What they teach Seattle newbies in this civics crash course | KUOW News and Information

What they teach Seattle newbies in this civics crash course

Jun 21, 2016

Seattle took in over 50,000 new people in the last five years. Suzanne Offen is one of them.

Before moving here, she had family and a comfortable job in Brooklyn, New York.


“But I just had this itch this past summer where I wanted to try something new,” Offen said. “I’ve never lived on the West Coast. And I do fantasize about the Pacific Northwest, and I wanted to be near natural beauty. So I kind of became obsessed with Seattle. It was Seattle or bust.”

She quickly found a job in communications and moved here – and quickly learned that not everyone in Seattle loves the way the city has changed.

She worried that people might see her as part of the problem.

“You know, ‘Ah, another transplant that’s kind of ruining things,’” she said.

That’s why Offen signed up for Civic Boot Camp, hosted by City Club. The club hosts boot camps in neighborhoods going through a lot of change. Neighborhoods like South Lake Union, home to Amazon.

On a recent tour, Brooke Best of Historic Seattle pointed out some fine details on an old building.

“These are things that you would not recognize if you were walking along with your latte or texting or whatever,” Best told the boot campers. That old building was the Troy Laundry Building, built in the 1920s.

“You’d have horse-drawn delivery wagons, and later trucks, that would pick up bundles of dirty clothes and return the items washed, starched, ironed and folded,” Best said. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

The laundry façade remains, but the building has been gutted. Touchstone, the developer, is turning it into an office tower. 

Brooke Best of Historic Seattle guides Civic Bootcampers on an architectural tour of the neighborhoods immediately south of Lake Union.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Down at the South Lake Union Discovery Center, Noelle Smithhart told the group about the growth that’s come to the area. Her company, Vulcan, has led the charge.

She said South Lake Union is now so big that they’ve come up with new names for parts of it. This part, for example, is called the Gateway district.

“They’re basically terms that we made up,” Smithhart said.

Another civic issue in this neighborhood is affordable housing. Many of the older, run-down apartments have been demolished. But affordable housing is making a modest comeback.

The boot campers head to a fancy new building run by Plymouth Housing.

Michelle Wise-Bailey works there and provided a tour. The tour brings back memories of when she used to be homeless.

She showed the group a room being prepared for a new tenant.

Wise-Bailey: “And the case manager fixes it up nice with groceries, maybe a pot, a pan. And a welcome home sign. And they help them make their first meal. And they give them a calendar. It’s giving me chills just thinking about it.”

As a civic issue, affordable housing has to be one of the toughest. Look at San Francisco. It tried to stay affordable but lost that battle.

Participants at City Club's Civic Boot Camp. Some are new to Seattle, others have lived here awhile. All were interested in getting more involved with their city.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Matthew Richter, who works for the City of Seattle, tells the boot camp that he’s been asking officials in San Francisco how Seattle could avoid that fate.

Richter: “We don’t want to be San Francisco. San Francisco doesn’t want to be San Francisco. San Francisco is a decade ahead of us. But we are right behind them on the same highway.”

This debate has drawn in Suzanne Offen.

“I’m very interested in these conversations about growth, and how it can have a positive impact, and then balancing people’s concerns about what’s being lost in the process,” she said.

She doesn’t know how she’ll use what she’s learned, yet.

But she seems to want to do something. Whatever she decides, this crash course in Seattle’s civics has given her confidence she to engage.