].
The Evergreen experience was great because it was a bully pulpit and a target-rich environment. Evergreen helped to invent political correctness. Even though I’d worked for [Sen. George] McGovern and been an anti-war activist, when I got to Evergreen, I had a chance to try out my more contrarian side. I published a conservative column at Evergreen that practically got me impeached. It was a fun place to learn to write. Then I worked mostly as an editor for years at various local magazines.
Washington magazine was a few years later and started in 1984. I was there for about five years. I worked at some publications in San Francisco while at Evergreen. Then I graduated from Evergreen and hooked up with some guys who were starting a national magazine in Seattle called Adventure Travel. It was about exotic travel and founded by a guy from Smithsonian and Earthwatch. It was quite successful, and we launched it in the late seventies. An editor named Ken Goldthorp came out to take it Adventure Travel, and then the publication was sold and moved from Seattle to New York. Ken decided he didn’t want to go back to New York. He was a former Life magazine editor and a very experienced guy, and he hatched the idea for Washington magazine, and he hired me to work there.
RL: That was an excellent magazine.
KB: It was fun and we had people like Tim Egan, David Guterson, Roger Sales, Murray Morgan, Jon Krakauer—a lot of great contributors. We were famous as a beautiful magazine with lots of great pictures, but we had substantive article with a great lineup of people who have had great writing careers.
RL: Did columnist Emmett Watson’s “Lesser Seattle” movement inspire your Mossback persona?
KB: People have asked if Emmett Watson influenced me, and there’s no question that I was. Growing up in Seattle, I read him every day, especially when he wrote a daily column for the P-I [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]. I loved and believed in Lesser Seattle. One of the shattering revelations was in the late nineties [was] having lunch with Emmett, and finding out that Lesser Seattle for him was just a shtick. He actually was not a Lesser Seattleite at heart. For him, it was more of an editorial device, which was legitimate. Seattle has always had as part of its civic culture this buffoon-like self-puffery, this “we’re the next New York” with a guy standing in the forest in the pouring rain. There’s a lot of hubris and a lot of mindless boosterism, and at various times it has run unchecked. Emmett performed this wonderful function of popping the balloon with Lesser Seattle. But, in fact, the growth of the area has added diversity and vitality, and he saw that as a positive thing at heart.
I tend to be more of a true believer in Lesser Seattle in the sense that I think that the scale and rapidness of the growth, and the fact that it’s corporate-driven as opposed to grassroots-driven is really problematic.
RL: Can you talk about Mossback, a derisive term used by newcomers for people who had been here for a while.
KB: When I was working for Washington magazine I first stumbled on the term mossback. I’d heard the term “he’s a mossback conservative.” The dictionary definition is someone stuck in the past or someone with a very conservative state of mind, but it had a more particular meaning here. There was a contest run in the early 1890s by one of the Tacoma papers, and they asked the pioneers to tell their stories about coming out on the Oregon Trail, fighting Indians, building log cabins, and the person who told the best story would win a trip a free trip on a palace car back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Columbian Exhibition. They had a huge outpouring that was compiled in a book. I was reading through there, and I came across several references to people who talked about the tension between the newcomers after the railroads were built in the 1880s and the old timers said [newcomers] called us mossbacks, an epithet that meant these people were stuck in the woods, stuck in the past. It struck me, particularly since moss is an old term for beards and forests, that this was a real tension point in our culture.
As Americans we're so mobile and so rootless and we tend to look at everything as a blank slate. And there were these pioneers that came out and worked the land and carved a niche and let the land grow on them. They lived in log houses and some even lived in giant cedar stumps. They adapted to the local climate. They weren’t interested in building New York. They were interested in being part of the landscape [as expressed in] the old settler’s song, which people here know as the Ivar’s Acres of Clams song that talks about coming here and shedding life’s ambitions and enjoying the beauty and plenitude—a kind of slacker anthem.
It struck me that the term mossback is resonant in terms of the tensions we’re still dealing with today not simply between newcomers and old timers. It really has to do with people who see Seattle as a blank slate and think they make it anything they want versus people who feel they become part of the place. You don’t have to be born here to be a mossback, but I think of a mossback as a people who are committed to being here and are letting the place shape them rather than imagining great cities on a hill wherever they look.
RL: You write of a kind of Calvinism in region.
