Thursday, November 12, 2009

U.S. approves Salish Sea name


I've been covering this story for months. It's now a done deal: the inland salt waters of the Pacific Northwest from southern Puget Sound north to Desolation Sound are now called the Salish Sea. The U.S. government approved the name on Nov. 12, and the scoop is here. The move doesn't necessitate new maps because it changes no existing names (many people still don't understand this). It's an overlay term, like "the Great Lakes." Anyway, it's a big victory for scientists and ecologists who wanted recognition for the ecosystem, for native tribes who are honored by the name, and for tourism promoters looking for a catch-all trying to attract people to the Cascadian region.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Reading at Seward Park


My last scheduled reading this fall is this week, on Thursday, Nov. 5. I'll be reading at the  Seward Park Audubon Center at 7pm.

Seward Park pops up often in my columns and essays. I've been going there for more than half a century, and I frequently walks its trails. I plan a reading skewed to the park, and I also plan to read from a cycle of poems (not in the book) that have been inspired by experiences in the park. Yes, Mossback writes poetry sometimes, and Seward Park has been a frequent inspiration. (Note: the photo above is not Seward Park! It was taken on Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island.)

If you haven't been to the nature center at the park, check it out. They completely refurbished the old cottage there (it used to be a restaurant and food concession) near the park entrance. They now teach nature classes, guide walks, have a library, and you can post wildlife sightings on a chalkboard outside. Seward Park played a huge role in the appreciation of nature in my life and I'm happy to support that for the next generations.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Seattle Bookfest, and trickling down in Eugene, OR

I had a busy weekend. I went down to Eugene, Oregon on Friday to participate in a Society of Professional Journalists conference at the University of Oregon on "The Future of Journalism." I was on a panel with other bloggers discussing the challenges of shifting from print to electronic journalism. We had a great audience, mostly journalists and j-students. It was actually helpful to hear how other people are dealing with the struggles of making a living doing what we love to do in a media arena that is wide-open, unformed, and has not revenue model that is sustainable for most people. (Photographic evidence I was at the conference can be found here.)

One of the points I made was that influence, money, audience: everything seems to some in trickles. There's no one way to fund a website, but if, like Crosscut.com, you derive some revenue from donors, membership drives, advertising, grants, foundations, you might just be able to get enough from each stream to make a river. Same with readers: each link, each person drawn by a single story or a niche focus, adds to the whole. As a writer, you freelance for different outlets (in my case, Crosscut, Seattle Magazine, Washington Law & Politics) and hope that is adds up to a modest living. It's a very different mindset than working as a staffer for an established media outlet. 

I drove back on Sunday in time for a Pugetopolis reading to close the Seattle Bookfest on Sunday afternoon (Oct. 25). The Bookfest was great, held in an elementary school in Columbia City and in the classrooms there were tables for browsing books for area bookstores, authors and publishers. I attended a highly entertaining reading by Robert Ferrigno, the noir author who has written a trilogy about the Islamic take-over of America. In the first, short excerpt he read, there was one hand-job and three slayings. Not for the kiddies. But he shared some interesting insights about faith and fundamentalism, and also about his own writing methods.

My reading at 5pm was standing room only and people were very responsive. Some old Mount Baker friends came and we went out for drinks afterwards at Lottie's. Columbia City restaurants and bars were hopping, even on a rainy Sunday eve. One thing I love about the district is that it embraces change but within the context of the past: the old buildings there have been preserved and give the whole commercial district great character. The places I remember as a kid (the old post office, the five-and-dime, the men's shop) have been adapted to new uses and they look like they're working beautifully.

Congrats to the people who put on the Bookfest. I heard nothing but good things about it and appreciate the chance to read there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tim Egan, Elliott Bay's crisis, Audubon talks and more


A couple of things.

First, I attended Tim Egan's Elliott Bay Book Co. reading for his new book, The Big Burn, which I finished last week and it's terrific, another saga of man-against-nature (wildfire) and the consequences of government action and inaction. It's a compelling short course on the creation of the conservation movement, tracking the careers of Teddy Roosevelt and the eccentric and passionate first head of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, all against the backdrop of one of the worst forest fires in American history. It all has resonance today, of course, as the forces of resource exploitation are still at work, and the courage of the people who created our National Parks and Forests is something we should never take for granted because the task of keeping them is never done. Tim, by the way, wrote the introduction to Pugetopolis. He's now off on a national book tour.

And speaking of Elliott Bay, I've written a piece for Crosscut about the implications of their possible move from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill, which is being motivated by financial difficulties. I think the move could be a real plus, perhaps rejuvenating their business model, though it would also be tough on the Square. But most of all, I do not want to see Elliott Bay go down. It's a tremendous institution and nationally respected and a fine damn bookstore.

Second, I had a great time in Tacoma this morning, rising in the wee hours to catch the Sounder train at 6:10. I was the keynote speaker for the Tahoma Audubon Society's annual early-bird fundraiser breakfast. There were some 300 people there and they were amazingly awake. I reminded them that that great Tacoma writer Murray Morgan once described waking up on a damp, Tacoma morning as feeling like you were inside an oyster! Anyway, the Tahoma Audubon Society is doing great things in Tacoma and Pierce County, the speech went great and I sold out of books (they ordered 50 and we took orders for 10 more). All proceeds to the Society. Anyway, my thanks to the Tacoma greens who got out of their shells and gave Mossback such as warm and friendly reception. 

Speaking of Audubon, I will be reading at the Seward Park Audubon Center on Thursday, Nov. 5th at 7pm

Lastly, this Saturday (Oct. 24) I'll be on an SPJ Panel at the Communications School at the University of Oregon in Eugene, sharing time with Josh Feit of Publicola and others discussing making the transition from print to online journalism. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading at Columbia City's Seattle Bookfest

The old Northwest Book Festival is being revived in Columbia City, which has to be one of the great ideas of the year, not only for Seattle book-lovers, but for the neighborhood. One of the chief organizers of Seattle Bookfest 2009 is Paul Doyle of the Columbia City Cinema. It's a volunteer effort. The festival will be held the weekend of October 24-25 at the Columbia City Event Center, a short walk from the new light rail line.

I'll be appearing, along with some 100 other authors and speakers. I'm slated to read from 5pm-6pm on Sunday, Oct. 25th. My publisher Sasquatch will also have a booth at the fest. 

For me, the event us doubly exciting because I grew up not far from Columbia City. It is part of my old stomping grounds. The wonderful old library there was my first public library and I still can smell the oak and dust. It is also forever part of my internal landscape and remains the archetype of "neighborhood library." (It's been restored and expanded, but retains much of its character.) 

I plan to share some work related to growing up in the Rainier Valley. I hope you can make it Oct. 25th. Admission to the event is a $5 donation.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fall Readings and Events for "Pugetopolis" and Beyond


I have a number of Fall readings and events coming up for my book "Pugetopolis," and also some panels on the topic of changes in journalism. Here's a quick run down.

For "Pugetopolis":
I'll be talking about my book at the "Hospitality Mixer" at The Rainier Club in Seattle on Tuesday, Oct. 6, which mixes, among other things, my book and drinking, always a good thing.

I'll be speaking at the Tahoma Audubon Society fundraising breakfast in Tacoma, at 7:30 am (!) on Thursday, Oct. 22.

I'll be giving a book reading in my natural habitat as part of the Northwest Authors Series at the Seward Park Audubon Center in Seattle on Thursday, Nov. 5. A number of essays in "Pugetopolis" are based on events at Seward Park, which I have been exploring since I was a tot. For those of you who haven't been able to make a Seattle reading, this is a great chance in a wonderful setting.

Journalism events:
It seems like this fall is full of media navel gazing, and I'm gazing along with everyone else. I've been asked to share my perspective on being an independent journalist and blogger on a variety of panels, including:

The "Future of News Conference" at Seattle University, Saturday, Oct. 10 at 9am. I'll be on a panel with Michael Parks of Marple's and Art Thiel, formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, discussing "Building Your Brand as an Independent Journalist." The all-day conference features an all-Star cast of Northwest journalists. Admission is $50; $15 for students and the unemployed.

Panelist on "Life after print" at the SPJ journalism conference, Saturday, Oct. 24 in Eugene, OR.

Panelist on blogging for the Public Relations Society of America's  non-profit seminar on Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Northwest Rooms at Seattle Center at Noon.

I hope you can make it to one or more of these events.



Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pugetopolis' first year in the big leagues


This summer I've been working on a project for the Museum of History and Industry taking a look at Seattle's modern history, that is the events and trends of the past 30-40 years. One of the themes that keeps coming up is Seattle's yearning to be a "big league" city, a phrase used before "world class" city came into vogue during the '90s and '00s.

