Lit Life

Seattle historian Knute Berger’s nom de plume, Mossback, comes from the nickname given to the area’s first pioneers, and Berger is about as authentic a native son as you can find in our city. Other than a brief, diversionary foray into the Bay Area, he’s lived his whole life here. Widely known for his local history commentary on Crosscut, KCTS9 and KUOW, the former editor of the Seattle Weekly, author of two books on Seattle and a fellow at Seattle’s old-line Rainier Club, Berger has a local boy’s grasp of where the city has been, where it is now and where it might be going.

The University of Washington Press chose Berger to write a new introduction to its reissue of Roger Sale’s classic history-meditation on our city, 1976’s “Seattle, Past to Present.” The book was a labor of love by Sale, a professor of literature at UW, an East Coast native who came west to teach and never left. When it first came out, the book was widely read and discussed, and it’s been consulted by the curious and perplexed ever since.

Sale, writing near the end of the Boeing bust and before the waves of growth brought by Microsoft, the tech explosion and Amazon’s takeover, perceived Seattle as a thoroughly middle class (“bourgeois”) city, with leafy neighborhoods, large yards and limited ambitions. Things are different now. Berger will appear at Folio Seattle on Jan. 23, where we will discuss Sale’s book and what it means for today’s Seattle. He answered some questions in advance of his appearance.

Seattle historian Knute Berger will discuss the new edition of “Seattle, Past to Present” Jan. 23 at Folio Seattle in Pike Place Market. (Matt M. McKnight / Crosscut)
Seattle historian Knute Berger will discuss the new edition of “Seattle, Past to Present” Jan. 23 at Folio Seattle in Pike Place Market. (Matt M. McKnight / Crosscut)

Q: You knew Roger Sale. What was he like?

A: I knew Roger by reputation when he was covering sports for the Weekly. He also wrote for the New York Review of Books. I didn’t really get to know him until the last decade of his life. He was retired, but I frequently sat next to him at breakfast [both men were part of a Madrona neighborhood breakfast group]. Roger was a brilliant guy, he could talk about anything. He thought deeply about things and often had a contrarian point of view. Even though he’d written “Seattle, Past and Present” years before at that point, he was still engaged in the city.

Q: You write that Sale’s book was “a kind of response to ‘Skid Road.’” Why did he feel compelled to respond to Murray Morgan’s popular work of Seattle history?

A: Roger was a literary critic. He took that literary-critic sensibility and applied it to Seattle. He and Murray Morgan were friends, but I think they had some differing views about Seattle.

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For a lot of people, the entry point into Seattle history was, and still is, “Skid Road.” Roger wanted to analyze Seattle through his own filter, through his reading of Jane Jacobs [the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”]. He felt that “Skid Road” didn’t answer the question of what kind of city Seattle had become.

Murray Morgan was a superb storyteller, and in Murray’s book, Doc Maynard [David Maynard, an open-hearted Seattle pioneer with a checkered personal life, a bad head for business and a drinking problem] became a major figure … I think Roger felt that early histories of Seattle had romanticized these roguish people, and didn’t acknowledge the contributions that the more stolid citizens had made. He felt that Arthur Denny was the ultimate contrast, a teetotalling Methodist, very civic-minded. He’s one of the major reasons the University of Washington exists; that’s an example of the kind of civic city-building decisions that had a greater impact than some of the frontier stuff.

Q: Sale wrote about people who shaped the city. One was Jesse Epstein, the mind behind Yesler Terrace and the creation of the Seattle Housing Authority. Another was Dave Beck, the all-powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters president from 1952 to 1957. How did these people change Seattle?

A: With Epstein, the main thing was that Yesler Terrace [Seattle’s first housing project, completed in 1941] was integrated. Seattle had been a highly segregated city through redlining and housing covenants. Yesler Terrace was developed well ahead of the civil rights era. It was very controversial, and very progressive. They took an area that was considered a slum area and developed it into vital low-income housing. The Seattle Housing Authority, which is still with us, is carrying on those values. Its work is incredibly relevant today, with the issue of affordability.

Dave Beck controlled the working class … he was a giant, Jimmy Hoffa-like character in the local union landscape. He was viewed as a labor hero by many and also as a criminal, a tough, head-busting union guy. He was a huge civic force in terms of where he could put his clout and his money.

His power kind of peaked in the years before he went to prison [Beck was convicted in 1959 on federal charges of income-tax evasion]. He was a guy who could promise labor stability to business owners … he was definitely a force for taming the workforce and turning them middle class. Roger was one of the first people to shape that narrative, which helped explain the city’s middle-class quality. It was a city where you could have it all. Housing was affordable. Nature was close at hand. Things that people lament now.

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Q: What has the prosperity bomb done to the notion of Seattle as a “bourgeois” city?

A: I’m not sure Roger thought that Seattle as a middle-class city was a good thing. Roger was an urbanist. He loved the dynamism of a city. One of the conclusions he came to, in the Jane Jacobs era, was that great cities are not company towns. A vital city is one that provides the most opportunity for the most people at all levels, and this is something that gets erased in company towns.

Roger would see that some changes that have come to middle-class Seattle are a good thing, even though those wonderful bourgeois comforts are less available. I think there are lessons to be learned about the risks of the company town. The history he lays out is important in the age of Amazon. Prosperity is not what makes a city; it’s the effects of that prosperity and the concentration of power.

The period where he was writing and completing the book was in the era of the Boeing recession [roughly 1968-1969 to 1979]. When you look at that period, it was a decade when so much civic progress was made — the saving of the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, the creation of Bumbershoot, the Burke-Gilman Trail. These seem to have been almost triggered by the Boeing pullback. If you look at a list of what happened in that decade, you think, this is what made Seattle Seattle.

Is that activity at the grassroots level still happening? If not, why not? Is the city devoted to solving some of its larger inequality issues? Is Seattle a company town again, and if it is, how do we run it better than we have in the past?

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Discussion info: Knute Berger will discuss the new edition of “Seattle, Past to Present” in conversation with Mary Ann Gwinn at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23, at Folio Seattle in Pike Place Market. Ticket information at folioseattle.org.