KB: Seattle is a very Calvinist town in lots of ways. We’re not a very religious place—it’s sort of a secular Calvinism, but influenced by the Mormons and Congregationalists that settled here. It shows up in this ethic where people are politically liberal but conservative in terms of personal behavior. We think of ourselves as very high-minded when it comes to race or social justice, but then with strip clubs or smoking in bars, there’s this conservative, prudish streak. There was a more dominant ethic in the pre-Microsoft years of an egalitarianism that comes from that Calvinist background and part of that is that ambition and ego are suspect. If you’re rich, you don’t show off your wealth, and Seattle was famous for its inconspicuous consumption. Our millionaires built relatively modest houses hidden in the trees and drove old Volvos and wore paint-stained polo shirts. There was a belief that civic culture should be a level playing field. You saw that a lot of wealthy, middle class and poor people lived in the same neighborhoods. The city of bungalows represents this for me. The bungalows were high-quality, low-cost housing where families could have a little bit of land, a garden, trees, but they didn’t have too much. A lot of people I know in this town grew up in 1200 square foot house with three or four people. Talk about density. There was a very different ethic.
That kind of Calvinism has been contrasted with the frontier libertarianism. One of our biggest early industries besides timber was prostitution and vice districts with more of a rollicking frontier mentality. That also fed that boomer mentality of build-it-big, be a world-class city, do things on a grand scale. That cuts against some of the Calvinist civic culture.
RL: You’ve also written about class divisions here and how poverty and homelessness have been handled in the area.
KB: The idea that Seattle has to purge itself of the homeless people is misguided. I was appalled at the sweeping out of the camps and where people were finding shelter in greenbelts. Places like Nickelsville seem like a great public awareness [tool] and it promotes the values that mainstream culture wants people to have: independence, entrepreneurship, civil society, compassion, and creating a way people can get back on their feet without being entirely reliant on the social service network. The tent city phenomenon and the Nickelsville phenomenon are responses to the failure of public policy, but also really worthy efforts at a lot of levels. And getting the tent cities into suburban areas has been very important. On the whole, it’s been a positive way to deal with a terrible problem. I think of the years of Hooverville.
RL: Another consciousness-raising effort.
KB: It was. I remember my father telling me about Hooverville and how it regulated itself and had streets and government was well organized. Matthew Klingle’s book Emerald City, an environmental history of Seattle deals with the social, class and race issues involved in how Seattle was shaped. I’d make two points. People make the mistake of looking at Seattle and thinking it’s a natural city. There’s nothing natural about Seattle. We washed away hillsides, we built canals, we ran rivers backwards, we filled swamplands, our industrial area was water that is now landfill. We reshaped the Duwamish River. This place has been terra-formed extensively. We cut down virtually all the forest that was here. There’s nothing natural about the city itself.
And Klingle points out that many of those projects had very strong class elements to them. People who used greenbelts to hunt for food were pushed out so that those greenbelts could be turned into parks for wealthier people. In the early days of forming groups like the Mountaineers, there was a belief that the outdoors was a wonderful place to promote the Anglo-Saxon race’s health, and they wanted to keep urban, lower-class people from going to Mt. Rainier because it was seen as somehow degrading of this natural environment. There’s a lot we take for granted about Seattle, but we neglect to realize the city of today is the result of a lot of prejudice and bias and conscious and unconscious actions where race and class made a lot of difference.
Seattle has a long history of ejecting people who don’t fit its image of itself. We expelled the Chinese, we interned the Japanese, we forcibly removed most of the Native Americans who lived here. Seattle citizens burned the Indian long houses in West Seattle. The squatters were removed from the tidelands. Other than Nickelsville and tent cities, other encampments of homeless people have been forcibly removed by the police. These forces are very much a part of the city. We happen to be situated in a beautiful natural setting but the human story of how we live here, where we live, and how that’s been shaped is a complicated one.
RL: You obviously value the history behind the recent developments in Seattle.
KB: A lot has to do not just with telling the story but finding out the story. I was a kid interested in history, but the history of Seattle was very uninteresting to me. In the fifties and sixties, there were these great TV shows about cowboys and Indians, and we didn’t have cowboys and Indians. Our TV show was Here Comes the Brides and we had Bobby Sherman and dancing loggers. It was terrible. I grew up believing our history was irrelevant, and I couldn’t figure out where it fit in American history. We didn’t seem that we were part of any of the major things that happened. I was baffled. As I got older and read more, I learned more.
For years, the history that we grew up with was a story of Pilgrims meaning Seattle was founded by the Denny party, a group that settled and made friends with Chief Seattle and the Indians. It’s the Plymouth Rock story transferred to Alki Point, and it seemed very dull to me. And building a log cabin or sawmill didn’t seem that interesting.
RL: And no great massacres, at least, that were talked about.