Our big league status has been in flux of late: We lost our NBA franchise, the Seattle Supersonics, to Oklahoma City, but we gained a major soccer team with the popular Sounders. Turns out that part of major-leagueness is flux: Look at cities like New York and Los Angeles and you see that teams come and go. There's nothing permanent in the changing world of sports, where careers can be over in an instant, where teams can appear and vanish within a heartbeat.

An example of the latter is the Seattle Pilots, our one-year wonders and first major league baseball franchise that played here in 1969, only to go belly up and find themselves reincarnated at the Milwaukee Brewers. I wrote about this for Crosscut this week because on August 29, there will be a Pilots reunion of sorts in Bellevue, Seattle and at Safeco Field. Those of us who are old enough have been remembering Woodstock and the moon landing this summer, but for me, the big event was the coming of the Pilots. My dad and I went to the opening game against the Chicago White Sox at Sick's Stadium and it was a big deal for father-son relations.

Pilots (and former Yankees) pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a classic baseball memoir about his year with the team, and in it he captured some of the difficulties a sports franchise in Seattle would have, one being that it is so beautiful and so ideal as a jumping off place for outdoor activities, that sports might have a hard time getting a grip here. In his book, Ball Four, he describes how Seattle's natural setting could be both a distraction and a consolation to Pilots players.

"That's the great thing about our ballpark," he writes of Sick's Stadium. "When a home run hit off of you disappears over the fence your eye catches a glimpse of the majesty of Mt. Rainier and some of that bad feeling goes away," he says of dealing with the pressures of baseball. In Seattle, nature itself is Big League, and it's tough for anything to compete with it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer Pugetopolis update


Not much to report on the book front. I've taken the summer off from readings and events, but the fall calendar is starting to fill in a bit. A couple of things of note:

I'll be part of the Northwest Authors Lecture Series at the Seward Park Audubon Center in November, which will include a reception, reading, discussion and signing. As readers know, Seward Park has been a hang out of mine since I was a toddler and experiences there form the basis of a few chapters in the book. I'm thrilled to be part of the program.

In October, I'll be appearing at the Rainier Club's "Hospitality Hour" to talk about Pugetopolis and wander the halls of a club that my grandfather belonged to. It's been all downhill since.

There's also some talk of an appearance at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College, in the fall. No date set yet.

I have done a few pretty cool things this summer. I served on the citizen's panel for AIA Seattle's Future Shack awards, selecting projects that represent the best ideas and practices Washington architecture. The results will be published in the Seattle Times in September. You can see my story about the process here.

I also had a chance to speak to the Museum of History and Industry's Summer Teacher's Institute, where I did a presentation called "Googie, globes and atomic power," a look at what can be learned about local history from three, modern architecture preservation projects. It was an honor to get to talk to teachers and share what I've learned from reporting on the Ballard Denny's, the P-I Globe and the UW's Nuclear Reactor Building.

Another project: Getting on Facebook. I've been warned that it's "the world's biggest time suck," but if you want to find me there, I am ready to receive friends.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Books are trumping the tube


I've been writing on Crosscut about my decision to not go digital and allow my broadcast TV to fade to black. I'm watching more DVDs, but less TV. If you want to read up on my decision and updates, you can find posts here, here and here.

Less tube-time has also been good for my summer reading, and I thought I share some thoughts about a couple of books I've read recently.

The first is not yet published, but I had a chance to look over the uncorrected galleys of a book slated to come out this fall from my "Pugetopolis" publisher, Sasquatch Books. It's called "The Collector," by Spokane author Jack Nisbet, and it's a stirring account of the naturalist David Douglas's expeditions to the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century.

Douglas, whose name is attached to our region's iconic Douglas fir, was in the enviable position of being one of the first men of science to get to roam and explore the region at will. He was a horticulturalist sent to find plants that would delight English gardeners, but his discoveries and contributions to science did so much more than that. A pleasant, energetic Scottish bachelor, he kept extensive journals from which Nisbet has been able to reconstruct his journeys. Keep your eyes peeled for this book if you have any interest in seeing the Pacific Northwest as it was, with its bison herds, grizzly bears and giant condors. The only meaningful density issues back then: thick forest and rivers choked with giant salmon.

I also greatly enjoyed Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano's "Flotsametrics and the Floating World," which I reviewed on Crosscut as the ultimate in beach reading this summer. Ebbesmeyer is a Seattle oceanographer who has made important discoveries by become the world foremost authority on flotsam and jetsam by studying how sea-borne junk moves around the planet. If you are interested in weirdness, like why do Nike sneakers float and what to make of those tennis shoes with feet in them that have been washing up in our region, this book has the answers. One piece of good news: you still have decades to look for those classic, old Japanese fishing floats because Ebbesmeyer's computer model predicts they'll continue to wash up for years to come.

A footnote: Ebbesmeyer sings the praises of legendary Northwest beachcomber Amos Wood who was the father of Japanese fishing float collectors and whose works have proved invaluable to those studying flotsam, jetsam and ocean currents. Back in the 1980s, Wood gave me a magnificent large float that he'd found, much like the one pictured here. When I edited Washington's Almanac years ago, I used the float as a crystal ball to make predictions with. It still sits in my study as I write. Thanks to Ebbesmeyer, I have a better sense of the journey it took to fall into Wood's hands.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

KUOW listeners weigh in: More like 6,000 things you can't say about Seattle

My recent story, "Six things you cannot say Seattle" generated a lot of response, evidence of the story's Twitterability and that it seems to have struck a chord. Seattle's famously mushy discourse has resulted in a build-up of verboten opinion. The culture of consensus is discomfited by disagreement.

My list was short; I gave six examples, which isn't to say these are the only things that are no-nos. Not by a long shot. The best part of the feedback is that almost everyone had something to add to the list. You can see some of the debate in the comments thread following the original piece, but the discussion continued in a number of forums.

We devoted a lot of time to it on KUOW's "Weekday" journalists' roundtable discussion (June 12). Instead of discussing healthcare reform, we got swept away as listeners called-in and emailed their own additions to "six things." If you want to know what Steve Scher, Art Thiel, Eli Sanders, and David Horsey have to say, listen in. "Weekday" producer Katy Sewall also kindly collected some listener suggestions and passed them along, noting that some seemed rather confessional. So, according to Seattle public radio listeners, you cannot say:

Kurt Cobain had nothing to do with Courtney Love's success

Tim Eyman is awesome! (that would cause a public lynching!!)

If the salmon can't fend for themselves that's their own problem

I like clearcuts

I drink Folgers

I prefer wine from a box

Why do I have to learn Spanish?

Composting is GROSS

I don't like salmon

I missed two episodes of Jon Stewart

WaRshington

"Ballard hipster" is just a variation of "Bellevue yuppie"

I eat at McDonald's

I don’t like KUOW

Density is good

Soccer is BORING

I don't buy organic

I like Budweiser

I don't own Fleece

I don't like coffee

I'm from Tacoma

Whole Foods is a waste of money

A public hearing will just bog down the project

Anything remotely critical about KEXP

Yeah it's in Seattle, 2 bedroom and nice lot...and I paid less than $250,000

I was born in Bellevue

The Space Needle is tacky!

Lake Union isn't really a lake, it's a lagoon

J.P. Patches is a tired old clown

The Puyallup Fair is better than Bumbershoot

Put your dog on a leash

Baseball is boring

I’m on dial-up

For more response, including from Portlanders, see the longer version of this story at Crosscut.com

Friday, June 12, 2009

Six things you cannot say in Seattle


Today on KUOW's "Weekday," we talked about my story, "Six things you cannot say in Seattle," which has been getting tons of hits and response on Crosscut. The calls and emails flooded in to the show, and Steve Scher, Art Thiel, Dave Horsey, Eli Sanders and I had fun talking about the city's taboos. I plan to do a follow-up piece based on listener or reader response. Clearly, the piece struck a nerve. Some of these topics are tackled in a different way in my book "Pugetopolis," like the whole "Seattle nice" myth, but there is clearly much more. Below, I am running the piece so you can read it here:

Newcomers to Seattle quickly find that we’re a cultural minefield of prejudice and political correctness that can blow up in your face if you misstep. So here’s a list of conversation stoppers — things you just can’t say in polite company. Clip and save this column; it may save you from social banishment or worse.

1. “Recycling is a hassle.” Oops. You mustn’t complain about sorting cantaloupe rinds from Kleenex. Anyone who yearns for the good old days when garbage was garbage is rooting for planetary death. Seattle is a city of dedicated recyclers — it’s one of the things that makes us morally superior to everyone else. Sort your trash into 50 different containers and do it with a smile, otherwise you’re as suspect as an SUV owner.

