Does Seattle pass writer James Fallows’ 11-point checklist for the intangibles that make a great city? Not right now we don’t.
Seattle’s such a great city.
This phrase I’ve heard repeated around town over the years more than any other. This deep-down belief — that our city is special — comes as close as we get to an official religion.
So I was taken aback by a national magazine writer, who traveled 54,000 miles around America and came up with a list of telltale signs that a city is a success. Because Seattle, for all our shine, just doesn’t make the grade anymore for a city on the rise.
The writer, The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows, hopscotched the nation in a small plane to chronicle the ways American life is changing. In his travels, he noticed some common civic themes that set apart the rising cities and towns, the places “where things seemed to work.”
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He published his checklist in the March issue under the headline “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed.”
By my grading, soaring Seattle scores six out of 11, at best. At my kid’s middle school, this would prompt an after-school retake:
1. “Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.” Fallows found that the more national hot-button topics “came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.” Uh oh.
2. “It’s easy to answer the question ‘who makes this town go?’ ” Fallows found great places have easily identifiable civic engines. So who is the juice around here? No elected official, that’s for sure. Amazon is a rain forest of money but could not care less about the city’s affairs. So who? If I had to pick who runs Seattle right now, I would say “developers.” Is that a good thing?
3. “Public-private partnerships are real.” We definitely have these, especially if you count subsidized sports stadiums.
4. “People know the civic story.” By this he means, do we agree on a common identity? When I first got here in 1985, Seattle was still the jet city, or a striving middle-class city set in natural splendor. What is Seattle today? City of the rich and the homeless, still set in natural splendor? Silicon Valley North? Seattle’s story is being rewritten so fast the citizenry can’t be expected to know it.
5. “It has a downtown.” This is what I mean about our changing story. Seattle’s so boomy we have downtowns. The main downtown is there, while another downtown springs up in South Lake Union. Only there’s no there-there yet to our sterile new downtown. I advise visitors to go to the miraculous Pike Place Market and call it good.
6. “Near a research university.” Check plus for us. We have the second-largest research school in the nation. My only beef is we don’t always recognize the jewel we have, so we don’t support it as we should. We also ought to be creating new universities.
7. “Has, and cares about, a community college.” These two-year colleges are the great equalizer of the new economy, Fallows argues. We’ve definitely got ’em. How much we care, measured in the form of consistent state support, is again an open question.
8. “Has unusual K-12 schools.” He means like high-school engineering academies or schools for the performing arts, and even public boarding schools for underprivileged kids to bridge the achievement gap. We have some foreign-language immersion K-5s and option alternative schools, but Seattle hasn’t shown a lot of creativity here.
9. “Makes itself open.” Meaning, it tries to be inclusive, to draw in outsiders. Give Seattle’s civic leaders credit for effort, what with the affordable housing push and other attempts at making future Seattle not only an enclave for the rich.
10. “Has big plans.” We’ve got Mount Rainier-sized plans. Execution is another matter.
11. “Has craft breweries.” Check plus-plus for us! Fallows believes craft breweries are some sort of urban signpost of extended entrepreneurial activity. I don’t know about that, but the beer around here is fantastic.
So is Seattle at risk of being a city that doesn’t work? Fallows’ list points to a hard-to-pin-down feeling I’ve had for a while, of Seattle slippage. We chronicle it daily with the homelessness crisis, soaring rents or botched civic projects. Whether it’s poor leadership, misplaced priorities or just a temporary struggle with too much runaway success, something’s not quite right.
You don’t hear “Seattle’s such a great city” as much as you used to.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 19, 2016, was corrected Feb. 24, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Seattle has no science and tech high school. A few years ago, Cleveland High School became an all-city draw school with a focus on science and technology.