KB: As it turns out, there were massacres and tensions and Indian wars. There was a fascinating history, but growing up, it was all sort of a dull pilgrim’s progress. Now there’s a lot of good, new scholarship on Seattle looking at issues like African-American history.
RL: Prof. Quintard Taylor of the UW has done some excellent work in that area.
KB: He wrote a terrific book on the Seattle African-American community. And Coll Thrush’s book Native Seattle tells the story of Native Americans in Seattle from the beginning till now. So there’s some great recent books that are fleshing out the picture. What I try to do in my writing is tie history to contemporary politics and culture, and try to explain things.
A few years ago, at the time of the white supremacists in Idaho, a woman said to me, “I don’t get it. This area seems so nice.” But if you look at the history, before the Civil War there was talk of the Pacific Northwest seceding to become an all white republic. If you look at the immigration patterns, [we had] white southerners flooding into the gold fields of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. We had a huge Ku Klux Klan resurgence in the 1920s in Oregon and Washington. One of the largest Klan rallies ever held was in Issaquah in the 1920s. So if you look at the history, it’s not surprising that there’s white supremacists here. They’ve been here as long as the settlers have been here. And it’s tied to this sense that the Pacific Northwest was the last part of the continental US to be settled so it got it the projections of people who were looking to do something “other.”
RL: That may give us our outcast and edgy reputation.
KB: Charles LeWarne did a wonderful book, Utopias on Puget Sound, a history of nineteenth and twentieth century utopias that were throughout Puget Sound in places like Freeland and Home. We were a center of old new age and utopian idealists of various kinds. Some was socialist, some was anarchist, some was progressive and more ecumenical. Most of those communities failed, and the book is a great look at why these communities came together and why they fell apart. That’s a strong strand in our DNA with the railroad barons on the one side that looked at this place as a blank and you also had these utopian progressives who looked at it as a blank slate, and they were just trying to build different types of utopias. The robber barons wanted to build a particular industrial paradise with factories, railroads and mansions, but you had these other socialist, anarchist, freethinking, free-love suffragists building these alternative communities.
I was struck by Home in Pierce County across the Sound from Tacoma. This took place 60 years before and just a few miles from Evergreen. The ideals expressed: the political activism, the underground culture, and the high tolerance for people with extreme ideas—all those years at Evergreen I had no idea that just down the road this had all been done before.
RL: Isn’t Pugetopolis, a megalopolis winding around the Sound, a reality now?
KB: It is pretty much a reality. We’re still conflicted about it. The original idea when [settlers] came here was that Puget Sound was a magnificent natural area with mountains and forests and mines and everything else. Nature had provided this cornucopia. It’s a weird thing: nature provided this Eden so let’s chop it down and that wasn’t necessarily seen as a conflict. Instead, it was seen as God provided us this great thing and now we’ll utilize it to the fullest extent. The idea was that Puget Sound would host one large city, and the argument was what city would that be—Tacoma or Seattle or Olympia or some other city that failed? There was a city called Puget City that was to be built in the Nisqually Delta. A lot of land speculators were all vying for this thing. You see this still in our politics today in that even though Seattle won the argument as the big dog of Pugetopolis in terms of population and industry, the rest of the region is unwilling to concede. Bellevue is building matching high rises, and Tacoma is still trying to fulfill its destiny as a big city and they’re doing things to urbanize downtown. They haven’t conceded anything to Seattle. So you have a sense of regional rivalry still.
On the other hand, we’re filling all the blanks with sprawl, with cities expanding. Places that were refuges for people from the city like Hood Canal and other places are now filling in as bedroom communities. Eventually, you know what happened on the eastside will happen on the Kitsap County side. So there are tremendous pressures to both protect the region and fulfill the Pugetopolan dream of building the perfect city in the perfect place, and those things have some serious consequences.
We have this notion that you can have big factories and this global-corporate homeport for commerce, and you can do that in a way that maintains a pristine environment, and we know that’s not true. We know that our living here is destroying Puget Sound. We know that the snow pack is melting from global warming, and what isn’t melting is contaminated by heavy chemicals from factories. We know that mountain fish have mercury in them. We’re living this contradiction. So Pugetopolis is a reality, but a very conflicted one.
RL: You mention ironies like the desire to build roads to address congestion, and you say that’s like buying bigger pants to address a weight gain.
KB: Everybody knows you cannot build your way out of congestion. The more roads you build, the more growth you stimulate. The idea that somehow we’ll solve our problems with bigger and newer highways is just a fallacy, but a lot of people believe it. With the economic downturn and the emphasis on shovel-ready projects, if you look at the tens of millions the state will be spending on these projects, most of them are highway projects, like repairing 405. Some of them are worthy, and others highly questionable. We’ve been dealing with these contradictions in boom times, and now we have to deal with them in harder times. You see the mentality of many is to get out of hard times you double down doing the things that created the economic problems in the first place.
