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Originally published Saturday, December 26, 2009 at 9:00 PM

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Danny Westneat

Decade not as bad as you think

I get that the end of an era is a time of reflection. Sometimes with regret about mistakes made, lies told, chances botched.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I get that the end of an era is a time of reflection. Sometimes with regret about mistakes made, lies told, chances botched.

But this is getting ridiculous.

A decade is closing. And rarely has such a chorus of carping been loosed upon the land.

With five days to go, the decade (or for you sticklers, the 10-year period between 2000 and 2009) is already in the books as the Fraught Oughts. The Oh-Nos. The Uh-Ohs — "that thing you say when things fall apart," writes syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts.

The 2000s was "a low, dishonest decade," says Thomas Frank of The Wall Street Journal. Business and political leaders ransacked the public trust while the press and the people dozed or gazed at navels.

"What made the oughts so awful," Frank writes, "was the failure of our critical faculties."

The epochal critique came from Time magazine, which called these times, sweepingly, "the worst."

"Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams or the Lost Decade," Time said. "Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over."

Sheesh. Someone needs a whiskey. Or a Prozac.

It's true we had some whopping crises and blunders. Certainly on a national scale, but also locally — from the earthquake and Mardi Gras riot near the decade's start to the collapse of WAMU and spree of police shootings at its close.

But can I make one contrarian shout out into these gales of gloom? It's that out here in our corner of the country, this decade wasn't half bad. In fact, it might have been ... pretty good?

Take three areas we obsess about daily here in newspaperland: crime, education and money. Let's ask: Are we better off now than when the decade started?

Locally, the answers are yes, yes and (barely) yes. That's what I found when I looked back at how our state and city were faring in 2000.

Crime has been so ghastly and sensational lately it may seem like it's up. It isn't. There's been an unprecedented easing in almost every type of crime.

Take Seattle. Murder here is down 40 percent since 2000. Homicides in the city for this decade (275 to date) are down by nearly half from the 513 killings we had in the 1990s. And the 523 in the 1980s.

Rapes are down 50 percent. Aggravated assaults, down 20 percent. Car theft is off by a whopping 65 percent, from nearly 8,500 stolen cars in 2000 to 3,000 or so this year.

It turns out the Decade from Hell was a Decade of (relative) Peace on the streets. Nobody quite understands it. A recent New York Times headline said it like this: "The Real Murder Mystery? It's the Low Crime Rate."

As crime was down, schools were — believe it or not — up. Yep, our maligned public schools do markedly better now than in 2000.

Again, consider Seattle. Outgoing Mayor Greg Nickels said city schools is his biggest disappointment. The current issue of Washington Law & Politics magazine inexplicably has on its cover a girl under her desk, hiding from falling rubble, with the headline, "Crisis time again for Seattle schools."

You tell me if this sounds like a crisis:

In 2000, Seattle schools lagged the state in reading, math and writing in most every grade that takes the WASL test. Now, city kids have not only caught but passed their peers, sometimes by wide margins. Seattle public-school kids now beat the state averages in every subject at every grade level tested (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th grades), with the one exception of 10th-grade writing.

It's not that the rest of the state has dropped off. WASL scores are up most everywhere. The state also continues to score above the national averages on all standardized tests, including the SATs.

Here's a New Year's prediction: Everyone will go right on calling Seattle schools "struggling" anyway.

Now on to money. The last couple years have been rough. But unlike nationally, where median incomes dipped for the first time in a generation, here they rose 12 percent. That's not great, but neither is it the second coming of the Great Depression.

I'm not saying the Eeyores are all wrong. We did have complete breakdowns in political and corporate leadership.

That was at the top. What's hopeful, and the reason I'm writing this column, is that in the guts of society — out on street corners, in classrooms, at local companies — the decade wasn't so crummy and dishonest and low. It wasn't flashy enough to make the news. But there was some steady — even remarkable — progress made.

I won't be so presumptuous as to wish anyone a "happy" New Year. The mood's too hangdog for that. As we count down the last ticks and read the reviews of our debacle and demise, here's what I would say, my New Year's toast to you:

It's going to be OK.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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