Knute Berger takes on Northwest myths in "Pugetopolis"
Knute Berger has held forth on Seattle culture for decades — as ex-Seattle Weekly editor and at Crosscut.com, KUOW radio, Washington Law & Politics and Seattle magazine. Now he's collected some of those ruminations in the book "Pugetopolis — A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice."
Seattle Times staff reporter
Knute Berger has held forth on Seattle culture for decades — as ex-Seattle Weekly editor, at Crosscut.com, KUOW radio, Washington Law & Politics and Seattle magazine. Now he's collected some of those ruminations in "Pugetopolis — A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice" (Sasquatch Books, $18.95, pugetopolis.blogspot.com).
I took on the unmistakable Berger, 55, at a cafe in his Madison Park neighborhood.
Q: Mossback likes to refer to himself in the third person. Maybe we should conduct this interview that way.
A: [Laughs.] You know, Mossback doesn't like it when people refer to themself in the third person.
Q: You're a big, furry guy, and I first assumed it referred to your physique.
A: Mossback was a term of derision that newcomers to the Northwest used for the pioneers. When they got off their palace cars from back east they saw all these kind of hairy, bearded guys who'd been clearing the land and settling the land, and made fun of them. I embrace that term.
Q: "Pugetopolis" is a pejorative word — and not some Greek dude's name. What do you mean by it?
A: Pugetopolis is a term boosters use to express the ambitions of creating a massive city that will extend from Olympia to Bellingham, and cynics and critics — and what I like to think of as reasonable people — think of Pugetopolis as basically turning us into something like the New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia metroplex.
Q: You're taking a bold anti-sprawl position, then?
A: [Laughs.] It's not so much anti-sprawl as it is "Let's slow growth."
Q: It seems almost as futile as trying to hold back the force of entropy. What can Seattle do about it?
A: You know part of it, it's just what I believe, and Seattle doesn't need another booster.
Q: But is there something practical that can be done, or do you just like to blow off steam?
A: I think something practical could be done. Seattle already has, I think, strong instincts toward developing local culture, and I think that too many people who move here in particular tend to see Seattle as a blank slate. But being a mossback is just a way of saying, "We're not a blank slate. You can't just do whatever you want here."
Q: Name a specific thing, though. I feel that you're avoiding the question.
A: I'll tell you one specific thing. People say that growth is completely inevitable, and it's basically you're saying that market forces get to determine our future. But the fact is, the settlement of the West wasn't settled by market forces. We had things like the Homestead Act and the public subsidy of railroads and things that determined where people lived. And there are people, for example, who have suggested that we create a new Homestead Act to redirect population into areas of Middle America that are depopulated.
Q: How about discouraging people from moving here, which you had suggested?
A: Yeah, I had several ideas, one of which was setting up lutefisk stations at the border.
Q: Or spreading the word that we aren't really that nice?
A: Seattle likes to think of itself as a very nice place, and it is in a very sort of superficial way, but we're actually not very nice. We're very passive-aggressive. We just have kind of a different way of expressing hostility and avoiding direct conflict.
Q: You're also a green advocate — which you prove by recycling your old columns.
A: Hey, that makes me a gold-star Seattleite. Greg Nickels should be very happy.
Q: Rick Neuheisel gambling in 2003? A county councilman's defeat 10 years ago? A 2002 transportation bill? Isn't there a freshness date on some of this material?
A: Well you know, the material in the book was really a sampling of stuff from over the years. I tried to pick stuff that I thought was still relevant, would still be interesting to people.
Q: You advocate preservation of landmarks that give Seattle character. the Twin Teepees — I'm behind you. But the Ballard Denny's?
A: Yeah! It met all of the criteria that it needed to meet to be a landmark.
Q: I think only some of the drunks in the lounge there qualified as landmarks.
A: It was architecturally, I think, a really interesting building. One of the funny things was, it met the definition of landmark by actually being a landmark. Everybody said, "OK, the way you get to Ballard is, you go down and when you see that funny building you turn right." I mean it was like the way to identify the gateway to Ballard. But I think that fight was more than just about whether a former Manning's cafeteria was important or not.
Q: Explain what you say is our Northwest type of racism.
A: I think one of the kinds of racism that's here — it's only one of the kinds — is, there's kind of a very common sort of civic ethic to say that the ideal is not to have race. That to even acknowledge race is a bad thing.
Q: You know who I hate? The Haitians. I'm sick of their zombies. You say we have a history of electing "Munchkins" like our mayor — whom you call "a role model for irresponsible excess." Explain this excessive Munchkin.
A: I'm not sure I can entirely explain Greg Nickels. His popularity rating has steadily been in the 30 percent [range], and yet he still manages to rule Seattle with an iron fist. It suggests more about us than it suggests about Greg Nickels. Why is that true? And he's brought this kind of mediocre government and strongman government together in some kind of very scary way. He's running for re-election in 2009, and nobody's running against him. I saw a poll that said over 65 percent of the people in Seattle think the city's headed in the wrong direction, yet no one is going to run against the incumbent mayor? It's both kind of impressive and horrifying.
Q: Have you ever thought about running for anything?
Web extra: More of Mark Rahner's Q&A with Knute Berger
Q: You’re steeped in this area’s history. Like a teabag. My question: How true was that “Here Come the Brides” show?
A: (Laughs.) You know, that TV show depressed me as a kid. All the other places in the west got cowboys and we got dancing loggers.
Q: You call the City Council poster children for Who Wants to Be a Gutless Wonder? Which I’d rather watch than Deal or No Deal.
A: Well, that was a column about an earlier incarnation of the City Council, but Seattle went through a period where we had all of these incompetents at kind of every level. Have you noticed that this is a town where it’s really hard to get fired?
Q: You’re asking the wrong guy.
A: The City Council has always been, too, a group that’s easily distractable with trivia. The City Council over the years has always been able to get really excited about circus animals or Eastern Washington dams or taxes on plastic bags, yet you can see from the recent snow debacle that people are furious about the basic stuff the city’s supposed to be doing.
Q: What ultimately do you want people to take away from the book?
A: To me the book has been my sort of ongoing personal exploration to be a Seattleite, to be a Pugetopolan, and I hope that people will read it and just sort of enjoy thinking about our identity.
Q: What’s the deal with Crosscut? What’s its function and how’s it doing?
A: Crosscut has recently made this transition from being a not-profitable web site to being a respectable non-profit web site – which is a very good move on the part of David Brewster. And the attempt is to do kind of good local journalism and commentary that covers the Pacific Northwest, and turn former journalists into bloggers.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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