RL: I was fascinated by your article on the appointment of Gary Locke as Commerce Secretary by Pres. Obama and you see Locke as a business advocate rather than a more imaginative choice we might have hoped for from Obama.
KB: I voted for Obama and I was an Obama delegate. I’m a big supporter of his, but it doesn’t mean I think he’s right about everything. He’s stuck with dealing with this contradiction that we have which is growing our way out of a problem that unchecked growth helped to cause. This is not a recession we’ll be able to shop our way out of. I hope what comes of it is creative thinking about how to take advantage of the down times to work on small things—neighborhood things, grassroots things, sustainability, adaptive reuse, historic preservation, green retrofitting. There’s a host of things that build communities and aren’t this knee jerk, create-jobs-by-building-roads.
Obama’s not done putting his program out, but I see the Gary Locke pick as a very conservative, very safe pick where you pick a Democrat who has a record of putting business first. There are other people working on these issues like economists and other thinkers like Bill McKibben who wrote Deep Economy about how can you create alternative economies that are not tied to this endless growth, economies that are sustaining and not consumptive. Obama is right to invest in alternative energy and the move to fuel efficiency. But the problem is bigger than doing the things we’ve been doing but a little more green, and that’s where we’ll need more visionary leadership. The recession is an opportunity to hear the people making a case for these [alternatives].
RL: Your critics have said you want to go back to a Seattle that doesn’t exist anymore, and we can’t do that because we’re condemned to grow.
KB: I get caricatured as being nothing but anti-growth and only nostalgic for the past, which is not true. Seattle has improved in many ways. Seattle is a more diverse city. It’s a more vibrant city. We have a better arts infrastructure. A lot is better about Seattle now than in the sixties or seventies. If you’re African American, Seattle is probably a much better city today from the standpoint of diversity and being able to live wherever you want, as opposed to being redlined or restricted by housing covenants. Good things have happened, but there have been negative consequences. Increasing class divisions, the middle class—families being pushed out of the city.
In terms of my hopes, one thing I’d like to see more skepticism about the idea that growth is unstoppable. One of the reasons this area was settled the way it was settled was due to federal policy. It had to do with railroads, with the Homestead Act, cheap power for Boeing. Federal policy made the Northwest and Seattle.
Growth is a matter of policy, not simply a matter of the free market. Americans have a right to move or go wherever they want, but we can also create incentives through the tax systems or programs or subsidies to steer people into places or lifestyles that would be better for the environment.
I’d like to see more thought given to shaping the city and not simply accepting the free market of endless growth. Edward Abbey said, “limitless growth is the political philosophy of a cancer cell.” We can do better than that. We can look for levels of growth that are much more sustainable and allow us, as we grow and evolve, to integrate the new with the old. Anglo-Asian-Europeans have been here for 150 years of settlement, so we’re starting to have some serious time in here, so we need to find new ways of respecting where we are both in terms of the natural environment and doing what we need to live here better, and we need to respect the human environment, the way we have been shaped by the place and the institutions and culture we have.
There are many intriguing possibilities in the years ahead. Light rail is going ahead and we’ll see how that reshapes the city. With the recession, you may see a migration of middle and upper middle class kids into the public school system as people find private schools less affordable. It will be interesting to see if re-engagement of middle-class families has an effect on improving Seattle schools.
I feel rather optimistic. Roger Sale had a theory that Seattle does better during busts than during booms. During boom times, we get too big for our britches. We tend to be very derivative and start copying everybody. During bad times, we become much more innovative and make progress. Some argue that during the Boeing recession/depression of the late sixties when a lot of people left Boeing –but not the area--and they started high tech businesses. They helped create the infrastructure of innovation that created the silicon forest and made the environment that Microsoft flourished in.
The downturn may have upsides for Seattle, but not necessarily upsides that will please the big real estate developers, but the kind of positives that can be beneficial at the neighborhood level. I’m already seeing a movement toward much more cooperation between greens and historic preservationists who have been in conflict in recent years because many greens have supported the high density, high growth of the Nickels administration because density reduces sprawl and new buildings are greener and more sustainable. You’ve had environmentalists and preservationists at loggerheads because people have wanted these high-density projects to go in older buildings to come out. We’ve torn down some wonderful buildings on Capital Hill to create a staging area for light rail because some say some eggs need to be broken to make an omelet. But now you’re seeing a movement toward greens and preservationists working together and realizing that the most sustainable building is a building that already exists. Can we do more adaptation? Can we take existing buildings and make them greener and find ways of using them without putting more junk in our landfill?
