This is one of two essays that I wrote in Charles Mudede’s Writing the City class at the Hugo House in 2018. I was more afraid of making my truths public back then, and didn’t know what to do with it once I’d written it. I’m finally publishing it here, without edits, in late 2021, back-dated to when I first wrote it. This assignment was to write about loss or change in Seattle.
“Our client wants the new building to feel authentic,” one of the developer’s consultants is saying.
“It should really feel like part of the community,” the other consultant affirms.
I glance over at my partner Brian to see if he has any insights to offer. The four of us are nestled inside a Pinterest-ready conference room: rough-sawn wood paneling, rusted steel, red mid-century accents just so.
Several neighborhoods away, interior décor has aged less punctiliously in a cluster of small restaurants run by a refugee generation. Sharing their street is an old warehouse complex; at eye level, one warehouse bears a large white sign, generously sprayed with graffiti. The mind fills in the letters covered by spray paint: “NOTICE OF PROPOSED LAND USE ACTION”.
Soon, a developer will replace those old warehouses with a new apartment building. That developer hired these two consultants as community liaisons, to help discern what a respectful new building might look like.
“We probably don’t have any concrete insights beyond what you’ve already heard from the community,” I offer. “But since you brought up authenticity, we could share some of our philosophy on that.”
I’m thinking back to my recent trip to an arts district in the Midwest. There, in the 1980s, a group of local developers had renovated some boarded-up brick buildings, converting them into art galleries and apartments. Over the years, those developers have remained involved in neighborhood oversight, stewarding an arts-centric ethos. They’d even convinced some out-of-town investors who’d bought land in the neighborhood to build low-rent gallery space into their new projects.
I’d been eager to see what a thoughtfully stewarded neighborhood might look like. I’d walked away conflicted.
The arts district had been eerily silent on a weekday afternoon, waiting for its happy hour patrons to log out of their work computers. Its festive lighting had been perfectly spaced, its eclectic signs meticulously lettered, its pristine sidewalks and storefront windows straight out of an AutoCAD software model.
Downtown Disney for yuppies, I’d thought guiltily, self-conscious about the effortlessness of disparaging the results of an impressive amount of give-a-shit. But there was the neighborhood, beckoning as subtly as a billboard: the fantasy of art, optimized for commerce.
The artists who’d thrived there decades earlier had long been leaving the neighborhood, priced out. Would they be missed?
And what of the lone shopkeepers who had gone before them, the survivors who’d kept a light on during the squalid 1970s?
Returning home, I’d spent weeks re-drafting an essay about what I’d seen, struggling to find truth.
It was true that a group of developers had tried to steward a neighborhood’s soul, something that few developers try to do. It was also true that, despite their intentions, something of the soul had evaporated.
An authentic neighborhood, I’d eventually written, can’t be developed simply by borrowing the soul of an authentic community. Authenticity must come from the vulnerability and spontaneity of developers themselves.
But development capital is often terrified of such foolhardiness. Instead, capital seeks certainty, even though it’s serendipity that feeds our aliveness. Capital prefers the familiar, over the weirdness that reassures our belonging. Capital is carefully planned, at the expense of the impulsive gift-giving that nourishes community.
Perhaps, I’d concluded, that’s how even well-meaning people can kill the soul of a neighborhood.
I’d sent the draft essay to some people in the city for feedback. “You nailed it,” said a few small business owners.
“I think it’s a little harsh,” said a developer.
“I’m confused,” said someone from the business improvement association. “This in no way encapsulates our conversation about the neighborhood.”
Baffled, I’d buried the essay, never publishing it.
And here, in this well-appointed Seattle conference room, those once-buried words are flying back out of my mouth.
“To be authentic,” I’m saying to the consultants, “capital needs to be vulnerable. Even after this building is completed, how can it convey that it needs the community here? How can it expose its own incompleteness?”
The consultants are thinking. They’ve brought us in for advice, and I’m responding with riddles.
“An authentic community is more than a boisterous restaurant,” I add, searching for a helpful insight. “Community is knowing that you’d be missed if you weren’t there.”
A consultant writes something in his notebook. The four of us look mystified, not enlightened.
How much simpler it might have been for their client, I think, to have remained aloof and detached from this refugee community. To stick to spreadsheets and legalese, to build something passable and move on.
How much emotionally safer it could have been to sidestep the potential pain of human failure, simply by not trying for a soul in the first place.
How life-affirming it can be to try anyway.