2. “Bellevue’s pretty cool.” People in Seattle might sneak over to Bellevue Square for shopping once in awhile, but you’d never tell anyone. And despite Bellevue’s attempt to become a dense, gay-friendly, smart-growth city, Seattle will never see it as anything but an example of trashy, car-loving sprawl that is causing, yes, planetary death. The Eastside is Orange County with rain, and Bellevue is Anaheim without Disneyland. For true Seattleites, it does not exist save as a dark, eternal “other” (with a great mall).

3. “Would you like to come over for dinner?” I’ve previously written about the “Myth of Seattle Nice.” We’re friendly, but not so friendly as to actually want to get to know each other very much. Recently, a newcomer told me that his new Seattle friends dumped him when he became too “needy” after the death of his partner. Another said that when he moved out here he invited his new neighbors to a get-to-know-you barbecue. Only one person showed up. (I’m surprised anyone came.) We have a word to describe people who invite strangers over: “stalker.” Blame it on our Scandia-Asian roots or the fact that Ted Bundy or D.B. Cooper might be next door, but being too friendly could result in a restraining order.

4. “I like driving better than biking.” What is it with you and planetary death? First, people here consider cars a necessary evil at best. You don’t wash it, trick it out, or show it off. No gals in bikinis lolling on the hood. Cars are colorless (gray, silver, light blue) and practical (’84 Volvo wagon). Even better, you drive your car as little as possible and when you do drive, don’t have fun. Second, cycling is good for you. Your weight loss will take a load off of Mother Earth. If you have a coronary riding up a hill, be reassured that Seattle is the “Best Place to Have a Heart Attack,” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. This is the town where the bike anarchists beat up a guy who tried to get out of his parking space. So bike it and like it, see?

5. “Your dog just shit on my shoe.” Look, in Seattle, pets are people, too, even Labradoodles. Dogs at the store, in the bar, under the seat, in the next cubicle: You have no right to complain because that would mean you’re being cruel to animals— and possibly even demeaning someone’s disability, if a pet owner has deemed Fido a service dog. Hair, dander, allergies, drool, snarling, defecating: That’s no different than what you experience from people on Metro every day. So be mindful that the pooch under your seat could be a lawsuit just waiting for you to open your mouth.

6. “I’m a Republican.” There is no surer ticket to the Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane than to make this declaration in Seattle today. Republicans haven’t been a factor here in 40 years. Most people in Seattle have never met a Republican, let alone voted for one. To admit to being a Republican is to declare war on the sensibilities of the recycling, biking, companion-pet-owning, suburban-hating loners you live among. If you are not involuntarily committed, you will be advised to move to Bellevue, where you can speed the way toward planetary death with your own kind.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Snohomish and the alternative history of Pugetopolis


I just returned from a two-day conference in Snohomish where I met many kindred spirits when it comes to historic preservation. The event was the Historic Preservation and Cultural Tourism Symposium, a first-time event hosted in honor of the city of Snohomish's 150th birthday. I was a speaker and moderator of the event.

Snohomish is a gem of a town when it comes to preservation, with lovely restored homes and a downtown main street that looks in many ways remarkably the same as it did in the late 19th century. Like Seattle, much of the original commercial strip burned in the 1800s and most of the wooden store fronts were replaced by brick structures (though not all, a few originals remain). It's a bit like Port Townsend, but on a smaller scale, and even on a weekday, the downtown bustles. It's a place that's lived in. One sound the provides background "music" when you walk along through the commercial district: the constant rumble and grumble of the operating mill across the river. Snohomish was founded to make timber fortunes, and hasn't entirely turned into a museum yet.

One of the speakers at the conference was David Dilgard, a history specialist who works for the Everett Public Library. He spent part of an evening telling stories about the history of Snohomish County, from Native American animal tales to the shenanigans of early settlers who seem to have scammed Snohomish into existence. They fooled the the government into thinking that a road to town was passable by wagons. The military was looking for a way to move troops and supplies north in case of war with Britain (the Pig War). The road through Snohomish was was not yet passable, but local boosters made it seem better than it was bringing a wagon up the river by steamboat and parking it in town so inspectors would think the road was fully operational. A con job, or salesmanship?

Dilgard said Snohomish was really a speculative dream of a powerful clique of pioneers from Steilacoom, an early power on Puget Sound and in the Washington Territory. One reason for growth was it was thought that the military road would be good for business, so the site was an early example of the influence of the defense industry on the territory's growth patterns (military and defense spending continues to be huge in the region, a cornerstone of Puget Sound prosperity and jobs). Snohomish didn't boom from defense, however. The road became unnecessary when cooler heads prevailed and it was decided not to go to war with Britain over the death of a single swine.

One thing Dilgard's anecdotes reminded me of, however, was that there was nothing particularly inevitable about the ascendency of certain cities on Puget Sound. As I write in Pugetopolis, there was a tremendous amount of competition in the early days to determine which cities would dominate in the region. It is entirely possible that instead of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Olympia, for example, being regional power centers, an alternative history might have seen Snohomish, Mukilteo and Steilacoom as the dominant regional cities.

I plan to write more on some newsworthy things I learned at the conference at Crosscut.com

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fighting "civic dementia" in Seattle


I gave the following speech as the keynote of Historic Seattle's 35th Anniversary and Awards Ceremony held at the Arctic Club Hotel in Seattle, May 20, 2009. This is a slightly edited version without a few off-the-cuff remarks. The evening honored Historic Seattle, the non-profit, public development authority established to save and find new uses for historic structures in Seattle.


It's great to be here with you this evening under the stained glass of the Arctic Club Hotel. This historic building looms large in my mind because of its walrus "gargoyles," the faces that line the outside of the building and look like Mike Holmgren.

These made a great impression on me as a child, and I think they made an impression on my father. He was born and raised in Seattle too, the second of four Knutes. As a young boy, his family lived on the east slope of Queen Anne Hill above Lake Union, in a bungalow on the edge of the woods right near where Aurora is now. My grandfather, bestafar, was a tough Norwegian, and did what most Scandinavians do. At bedtime, he read stories to my dad...stories that scared the living daylights out of him.

Yes, my father's lullabies were terrifying tales of trolls and witches and monsters of the dark forest, a most Lutheran preparation for life. As a result, my father was reluctant to walk through the woods to school at the top of the hill having become convinced that a giant walrus lay waiting for him. Nothing his parents could do would shake him of this belief. I am sure this idea must have been put in his head by the walrus totems decorating this building, as walruses are not native to this area. My ability to be here is testament that a bloodline can overcome its fears of rampaging forest walruses, with the passage of time.

The subject of time brings me to what I want to talk about, which is the battle we fight against "civic dementia."

That's not an easy fight in Seattle. "Civic dementia" is everywhere. We're losing our historic brain cells one bungalow at a time. How can this be happening in a city that became a national model for proving the economic vitality and value of saving historic neighborhoods, a town that rescued Pioneer Square from decay and the Pike Place Market from being converted into a parking lot?

It's because Seattle is a city that is actively engaged in forgetting who it is. We may dream of being a big city, a green city, a world-class city. But we are still a city of the far West, a frontier city. As such we're restless, utopian, future-focussed, money-crazed, and our town is filled with newcomers and short-timers. We attract many people who believe Seattle is the place you come to to escape the past.

Historian and novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote that the hallmark of the West was its transience. He wrote that the West invented ghost towns, dust bowls, and motels. Our obsession with the new and with change is, ironically part of our past, and part of our discontent. You build something in the West, then you move on. Psychically, we're not the Arctic Club Hotel. We're a motel on Aurora, a city of one-night stands.

Just look at our shifting identities. Seattle's founders dubbed us New York Alki and our first real tourist attraction was, appropriately, Madame Damnable's, a brothel. We soon became the Gateway to Alaska. Just in my half-century of life we've been the Queen City, the Jet City, the Portal to the Pacific Rim, the launch pad for Century 21's Space Age, the capital of Pugetopolis, the Emerald City, and the Silicon Forest. Tacoma claims to be the City of Destiny but Seattle is Sybil, the city of multiple personality disorder.

This is what makes the work Historic Seattle does--and the accomplishments of tonight's award winners--all the more significant. Because while you and I cherish Seattle's up-and-down, back-and-forth history, while we relish finding a new use for an old house or church or school, many of Seattle's citizens view historic preservation as holding us back, as an exercise in nostalgia, as something only old people and rich people care about.

They have a point.

Historically, preservationists have often been biased toward saving the homes of the wealthy or large public monuments. They've shown a tendency to reward architectural virtuosity, anything with spires, cupolas or gingerbread. The rap against preservationists is that they don't like change and want to turn back the clock. And we all know a few moss-covered souls like that. Although, the amusing thing is that the critics of preservation are also often people who tout things like streetcars, small neighborhood shops, walking, cycling to work. This fall I saw two downtown Seattle policemen on horseback wearing capes. Giant wooden nutcrackers stood outside downtown shops, like cigar store Indians of old. Now, just who is turning back the clock?