RL: Can we recycle existing buildings somehow.
KB: Exactly. Seattle’s done a pretty good job of finding adaptive new uses for structures, but we could do a much better job, and the current economic climate might help.
RL: You talk about the mayor and city council as weak-kneed munchkins, but indicate that this is a mixed blessing because we don’t have a strong man or woman or a corrupt ward structure.
KB: With regional issues, you here a refrain that we need one entity or one czar to make all the decisions. Greg Nickels, of course, would be happy to be that czar for the city or the region. Our politics are such that, because communities are competing in the area and are suspicious of one another, nobody wants to cede too much power to any particular entity. People don’t want Seattle to dominate more politically. And Seattle is out of touch with the rest of the region, and somewhat hostile to the rest of the region.
RL: Regional efforts seemed doomed for the most part.
KB: Yes they do. Certainly, when it comes to ceding any power. Some people thought of the Puget Sound Regional Council as regional government, but they’re basically a research and policy arm, not a regional government. I think the resistance to regional government is good. There are some positives in Balkanization and one is it makes it more difficult to make mischief. The yearning for a Robert Moses to come along and sort everything out, we now know in looking back on his legacy it had a lot of negatives for New York. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed. Freeway systems were built that weren’t sustainable.
So there’s a real downside to having a strong man, and I like the public ethic that we have that power can be questioned. I like the initiative process and referendums. I like recall. Those were things that came in during the Progressive era that speak to ways of remaining suspicious of anybody getting too much power.
Nickels has done a tremendous amount to weaken neighborhoods in terms of grassroots organizing. They’re all much more beholden to the central power in the city. I would like to see a mayor of Seattle who is interested in pushing power out to the neighborhoods instead of concentrating power in the mayor’s office. We can argue about [Nickels’s] policies or whether he did a good job with the snow storm, but certainly he has admitted that a centralized, Chicago-style, strong mayor approach versus an approach I would like to see where you’re pushing power out to the neighborhoods.
RL: You’ve debunked the myth of “Seattle nice.” My wife and I have been in Seattle for 26 years, and I was at the UW for seven years earlier, but even at that, it’s challenging to find a sense of community here. My wife is from New Jersey, and she notes that people don’t get her jokes.
KB: Seattle is an irony challenged city. I’ve been reading from the book, and people really seem to be fascinated by the chapter on the myth of “Seattle Nice.” We have this public hat tipping to the idea that Seattle is a nice town, but it really isn’t a nice town. It’s a passive-aggressive town, a repressed town. It’s a town that is friendly on the surface but not intimate. It’s difficult for newcomers.
RL: Warm on the outside, cold on the inside.
KB: Exactly. And people respond to this. And the percentage of people who live in Seattle who were born in Seattle is really very small. Natives of Seattle are 25 to 30 percent, so there aren’t a lot of natives. So most people living in Seattle came from somewhere else, and almost all of them complain about how difficult it’s been to make friends or socialize. I’ve been collecting theories about this. There’s the Scando-Asian theory that this is in our DNA. There’s a theory that everyone who moves here is a misfit from somewhere else so they were socially challenged to begin with. There’s a theory that we’re all caught in a homestead mentality—I can take care of myself and don’t need anyone else. Somebody last night said the culture of the town has been set by Boeing engineers who are not necessarily known for their social skills, but like to work in the shop and solve problems. Another theory is that there’s a certain amount of show-me-ism in that you’re not convinced someone is worth knowing unless you’ve known them a long time.
To me, as someone who grew up here, these things that are regarded as anti-social are just part of the way I was raised. It never occurred to me that we were unfriendly or that people would have a difficult time adjusting to Seattle until some time in the eighties when most of my friends were from out of town and they asked, “How come people never invite us over for a drink?” Or “We’ll invite people to a party, and they won’t even respond.”I’m not sure I understand the reason for this lack of sociability, but my list is up to about ten different theories.
RL: Do you have any other projects in the works?
KB: I’d like to do a sequel to this book. I intend to keep plodding away and, like Evergreen, Seattle is a target-rich environment. There’s always a lot to write about. It’s my hometown and I love it and I always seem to have a lot to say.
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Knute Berger - 5/18/2009
Thanks for running Robin's interview with me. It was the first time I'd seen it full-length. I was surprised, though, that in response to his question about Seattle's Calvinism I referenced Mormons in Seattle. I meant to say Lutherans, thinking of my own Scandinavian heritage. So please note that I don't think it's Mormons who have made us uptight.