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Not so long ago Seattle was a minor league city, in fact and in temperament. It was reasonably prosperous, conservative, resistant to change and content with its middle-sized lot as a provincial capital. Some thought it was culturally disadvantaged—Sir Thomas Beecham once called Seattle an aesthetic dustbin—but it was sublimely favored in its natural setting, a rain-washed, fir-scented congregation of hills spilling into Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington along the east. Rivers, mountains, forests, lakes and islands too numerous to name lay so close they might as well have been city playgrounds. And if it rained a lot, so much the better. Rain kept strangers away and made the tulips and the rhododendrons blaze in the spring.
But in the years after World War II, there was the prospect of rapid growth in and around Seattle, and a few people began to be concerned for the future of the city, for its economy and for its treasured outdoor way of life. Why, as early as the mid-1950s, lovely Lake Washington had become too polluted for people to swim in.
Beginning in the late 1950s, a series of ambitious civic and metropolitan area projects were undertaken, each grander in scope than the last and each highly successful, which eventually altered the course of Seattle's history and made it a model for the rest of the country. The first was the cleaning up of Lake Washington, which began in 1958. Then came the 1962 World's Fair, an event that drew unusual attention to Seattle and altered permanently its own view of its civic destiny. And finally, in 1968, a $334 million bond issue called Forward Thrust was passed, which made possible, among 614 other civic improvements, the construction of a covered stadium just south of the main business district. Once there was a stadium, the Kingdome, there were professional teams to fill it—the Seahawks of the NFL, the Sounders of the NASL, the SuperSonics of the NBA and soon the Mariners of the American League.
Everything the city fathers did seemed to work. Metro, a municipal governing body, was created to deal with the joint problems of city and suburbs. Its cleanup made Lake Washington one of the largest unpolluted bodies of water in an American city, and it became a model for urban planners nationwide. The World's Fair not only made money, but when it was over, Seattle also had a new cultural center. And as for the Kingdome, perhaps the most controversial of all the Forward Thrust projects, the target of dire predictions of suffocating debt, choking traffic and even collapsing sidewalks, it has been a resounding success since it opened on March 27, 1976. It's a squatty utilitarian structure that an Oregon newspaper wag once described as "a toadstool with a short stem," but it cost only $67 million to build, compared to the Louisiana Superdome, which opened in 1975 and cost $163 million.
In its first six years of operation, 18.6 million people have visited the Kingdome, more than three-quarters of them for professional sports events. Although the Seahawks have only had two winning seasons in their six years, they invariably sell out. The Sonics, who won the NBA title in 1979 and are a perennial contender, have set one league attendance mark after another. Following a season of record crowds for an expansion team (1977), the Mariners have struggled, both at the gate and afield. But this year, with a winning record, not to mention Gaylord Perry to attract the curious, the empty seats are beginning to fill (see box, page 64). Only the Sounders seem to be floundering, suffering simultaneously from mediocre play and owners beset with cash-flow problems, after eight seasons of mostly good teams and solid attendance.
Because the Kingdome has had substantial operating surpluses every year, the property tax levied on King County residents to help pay the mortgage was lifted in 1981, instead of after 17 to 20 years as had been projected. The entire debt service is now covered by a 2% hotel-motel tax, another indication of the effect the dome has had on tourism in the area.
Not that Seattle's road to the big time has always been smooth. A large economic hiccup shook the city around 1970, and of course now it is in the throes of the nationwide recession. Then as now, Boeing, the area's largest employer, was hardest hit. Then it had to cut its payroll of 101,000 by almost two-thirds. Unemployment in the Seattle area reached 12.7%, more than two times the national average. So many people were leaving the area, the story goes, that not a single U-Haul trailer was left for rent.
Now Boeing is cutting its payroll again, having pared its work force by 5,000 in 1981, and the timber industry, another important element of Seattle's economy, is suffering from the slump in housing starts, with the result that unemployment had risen to 10.7% at last reading, 1.6% above the national average.
Also, adjustments have had to be made in Seattle's master concept when the electorate has dug in its heels on such costly or emotional issues as rapid transit and the redevelopment of the city's beloved old Pike Place Market on a bluff above the downtown waterfront. But in the end the concessions made by the planners to the ad hoc "smallness" lobbies have worked for the good of all. They have defused political polarization, thereby preserving Seattle's traditional conciliatory way of getting things done, and they have created a rare breed of contemporary city dweller, the committed urbanite who knows he can make his voice heard.
Through two decades of significant change and against a backdrop of the deterioration of American cities generally, Seattle has emerged as a paragon and an inspiration, testimony to what urban living could be if cities were, like Seattle, moderately populated, surrounded by water, hemmed in by mountains, favored by a mild climate and watched over by a citizenry that knows how lucky it is. From a nice town rarely seen by outsiders except those passing through on their way to Alaska or Japan, Seattle has become the best place in America for the urban outdoorsman, the sort who wants to have his cake and eat it too; who wants city living with its man-made delights and everything else as well.