Many citizens are happy to allow historic preservationists their snobbery--to allow granny and grand dad their bottle of sherry now and again. Let them save a few mansions if they must, but the rest of the city is ripe for erasing. Keep the bar high on historic landmarks, keep the bar low for developers who are eager to swing the wrecking ball, in the name of progress.

Seattle is filled with people who act as if we were a blank slate.

And it's not just developers. It's those of us worship nature too. A professor I know said the reason so many Seattleites don't go to church--we are among the least religious, least churched people in America--is that we have never been able to build a sanctuary that comes close to matching the awesome magnetism of Mt. Rainier.

By that measure, our built environment will always seem second rate. We'll rally to save a forest before organizing to create a new historic district.

My current interest in historic preservation was sparked when I wrote about the impending demolition of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's restaurant a couple of years ago. The argument was over whether this 1964 roadside diner was significant enough to save. Most experts and the city's landmarks board thought that it was.

But many people thought the whole idea was preposterous because it was a Denny's, not a grand hotel or theater. When built, it was called the Taj Mahal of Ballard, which says more about Ballard than the building. It was touted as a unique example of "Googie" architecture. One architect dubbed its style as "Scandagoogienesian." The press coverage was extensive. Channel 9 called it the battle as "Googie versus Goliath."

What really struck me, though, was the hostility the effort to landmark the diner engendered. I was told by people that Seattle "has no history." Another wrote "There is NOTHING worth saving--blow it up." But you can't really blame these people: we are the city that built the monumental Kingdome at public expense, then blew it up before we'd even finished paying for it. That sent a message: Seattle is disposable.

The problem with viewing the city as a blank slate is that it is not. We call this landscape "Metronatural" but it has been extensively altered to suit our needs. We washed away hillsides, changed river courses, built canals, pushed the sea back. The last 150 years of extensive development and settlement has created not only manmade landmarks, but a living fabric that has bound us to this place. The natural and built environments are inseparable really. Together they help form civic memory, embodied values, our very sense of reality. And it's literally how we find our way around. Who here has not given a direction like, "Go down the the Pink Elephant sign and turn right?" We all know you never ask a native Seattleite how to get somewhere by naming the streets.

So, how do we combat civic dementia? There are several things that can help.

One is that preservation now means more than mansions. It includes Sears catalog homes, Denny's diners, old nuclear reactors, the P-I Globe, even a bulletin board in Chinatown. The preservation movement needs to continue to broaden its definitions and find creative ways to pursue and encourage the shaping of the city without reliance on simply saving major landmarks. Preservation is a key component of livability and should be part of every- day policy debate.

Preservation also needs to have fun. I think back to seafood entrepreneur and folksinger Ivar Haglund stepping in to save the Smith Tower and fly a victory [salmon] windsock over it. I can't help but think if Ivar were with us today he might have saved the Wawona in its final hours or turn the Kalakala into a floating Acres of Clams. Ivar operated with humor and hustle and a brilliant PR sense for the absurd. Scandinavia tends to produce people who take things a bit too seriously, but Ivar managed to make Seattle laugh even when doing something important. We could learn from that.

We need to educate the public that preservation is more than architecture, more than "the Doc Maynard slept here...or lay drunk here." We need to save the nuts and bolts of the city. I think of the row of wonderful brick retail and apartment buildings along Broadway that were demolished last year by Sound Transit. They weren't landmarks, but they were beautiful, affordable, and well-built. Much of what needs to be saved isn't special by itself, but it has earned a right to stay with us, and the civic cost of wrecking and replacing is often too high. I'll bet you that whatever replaces that Broadway stretch will be less well built and more expensive too.

We need to spread the word about recycling. Seattleites love to recycle but that ethic disappears during building booms. Much of the growth is done in the name of the environment: We're putting up green towers downtown to increase walkability and density. But the carbon footprint of new construction is huge. As they say, the greenest building is one that is already built. Historic Seattle and its supporters know this and live by this ethic, but most people still believe that new is greener or greenest.

We also need to stand up to free market arguments by recognizing that the dynamics that drive development are not free. They are the products of specific tax and land-use policies. They are the outgrowth of federal and state decisions, incentives, and mandates. As we're learning in these post-boom times, markets are made and unmade by people, and not always good people. It is no more interference to pass laws to protect our built environment than it is natural to allow it to be bulldozed.

A city that knows its history is a city that knows where it is and who it is. Change, we know, is inevitable, but Historic Seattle and historic preservation helps us answer questions about what kinds of change are desirable. It embraces and invites change as it tries to shape a city of rich cultural layers. It teaches us the love of place, it helps newcomers learn the lay of the land and put down roots.

During the Ballard Denny's controversy, one of the people arguing to demolish the diner told me he had just come back from Europe, from Prague, and that there was a city with real historic buildings worth saving, they were hundreds of years old.

Of course, I helpfully explained that the reason he could gush over 300 year-old buildings is because when they were as old as the Ballard Denny's, no one tore them down.

If Seattle doesn't do something to halt the process of civic dementia, it will never be like Prague or London or Boston or San Francisco or any other city that resonates with the contributions and legacies of those who came before.

That's why what you here do, is so important.

Thank you.

Award winners this year included The Northwest African American Museum, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Arctic Club Hotel, Top Pot Doughnuts, the Magnolia library renovation, the Seattle Church of Christ (for the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist), and the new book "Seattle Architecture, a Walking Guide to Downtown."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mossback and Mayor Greg Nickels, together at last


Mossback and Mayor Greg Nickels sharing the same podium! What could possibly bring us together?

I'll be the keynote speaker for Historic Seattle's 35th Anniversary Celebration and Awards Ceremony, Wed., May 20, starting at 5:30 pm.

The awards portion will recognize a number of truly worthy historic preservation and heritage projects around town, and this is a chance to meet folks who have been at the forefront of adaptive re-use: restoring historic structures and finding new uses for them. (It's the sustainable way to go, and it preserves architectural heritage too). The event will be held in the Northern Lights Dome Room of the newly restored Arctic Club Hotel, the newly refurbished downtown landmark with the iconic walrus "gargoyles."

Oh yes, and the mayor will say a few words too.

It's a celebration, a fund-raiser ($60 for the general public, includes free drinks), an awareness builder, and a chance to acknowledge some great work. Hope you can make it.

Order tickets at www.historicseattle.org or call (206) 622-6952.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Frost/Nixon: Discussing Politics and Media

The Broadway play Frost/Nixon is coming to the Paramount Theatre in Seattle May 6-10 with Stacy Keach in the Nixon role. You may have seen the Oscar-nominated movie last year. For my money, Frank Langella was the best screen Nixon yet, but Keach is a vet at playing strange, magnetic characters. Perhaps he'll draw on his inner Mike Hammer to give Dick Nixon a thuggish edge.

As a lead-in to the play, there will be a panel discussion on Saturday, April 25 called "Political Spin: A Conversation about Frost/Nixon and the Role of Media in Politics." My friend and KUOW Weekday host Steve Scher will moderate a panel that includes me, the Seattle Times' Lynne Varner, and University of Washington political science professor Mark Smith. It will be at the downtown main branch of the Seattle Public Library, 2-3pm.

There certainly is a lot to talk about: A growing scandal around the Bush administration's torture memos and whether or not to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing. A print media that is morphing out of its post-Watergate swagger and literally disappearing before our eyes. Impeachment has been seriously discussed or pursued for each of the two presidents immediately preceding Obama. Will the next Woodward and Bernstein be bloggers who Tweet their way to movie stardom or a Pulitzer Prize? And why is it that so many Watergate players have a Seattle connection? Was it something in the water? Join us for a free-ranging discussion of why Frost/Nixon is relevant today.





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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Darvills and going to the dogs


I'm headed up to the San Juans for a reading at Darvill's tomorrow (Friday, April 17). I had a great interview today with Margie Doyle for her Bullwings blog which deals with island issues.

Also this week in your copy of Real Change ($1 from a vendor near you) is a lengthy interview with me conducted by Robin Lindley. Robin has done quite a few long-form Q&A interviews with Northwest writers, and this one was a real pleasure.

Also (see photo provided by Steve Shay) is a piece on my appearance at the Ballard Library. I haven't got my hands on the hard copy yet. Not sure what the dog's name is either, but perhaps he looks content in part because of the story I did recently on how cats are damaging to the environment.

I know it's a long shot, but Orcas island offers many attractions other than my book reading, so if you've been looking for an excuse to get up to the islands, here it is. With a little regional cultural enlightenment thrown in. Darvill's, 7pm.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Newcomers, Orcas Island, and back on the Northwest bestseller list

I had some good Pugetopolitan events this week. Have you ever heard of the Seattle Newcomer's Club? Me neither. But I spoke to the group, which is so popular that some members some have been in it for 30 years. It's a social network of women who've moved here from elsewhere, a great place for people to shake off Seattle "nice-o-lation" or the so-called "Seattle Freeze."

I spoke at their monthly luncheon at Third Place Books' pub in Ravenna. As much as I hate to say it, these people mostly seemed like assets to the community, but I would have liked it better if each had passed the lutefisk tasting test. We had a great time talking about the quirks of Seattle culture and politics and they proved to be an enthusiastic audience.

I also learned this week that Pugetopolis is back on the Pacific Northwest Indie Bestseller list (Trade Paperback Nonfiction), outpaced by gardening, weather and Tim Egan.

Next reading is on Friday, April 17 at Darvill's Bookstore at Eastsound on Orcas Island. I'm excited about this reading because I have a sentimental attachment to Darvill's dating from the times my family spent on Orcas back in the 1950s and '60s when we often summered there at Sea Acres. My dad collected prints and old man Darvill had a marvelous collection. He also sold various odd bits, like a pamphlet he'd written on ventriloquism and Darvill's Perpetual Calendar by which you could find the day of the week for any date in history. Or my favorite: an all-black postcard that purported to show "Orcas Island at night." At that time, the shop seemed like something out of a Twilight Zone episode, old, dusty, a little spooky. Today it's a first-rate bookshop.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Metronatural is bunk!


The Ballard News-Tribune has an account of my reading at the Ballard Library last week and focusses on my comments about the contradictions between wanting to live in pristine nature and inhabit a "world class" metropolis in its midst. So far, especially if you're a salmon or an orca, that isn't working out too well. I try to describe why our civic glass is half-empty with some humor and perspective in Pugetopolis. But our conflicting desires and the contradictions of life here are, I think, a fascinating window on local culture and character and worth exploring. Needless to say, I share some of these contradictions even while pointing them out.

It is sensitive turf, however. In an article this week on Crosscut I raised a number of issues about he environmental impact of cats on Puget Sound. The response was strong: Mossback hates cats! Let's get rid of fat people, not pets! The fact remains that while we debate the damage plastic bottles and grocery bags do to the environment, the sheer number of pets we have also has a huge impact in the spread of disease from cats to otters, for example, or the consumption of wild fish runs, or in the depletion of our songbird populations. Our pets have a big impact on Puget Sound. It's something to think about; it's damage we might want to try and mitigate. Cats, dogs and other lovable creatures are not the only or even the major threat (neither are grocery bags or Evian bottles), but if we're going to get into the details of what's environmentally problematic and what's not about our lifestyles, let's talk about some of the stuff that's taboo. It's easy to criticize Hummer's, but are so many pets really green?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pugetopolis a bestseller at Elliott Bay

This is nice. I spotted the book on the Elliott Bay Bookstore bestseller list in the Seattle Times (no April Fools).

By the way, I had a great reading at the Ballard Library last night which has inspired me to work on a piece on things I've learned about Seattle from Ballard over the years. I used to live in Ballard, but realized as I prepared for last night's reading that in living and covering stories there over the years, I'd learned a few things about life in Seattle. So one thing good about readings is that they seem to inspire new work as well as give an author an opportunity to, as one blogger snarkily put it, "pimp" my book.

Thanks to all those who turned out for the pimping...er, reading and to the Elliott Bay johns,,,uh, customers, who pushed me onto the list.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reading in Ballard, scene of a condo crime


As many of you know, I wrote extensively about the effort to "save" the Ballard Manning's/Denny's diner in Ballard. I even included a column about it in Pugetopolis. I'm still pained when I drive by the vacant site at 15th and Market today. The diner was designated a city landmark, then bulldozed. A new monstrosity is planned to replace it, a pile of condos with a tower that's supposed to suggest a lighthouse. It looks more like a modern version of Joliet prison.

But all that is new is not bad in Ballard. And one of the cool new places is the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library. It's a really interesting building and has more playfulness than some of the other new libraries around town that seem designed to suggest warehouse space where you might launch an ephemeral dot-com. The Ballard branch has a lot more personality than that. It's not Manning's/Denny's Googie, it doesn't have that Paul-Bunyan-meets-Polynesian-Scandinavian-stave-church-longhouse look. But it's distinctive and clearly will be, I hope, solidly defended by preservationists when Greg Nickels in his 10th consecutive mayoral term attempts to tear it down in 2041.

Anyway, my last scheduled public reading in Seattle will be at the Ballard Library next week, Tuesday, March 31 at 6:30 pm to be precise. I hope you can make it. They don't serve booze like the Swedish Club (I may ask the new city librarian to rectify that problem: why not libraries with bars to help pay for them?), but there are plenty of establishments in the neighborhood where you can get likkered up before the reading. And it should be a good venue to discuss lutefisk and other important Ballard topics, new and old.

I checked the Seattle Public library catalog and all their circulating copies of Pugetopolis are currently checked out or on hold. No worries. Ballard's Secret Garden Books will be selling copies. See you in Buh-LARD.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Berger/Egan on TV, plus a "nice" discussion


I have had a bit of a respite from Pugetopolis readings, which is a good thing. Spring may be here but my chest cough is still around. I was sick with the flu during my Town Hall debate with Tim Egan last month and the bug has been sloooow to leave. My next public reading will be March 31 at the Seattle Public Library Ballard Branch, just a lutefisk toss from the old Ballard Manning's/Denny's which is now an ugly vacant lot filled with rubble, And they said not tearing it down would blight the neighborhood!

One thing coming up for those who missed the great Town Hall discussion with Egan (or those who want to relive it again and again): the event will be shown on the Seattle Channel (cable Channel 21), the station that keeps on giving. The Berger/Egan evening will air first on March 26 at 9:20 am and again at 4 pm. And then it will be in rotation for a few days, or longer. You can find the schedule here. It is also available for online viewing at your convenience on the Seattle Channel website. It is well known that once you are on the Seattle Channel and their Website you are permanently part of Seattle's collective unconscious. That is why Maximum Leader Greg Nickels will be with us forever.

Another bit: Virginia Smyth, my editor at Seattle magazine is now blogging, and she came to my reading in Kirkland at Park Place Books. The audience there got into a great discussion about Seattle nice, whether it's a myth or not, and I shared some of the theories I've been collecting on why we locals are thought to be so standoffish once we get to know you. Anyway, she shares her thoughts here. It brings to mind a conversation I had the other day with a French journalist who is based in New York City. He's a devoted urbanist, but doesn't much like living in Manhattan. One reason, he said, was that in the 18 months he's lived there, no one he's invited to dinner has ever reciprocated. Sound familiar? He's living in nice-olation in the Big Apple.

This pokes a hole in one theory put forward at one of my readings that Seattleites are New Yorkers turned inside out. The theory goes that in New York, people are crusty on the outside, warm on the inside. In Seattle, it's just the opposite: superficial smiles and then avoidance of intimacy. Apparently, Seattle and New York have something in common. Or at the very least we have data that suggests that in Seattle, we treat all newcomers like New Yorkers treat Frenchmen!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pugetopolis Kindled and other news

We readers are in the middle of a revolution as daily newspapers seem to be vaporizing before our eyes and new electronic forms are taking shape. Pugetopolis is now leaping from print and being Kindled. My publisher, Sasquatch Books, tells me Pugetopolis is the first book they've made available in an electronic format for Amazon's Kindle electronic reader. So it's now available for wireless delivery. I'm planning to buy a Kindle 2 (the new version) myself when I save up the money (they run about $360).

Some people have criticized Kindle and Amazon for trying to corner the market on electronic books, or undercutting the sales of rights for audio books, etc. (Kindle has a feature that will read electronic books aloud). Also, the electronic version of the book is much cheaper than the print version: $9.99, which is roughly half of the retail price of an actual book. I certainly don't want to hurt the sales of the book book. But I think being available in multiple formats is good for readers, and I know as an avid reader and book buyer myself that getting books in more ways is a good thing overall. I buy books online, I buy in independent bookstores, I read stuff for free online, I use libraries, I buy from catalogs and specialty dealers...if there is a way to get or buy a book, I will likely use that channel. I'm excited to see how the electronic version changes the perception of the book, whether or not is finds an audience in that format, and whether the ease with which books can be downloaded helps sell more books.

In other news, Pugetopolis is mentioned in the Wall Street Journal today in a story about the recession hitting Seattle.

Also, last night I had a really great reading at Park Place Books in Kirkland, with a great discussion in the audience about the dynamics between natives and newcomers and what it's like for people who move here. I got more theories on why Seattleites are particularly sociable to add to my list.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Surviving tough times in Pugetopolis

This Friday, March 13, I will be moderating a panel at City Club as part of their Environment & Sustainability series. The topic: "Tough Times in the Livable City." I'll be leading a discussion with local experts who are on the front line of re-shaping the city, and we'll be looking at what livability is and what the opportunities are for making progress even during down times. Seattle is famed for its boom-and-bust cycles, but some argue that we're at our best when times are hard. We act more locally, and with more innovation. Will the coming months prove that rule? Or is our livability somehow tied only to growth and expansion?

The panel includes: Justin Carder of the Capitol Hill Community Council, Michael McGinn, executive Director of the Seattle Great City Initiative, Denny Onslow, Chief Development officer for Harbor Properties, Michael Patten, executive director of the New Century Theatre Company, and Tony To, executive director of HomeSight of Washington. We'll try and get into some of the details about how Seattle and the region are being shaped in the years ahead.

The event is at Noon (registration at 11:30 am), at Rainier Square's Third Floor Atrium. $20 for CityClub members, $30 for the general public. It will also be taped for later broadcast by TVW and the Seattle Channel.

Also, a reminder: This week's bookstore reading will be Tuesday, March 10 at 7 pm at Kirkland's great independent Park Place Books. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pugetopolis debate on KUOW

For those of you who missed last week's event at Town Hall, the Berger/Egan conversation about Pugetopolis will be broadcast tonight (March 5) at 8 pm on KUOW (94.9 FM). The "debate" was moderated by David Brewster before a live audience, and it gave me and New York Times writer and National Book Award-winning author Tim Egan a chance to discuss issues about how Seattle and the region are changing (or not). Both Tim and I are Seattle natives, we're friends and mutual admirers. We found some areas of disagreement to explore, but ultimately agree that our challenge is to find a way of living here that matches the place. Not easy, but our responsibility and our hope.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Regional bestseller, plus reading update

Got the word this morning that Pugetopolis has inched onto the Pacific Northwest Independent Bookstore Bestseller list for non-fiction (I'm at #12). This is exciting news. I've heard anecdotally that the book is selling well and my readings have been very well-attended, but in the book business (as I am learning) data is slow to come by. Hey, it may be a blip, but it's fun nevertheless. You can see the bestseller list (updated weekly) here. Thanks to all you readers for helping to make this happen.

A reminder: I am reading tonight at 7pm at Barnes & Noble in University Village. This will be my last Seattle reading for awhile, but I won't be going to far afield: next week (Tuesday, March 10 at 7pm) I'll be reading at Park Place Books.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pugetopolis debate on TV and radio, and my next local readings


Just a few quick notes. Last night (Wednesday) we had a great turnout at Town Hall for the Berger/Egan "debate." In case you missed it, you can watch it in full on the Seattle Channel (Cable 21), no doubt muscling aside our strongman mayor for a little air time. But the air date is still to be determined. The photograph here was taken by journalist Steve Shay. Also, KUOW's The Conversation ran excerpts from the on-stage discussion about growth and the shaping of Seattle on Feb. 26. They added some additional commentary from other pundits and, of course, calls from listeners. You can find it at the link provided below.

Thanks to Tim, moderator David Brewster, Town Hall, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, KUOW, the Seattle Channel, Sasquatch Books, the University Bookstore which sold out their on-hand supply of Pugetopolis, and all the 200 or so folks who attended. I know it was a tough choice: upstairs, my KUOW air-mate Cliff Mass was lecturing at the same time about the weather to a big crowd and promoting his bestselling book on the topic (buy a copy, it's a must-have for the Northwest bookshelf). I don't know how Cliff does it, but when he wants to sell some books, he manages to conjure up a timely snow storm. He's definitely got some pull with the weather gods.

Looking ahead to next week: I'll be at the Barnes & Noble at University Village on Wednesday, March 4 at 7pm. U-Village actually came up in our debate last night (Tim likes it, I think it's Bellevue Square without the roof). Was it better in the days when it had a bowling alley and a Lamont's? Or does a Fran's and a Pottery Barn get your juices flowing? Come and decide for yourself.

Also, for Eastsiders, note that I'll be reading at my former neighborhood indie bookstore, Parkplace Books, on Tuesday, March 10 at 7pm.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Berger/Egan evening

I came down with a nasty flu bug over the weekend, but plan to be on my feet for tomorrow's (Wed., Feb. 25th) event at Town Hall at 7:30pm. 

Award-winning author and journalist Timothy Egan and I will be downstairs talking about Seattle, our Northwest roots and Pugetopolis.  The conversation will be moderated by David Brewster (the event is co-sponsored by Town Hall, Crosscut, and Seattle Weekly). The Seattle Channel will be taping for broadcast. Admission is $5. My book Pugetopolis will be on sale and I'd be happy to sign it for you. 

Tim kindly wrote the introduction. Talking about my Mossback column for the Weekly and Crosscut, he said: "I love the column, I told him some years ago, even though I disagree with half of what he writes." I'm hoping our Town Hall conversation will uncover a few of those areas of disagreement. But truth be told, I think a .500 batting average of agreement is pretty good.  To paraphrase Rudy Giuliani,  I don't even agree with me all the time.

FYI, you might want to get there early because Cliff Mass will be lecturing upstairs about Northwest weather, promoting his excellent new book on the topic so there's bound to be a crowd. Of course, in my humble opinion, Tim has already had the last work on our weather: The rain is good. But Cliff will fill in the details.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sweden took me!

Just a short note to say that Friday night's reading/Happy Hour at the Swedish Cultural Center was fantastic. The Swedish sausage, drinks and crowd was great (about 90 people, a number of which signed up for membership in the Swedish Club too). My grandfather might have been spinning in his grave, perhaps with enough energy to bore the new downtown tunnel. To help keep him going, I plan to send in my membership application too (generously, non-Swedes are allowed in, even those of Norwegian ancestry). It's only $45 bucks and gives access to one of the best bars in town, so I see no downside. 

Anyway, my thanks to the Swedes for hosting the event and to all the people who showed up. This week, on Wed., Feb. 25th I'll be at Town Hall with Tim Egan and I'll have a little more on that later. It's not a reading, but a broader discussion about local issues that should be interesting. At least, I know Tim will be. I always look forward to what he has to say.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I'll take Sweden!


This Friday, Feb. 20th, I'll be reading at Seattle's Swedish Cultural Center at 7pm. Now, if you asked my Norwegian grandfather about this (pictured here), he probably would have said that "Swedish Cultural Center" was an oxymoron. Like any good Norwegian, he didn't like the Swedes.

If my book reading sets him spinning in his grave in Lakeview Cemetery, then so be it, because it turns out that the Swedish Cultural Center occupies a marvelous mid-century modern building on the east slope of Queen Anne Hill and has a bar in it with a view that rivals the one at nearby Canlis. You can almost see Lakeview Cemetery from there. They've  been kind enough to invite me to read during their Friday Happy Hour, which means, as some friends of Mossback's have already figured out, that you can have a night of fine literature and your booze too. My grandfather would have heartily approved of that part anyway.

Admission is free and open to the public. Happy "Hour" runs from 5pm until 10pm and features a full bar (not just akavit) so you can have plenty to drink before, during and after the reading. There will be food too (Swedish hors d'oeuvres plates and entrees are $8 to $9). Non-drinkers are, of course, welcome as well. Books will also be on sale, and I'll sign them with my family's original, Swedish-sounding last name if you'd like, just to commemorate this moment of ethnic reconciliation. This should be a really fun event and I hope you can come. If you like it, you can join the Swedish club for only $45 per year and come back on a regular basis.

Next week, I'll be appearing at Town Hall with author Timothy Egan (Feb. 25). It won't be a reading but rather an on-stage discussion/debate about local issues, moderated by David Brewster. I'll post details on that later. No full bar, however. 

(PS: The photo of my grandfather, the first of our line of four Knute Bergers, appeared in the book Norwegian Seattle by Kristine Leander. Kristine is the Cultural Director of the Swedish Cultural Center, showing her commitment to bridging the enormous gap between the two peoples. Her book is a scrapbook of local Nordic heritage and I heartily recommend it.)




Saturday, February 14, 2009

Great time with the Bellinghamsters

I ventured to the northern fringe of Pugetopolis on Friday the 13th for a reading at Village Books in Bellingham's Fairhaven District, which is one of the best historic neighborhoods in the region. The drive was a slow-moving advertisement for staying close to home. When the freeway's clear, you can do Seattle to Bellingham in about an hour and fifteen minutes. I left Seattle a little after 3pm with a couple of stops (gas, bank) and pulled into Bellingham at 6pm. I-5 was ugly to Marysville, and traffic didn't really let up until just past Burlington. The true Pugetopolitan experience!

Had a quick bite to eat at the Colophon Cafe adjacent to the bookstore's  downstairs reading area. It was recommended to me by "Weekday" producer Katy Sewall of KUOW,  who attended Western Washington University. She commended the soups and, in true blogger style, let me describe briefly what I ate. The soup of the day was tomato & cheddar cheese soup, and it was excellent. I tried it because it reminded me of a dish I grew up with called "rinktum ditty," which was essentially Campbell's tomato soup with melted Tillamook cheese in it, poured over a bed of Saltine crackers. Kind of a poor-man's Mac & Cheese. The Colophon's soup was much better, but close enough to the comfort food of memory to fortify me nicely for the reading.

Which went well. A nice crowd (I counted about 50 people). I'd received a good write-up by Rich Donnelly in Cascadia Weekly, the local alt paper, previewing the reading (not available as a link, unfortunately). I enjoyed myself and as usual, the Q&A was lively and went long.  I read the chapter called "Sighting the Great American Peckerwood" about Bill Gates, intelligent design and Discovery Institute in honor of  Darwin's birthday this week. My one regret: I had no time to spend at Village Books but plan to get back up soon and spend some of my Obama stimulus money.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

North to Bellingham, and drinking with the Swedes

This week, I'll be heading to the Northern tip of Pugetopolis to read at Village Books in Bellingham. I'm pleased to get up there because Bellingham is one of those incredibly attractive places--college town, great history and older architecture, lively downtown, close to the Sound and mountains, proximate to the strange land of Canada--that has become, increasingly, a haven for Seattle-area refugees looking for a quality of life that has been slipping away in urban Seattle.That, in turn, is reshaping the city and its surroundings. In short, it's a ground zero of change and I'm looking forward to learning more about what's going on there. (My most recent visits have usually involved stopping for breakfast or to ransack bookstores going to or from Mt. Baker.) My reading is this Friday, Feb 13th (!) at 7pm.

My next Seattle reading will be at the Swedish Cultural Center on Friday, Feb. 20, which has a bar with one of the best views in Seattle. That's right, reading and drinking. There's been a lot of interest in that which may say something about my readership. More on this event later, but mark your calendar.

One note on a past event: Last Sunday (Feb.8) I moderated a panel on the future of media at the Bainbridge Island Library. The focus was, naturally, on local, Bainbridge and Kitsap County media, and the panel participants were Dennis Anstine, editor of the Bainbridge Review, David Nelson, editor of the Kitsap Sun, Althea Paulson, island blogger, Selina Shearer, news director of the island's cable TV program BNews, and Crosscut.com's media reporter Bill Richards. The highlight for me was the turnout. It's a good sign when a library parking lot is full on a Sunday. The room was packed and the audience Q&A alone lasted an hour and could have gone longer. People are incredibly concerned about where the news is going to come from in these times of big media change. Technology, the collapse of old advertising models, the recession, all are taking a huge toll on traditional newspapers and radio and TV as well. No one is immune. And it's not as if people were happy with the media's overall performance even in good times.

One of the answers is that citizens are, and are going to have to be, more involved in delivering, shaping, reporting, and sifting the news, one of the things technology has empowered them to do. It's good to see that people care so passionately about the future of the news media, and if there is one thing good to come out of the announcement that the newsprint version of the Seattle P-I will soon be history (unless a buyer is found shortly, an unlikely event), it's that it is galvanizing people to explore what's next. If ever a time necessity was the mother of invention, this is it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mossback bites, and other revelations

A couple of interesting new pieces about Pugetopolis are worth noting. Joel Connelly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's legendary political columnist, takes some whacks at Mossback for being a critical of the region's growth patterns in an economic downturn, a time when we need to do something, anything, to get the region moving again. "The Pugetopolis lately seems like a Gulliver tied down by strings of naysayers," he intones. The strings, Connelly alleges, are our dysfunctional political process.

In my book, I explain some of the origins of this process, and as a citizen of the region I have by turns been frustrated and relieved that we are as dysfunctional as we are. We have often been saved by our "dysfunction," as when we pulled the plug on the Green Line monorail project, the R.H. Thomson Expressway and Greg Nickels' waterfront tunnel. But I have been dismayed by the process when it leaves us unable to clean up Puget Sound, which is steadily sliding toward Dead Sea status. I explain in the book about our secret yearnings for a "strongman" to lead us, and why this is not the answer. I am dubious about a centralized authority controlling the region. If that skepticism makes me a Lilliputian, so be it.

Another is a review of the book by Barbara McMichael which appeared in The Daily Olympian. She finds Pugetopolis relevant for regional readers: "Even though the book is unabashedly Seattle-centric, there are lessons for those of us who live further afield. For how can any of us not be affected by the elephant in the room — which, in this case, is the city on Elliott Bay?" I have found strong interest in the book outside Seattle and in the opening essay, "Pugetopolis Unbound," try to get at where some of the regional rivalries come from--the dynamic of regional competition that still lives after more than 150 years.

Seattle may be the big elephant, but the region hasn't bowed down to Seattle quite yet. McMichaels notes that the book has bite to it: "Berger," she writes, "has been keeping his finger on the pulse of Seattle for a couple of decades now, and he's been making regular diagnoses of the city's ills with acuity and biting humor. His stuff is great fun to read — so long as you're not in the punch line."

Monday, January 26, 2009

New readings and reviews


There have been some additions to the Pugetopolis schedule. First, a reminder that I am reading this Tuesday night, Jan. 27 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Added to the schedule: A Happy Hour reading at the Swedish Cultural Center in Seattle on Friday, Feb. 20th at 7pm. Happy hour means, of course, there will be booze and if you haven't seen the view of Seattle from the bar at Swedish Cultural Center, it's worth the trip. This should be interesting because my Norwegian grandfather would likely roll over in his grave at the thought of my visiting Swedish territory. On the other hand, the offer of liquor would appeal...

Also a schedule change: My reading at Barnes & Noble has been moved and is now slated for Wednesday, March 4, at University Village, 7pm.

The current, known list of upcoming events is listed at the lower right of this page and is updated frequently as new readings are being added as we speak.

Also note on the lower right links to various reviews and articles that have appeared, including a very nice one that appeared in The Daily Olympian and Bellingham Herald this weekend by Barbara McMichael.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lake. Forest. Park.

If you're looking for what excites people who are seeking a place to live in this region, Lake Forest Park promises the trifecta of water, woods and public access. Unlike treeless developments with names like "Shady Pines," this north Seattle suburb is as advertised, and it also has a first-rate bookstore and gathering spot, Third Place Books. I'll be reading there on Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 7pm. I'm very much looking forward to it and I hope you can come.

Also, if you haven't read it, you might want to read the mostly--but not completely--negative review
Pugetopolis--received in The Stranger. It was written by Erica C. Barnett and, as she has in the past, she attacks my purported views on growth and urban density. Some of the disagreements are legit, others are straw men. She did find some positives in the book saying that (when I'm writing things she agrees with) my work is "pellucid and a joy to read." Guess which blurb is going in the ads!

I don't normally encourage anyone to read The Slog's comment threads because the view of humanity you get there might tempt you to head for the Aurora Bridge. But I thought the Pugetopolis thread, though with many opinions from people who are, well, full of it, turned into a fascinating discussion about the direction of Seattle, not always pellucid, but well worth reading. I'm please that Erica took the time and effort to give the book serious treatment, and further pleased that it sparked an interesting discussion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mossback Talk Radio (and TV)

Yesterday was for talking. And talking. And talking. It started with a great 9am interview with Steve Scher on Weekday on KUOW. I've written before about how I admire Steve's interviewing skills (in fact, he's going to be teaching the art of interviewing at the UW this spring), and it was a joy have the chance to indulge in a long-form conversation with him instead of the kind of topic-hopping we do on the Friday (10am) news-in-review panel. If you missed the interview, you can find it here.

After that, I hightailed it from the University District over to KIRO radio's studios on Eastlake for an hour with Dave Ross. The bearded Ross gets chided for being scruffy and he seemed delighted to have a guest who was a poster-child for worse grooming. He had us photographed together in the studio to prove that he wasn't the most unkempt media guy in town. He had trouble with my name, though, no pronouncing the "K" in Knute or the soft "g" in Berger (rhymes with merger). As I tell folks, a "Newt Burger" sounds like the world's fast food idea. Anyway, we had a good conversation about growth addiction and some great calls from newcomers who had their own stories about how frosty and hard-hearted Seattleites can be to newbies. If you missed the show, you can find it here (click on the Jan. 21, 11am hour).

I wrapped things up with a reading at the University Bookstore. A nice turnout and a good Q&A session. One guest asked for a show of hands of how many people there were Seattle natives and about half the crowd of 40 or so people raised their hands. With so many natives there, who left to mind the city of Seattle?

Also, on Friday I'll be taping an interview with KCTS Connects. The show, hosted by Enrique Cerna, airs Friday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 pm.

Next up: I'll be reading next at Third Place Books at their Lake Forest Park location next Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 7pm. Hope to see you there.

Friday, January 16, 2009

U-Bookstore, KUOW and KIRO coming up


Just a quick note about a busy week coming up for Pugetopolis. First, though, I had a wonderful evening reading at Elliott Bay Book Co., a big crowd of new and familiar faces, very diverse, young and old. Some fellow "calumnists" were there, including civic treasure Joel Connelly of the not-dead-yet P-I and my Crosscut colleague Ted Van Dyk. Some former bosses too, like Mike Crystal, former publisher of Seattle Weekly and David Schneiderman, former boss of Village Voice Media. Former city council member Peter Steinbrueck was there too. He's the subject of a chapter in the book, by the way (and he still came!). Elliott Bay's Rick Simonson gave me a great intro and tells me the book is doing well. My thanks to Rick, the Elliott Bay staff and everyone who came.

This morning, I went off to KUOW-FM for my weekly gig on the media roundtable with Steve Scher and found that my fellow panelists this week were Joni Balter of the Seattle Times and Tim Egan of the New York Times. They're a wife-husband team that packs a lot of punch talent-wise, but I thought the chemistry was great and it was a chance to sneak-preview Tim's and my appearance together at Town Hall on Feb. 25th. It will be kind of a debate, though Tim and I are debating about how much of a debate it will be. Stay tuned for details.

The big thing, though, is that this will be a busy week for Pugetopolis. I'll be on Weekday with Steve again at 9am on Wednesday, Jan. 21 to talk about the book, the concept of Pugetopolis, and whatever Steve wants to cover, which with Steve, you never know. It should be fun. Some of the chapters in the book include commentaries I used to do on the show back at the turn of the century.

That same day, I'm scheduled to be on Dave Ross' popular show on KIRO-AM during the 11 am hour. Not sure I'll have any drive-by wisdom for the masses, but I'll give it a shot.

All that is a prelude to my next reading, which is that evening (Wed., Jan. 21) at 7pm at the University Bookstore. Like many other Seattleites, I have a deep attachment to the U-Bookstore (even though I never attended the UW--I'm not a Husky but a Geoduck), but as a reader, I literally grew up there. When my inner reading lamp was lit, the U-Bookstore felt like my personal trove and I looted it like Indiana Jones on meth. Please come if you can and we can talk about the U-Bookstore and other Seattle institutions that keep the city alive.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Next Up: Elliott Bay, Jan 15

This Thursday (Jan. 15), I'll be reading at Seattle's temple of books, Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square. I've made many pilgrimages there to buy books and listen to authors over the years (Oliver Sacks, Carolyn Kizer, Denise Levertov, Tim Egan, Michael Kinsley are some that come to mind...). And once, at a reading, I even embarrassed myself by being that guy who asks the unintelligible question that goes on and on and on until the audience grows very restless...not my finest hour. Many times have I plotted publishing projects or talked with writers about stories in the store's downstairs cafe. It's got a different flavor, of course, than San Francisco's City Lights, but its just as much a part of Seattle's literary fabric and I'm pleased to get a chance to read there. The reading starts at 7:30pm.

And in case you missed it, the Seattle Times ran a Q&A interview with me that you might enjoy. I didn't get a chance to expand on my proposal for lutefisk testing stations on Washington's borders to help stem the tide of new settlers, but perhaps I will expand on that at the reading.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mossback's debut weekend goes well, despite bad newspaper news



Two great events for this kick-off of the Pugetopolis tour. On Saturday, Jan. 10 I spoke to a full house of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition at Ballard's Salmon Bay Cafe where we had a lively discussion about the fate of the city and I discussed my book. I should have brought more to sell as the copies I had were snapped up and I took orders for more. Thank you SNC members!

The Q&A session was great and there was much interest in the big story of the weekend, the sale and likely folding of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I weighed in with a story on Crosscut over the weekend called "Dead Newspaper Walking" in which I sympathized with the difficult position of the editors and staff over the next 60 days and suggest they can motivate themselves by going out with a bang. As a former magazine and newspaper editor myself, I know there are few things as difficult as managing through such painful transitions.

But one of the larger questions is: Where does this leave a P-I-less Seattle? I liken the current state of daily papers in Seattle to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. The P-I, which survived the fire, will likely not survive the virtual collapse of the newspaper business model. It's been on life-support for years. But it's not like the survival of the Seattle Times is now a slam dunk: they are still struggling under debt, a major recession, the collapse of advertising, bad investments, and the legacy of major management mistakes. We definitely could wind up as a No-Newspaper town. Or, perhaps a four or five Website town, to look to the future a bit. Either way, the loss of a major journalistic and civic player like the P-I is huge. Inevitable perhaps, but not to be celebrated.

On Sunday, Jan. 11 (see photos above, taken my my sister Kari Berger) I had my first-ever bookstore reading at Eagle Harbor Book Co. Again, a big crowd. I was told maybe 65 people, I was nervous. When I talk, I'm usually looking across the microphone at Steve Scher in the KUOW studios, not an audience of expectant faces. And friendly though they were, I was anxious. But people were great and we had a good discussion afterwards. I even read my column in defense of book burning, which seemed like a good thing to do. I mean, if people want a book to burn, Pugetopolis should be their choice. As long as they buy it first!

All in all, a great start. Next up: Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square on Thursday, Jan. 15. A full list of readings in in the right-hand column on this page.



Friday, January 9, 2009

The View from Bainbridge Island

Sunday, Jan. 11 I'll be doing my first-ever book reading at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, in downtown Winslow, just a walk from the ferry. The time: 3 pm.

This is a bit of a second-homecoming for me. My parents moved to Bainbridge to semi-retire in 1973. At one time, both my sisters lived there too: Kari is a photographer and Barb, who still lives on the island, is a writer and children's book author. My father, Knute II, was a physician and artist who passed away in 1990, but my 93-year-old mom, Margi, an island poet, still lives there.

During my college years, the house on Bainbridge was my home during winter breaks, and the location of many family events, from weddings to Christmas and Thanksgiving. So there's something wonderful about having my first reading at a great bookstore on an island that has nurtured so many Bergers in their creative ways. Loving islands is almost a Puget Sound cliche, but such feelings run deep and are genuine in my family. I've been spending more time on the island lately, amazed at the bird-life that passes through my mother's yard. It's become an important creative refuge.

A warm welcome to Bainbridge was offered by the Bainbridge Review in a this week's paper featuring a story about Pugetoplis. The reporter, Lindsay Latimore, did a great job of bringing up some of the bigger issues raised in the book and we had a long and pleasant conversation about the region earlier this week at Pegasus Coffee on the island.

One of the topics we discussed was Utopia, and the good and bad of it. It's a topic I address in the book in the opening essay, "Pugetopolis Unbound." The nice thing about Bainbridge is that it isn't a Utopia. It's better because it's real.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

You've got to love him even if you hate him

Reviews and notices are starting to pop up around Puget Sound, a better class of flotsam and jetsam than tennis shoes with feet in them.

(And please note, it's "Puget Sound," not "the Puget Sound," as some news anchors have irritating taken to saying. There is no "the" in Puget Sound!)

Tacoma Weekly reviewer John Larson generously writes: "Regardless of one's age, or how long they have lived here, "Pugetopolis" is a worthwhile book full of insight into our region and what can be done to preserve the special essence of the area."

In Port Orchard, a writer pays the author a fine compliment which eliminates any possibility of any negative assessment: Knute Berger is "one of those people you’ve just got to love — whether you love him or hate him. He’s one of the quintessential northwest types — like Starbucks, only the antithesis."

That would be a 5-cent cup of Manning's java perhaps.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Seattle Weekly previews Pugetopolis

A nice write-up by my former colleague Brian Miller in Seattle Weekly in advance of my upcoming readings at Eagle Harbor Cook Co. (Sunday, Jan. 11 at 3pm) and my Elliott Bay reading next week (Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 7:30 pm). As Brian points out, much of the book is drawn from my Seattle Weekly columns and is certainly informed by my three stints as editor of the paper. Even so, Brian found good things to say about Mossback!

Friday, January 2, 2009

"Pugetopolis" visits the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, Jan. 10

On Saturday, Jan. 10 I will be guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, a wonderful group of local activists, gadflies, citizens, and cranks who care deeply about Seattle. I feel I can say "cranks" because even my own publisher called me one! Needless to say, I feel very much at home with these folks.

They meet for breakfast the second Saturday of every month, at 9 am at the Salmon Bay Cafe (5109 Shilshole Ave. NW) in old Ballard. Attendees are expected to order their own breakfast (it's dutch) and often pepper guest speakers with informed questions and contrarian views. This is a group of mossbacks that's always up for fighting City Hall.

I'm bringing a few books to sell to the highest bidders. The meetings are always well-documented by Kent Kammerer who provides a full, entertaining account of what transpires for those who can't attend. But I hope you can.

A Footnote: The following day, Sunday, Jan. 11 at 3 pm I'll be giving my first-ever book reading, hosted by Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island. I'll have more details on that a bit later.