We Are Olympia and So Are You

The most intriguing city of the Northwest for me is not Seattle, Portland and/or the trendier, more bohemian haunts of either or even of Tacoma. It’s not Olympia either. My vote goes to Astoria, Oregon. Weird, huh? Remember, intriguing does not mean “best”, it means “engaging, interesting, and fascinating.” With a population one fifth that of Olympia’s, but a third again as dense, I’ll take it!

Astoria has the same urban amenities you see in many Northwest cities and towns. The farmer’s market features a food court and stage (improvised under a bank drive through) with loads of craft and food venders winding through the downtown’s remarkable and historic streets. There is a brewery for each 3,000 people: Fort George, Astoria Brewing Company and a Rogue Brewery on the Pier. (At the same ratio, Olympia would have 15 breweries!) The architecture of the city is a rarity in the northwest. There are too many Victorian-style houses to count and the commercial streets in the downtown make for a truly unique experience in this part of the world especially in the backdrop of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. Ok, I suppose Port Townsend is similar even if it somehow feels smaller. On the whole though, Astoria has the same basic components that you find in Olympia, but despite the latter’s much larger population, Astoria’s product and presentation is more intriguing.

The single most interesting aspect of any city for me is its history. Every city has its own history, but some are lucky enough to maintain that history and present it in the buildings, land-use, street layouts, and long-standing industries. Astoria is one of them. The paradox unfortunately is that as the industries which once propelled a city into prominence early last century concentrate and centralize, we lose the historical flavor of the land to the value extraction from the real estate. (This is another way of saying gentrification.) In ideal situations, the historical sites cease to be the personal possession of the owner and become community amenities and the community is wise enough to preserve them. On the other hand, that line is hazy and depends almost entirely on demand to redevelop. The greater the demand, the more difficult it is to preserve the historical attributes of the city or neighborhood. In cities, without robust job growth and demand and purchasing power for housing—like Astoria—the historical character does not face these pressures and is therefore preserved.

Where is this going? A burned out industrial town that once boasted robust shipping, timber, fishing and canning, as well as fur-trading industries has declined for a couple of generations and now has something rather than nothing to show for it. Maybe, if we’re only concerned about the surface appearance of the city rather than what actually makes it tick. Can we reduce those questions to things like a node on the tourist trail, a larger farmer’s market, an iconic bridge instead of a Capitol building, or the rise and decline of the dominant industry? The stability of government jobs?  My posts over the last few days have really been musings about what fuels the city and how we influence it.

A city like Astoria might have some interesting questions and ideas for us as we examine the relationship between people and problems in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. I can’t help but think about why some northwest cities (e.g. Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Olympia) which were all much smaller than Astoria, but grew much faster over the last 150 years to have hundreds of thousands if not millions of residents, stable (relatively at least) job growth and productivity, and finally more affluent characteristics that other cities seem to have missed. Why doesn’t Aberdeen, WA for example have more of these attributes with a population almost twice as large as Astoria? Most importantly, how can you use what you learn from such analysis to improve your own city? What are the barriers to such progressive development in a place like Olympia?

I have written at length that these kinds of positive developments do not result directly from planning. Poor or a complete lack of planning can inhibit an interesting city or interesting places therein, but planning cannot by itself affirmatively ensure the creation of a town that people will want to live in. So what do we do in places like Olympia, where most people who pay attention to these kinds of issues, say they want something else to happen to their city? Furthermore, much of what makes a city the size of Astoria interesting is that its historic architecture is still place, which simply cannot be said about Seattle anymore and is less so about places like Tacoma each time I visit.

Cities change and how they change, for better or worse and over how much time are important questions. We know those changes result from individuals acting alone and together, consciously and subconsciously—both real and their corporate forms—reacting to and changing themselves for the city.  Look at Boeing’s history here in the Puget Sound and compare its history with any other company around, for example our own Olympia Brewery. How many people moved in and out of Olympia because of that brewery? How many move in and out or ultimately stay in Olympia because of state employment? How does their presence shape our town? How does their presence shape the business environment who depend on that kind of primary employment drivers but not on state work primarily? Think retailers, caterers, car dealers, and contractors who sell their goods and services to people with stable wages? Where is the individuals place in this social fabric?

We can probably all accept that interesting places i.e. cities, result from some immeasurable diversity of incomes, people, jobs, which make and are made by a mix of interesting ideas, and behaviors, beliefs, consumer tastes and other intangibles all of which are impossible to quantify. (I suppose that makes my conclusions impossible to summarize which makes a blog a fun place to discuss them.) I am skeptical of straightforward solutions because I imagine that means the diagnoses are overly simplistic. This is obvious if you’ve read any of my posts here. We have to dig deeper than simple answers and we need to be prepared to re-evaluate our assumptions at every turn in both individual and collective activities. Implementing any sort of plan in the first place assumes some kind of widespread agreement among the people involved and I don’t need to repeat how difficult that has been in my own experience. If these things happen at all in our day and age, the “good” tends to be unintended at the planning phase.

And then there’s the ugly reality of our larger cities: Seattle included, but more commonly associated places like London and New York, are going so far the other direction that those enamored with the idea of a city find them less interesting than the suburbs. Homogeneous and more glibly, boring places arise from all points of the continuum. How then do we proceed?

Astoria, just like any city I visit, has the ultimate intangible benefit of being a place I don’t call home, where something unexpected is more likely to happen if only because I know what to expect in my home town. Is the unexpected event what makes a city so much fun in the first place? It’s one aspect I personally really appreciate in them. Spontaneity arising from us and our environment, perhaps because of us and our environment, keeps us awake, stimulated, interested and interesting. There was never any shortage of the unexpected in Moscow, Russia, and I suppose that’s one thing I look back on so fondly about my time there.

I’m not suggesting here that Olympia, should be more like Astoria or any other place and planning for something like that makes even less sense. The key is making the most of what competitive advantages it does have, not wishing it had something else. A city’s competitive advantage is as subjective a factor as we can imagine because the benefit of a space is entirely an individual consideration.

It’s possible that places like Astoria only allows me see another place in a light that inspires me to reach for more in my own town. The central proposition here is what do we do with these experiences in other places? How does a single individual—in a city of 50,000 thousand individuals—in her/his city help a city along. We’ve all seen groups starting and stopping generally around specific land use decisions rather than around some larger vision. Nary a week goes by that I don’t have a discussion with someone about what they think should happen to the built environment of Olympia, and of course, the planning commission is full of, and is often visited by, people who have that vision and believe that the place to start is the planning commission as though a decree would bring it about.

Changing the bad and maintaining the good requires recognition and understanding of what influences people to think about these things in the first place. A visit to another intriguing place provides refreshing inspiration because it brings out comparisons, and allows us to see our own city from a new vantage point.

Where do I think Olympia is? I hate to say it, but I’d call it the worst of all possible worlds: it’s moving further away from what makes places like Astoria interesting, while not getting anything closer to a hegemonic vibrancy that you can attach to Seattle and less so to Portland. There are small, tiny, steps: the placemaking and downtown ambassador initiatives are very positive, but the free parking rancor, the dog park mess, and the constant complaints to the city council about nearly every proposal makes me very pessimistic for the next 15 years or so. (Free parking is the cause of and solution to every municipal problem out there.) We’re also trying to deal with the lack of downtown housing as though there’s pent-up demand from an affluent population for a trendy downtown condo. If Olympia were a suburb, it might be one of the most interesting out there and perhaps the proximity to Seattle and Tacoma will forever shackle its ability to transcend today into something more intriguing tomorrow.

What do you think? Are you satisfied with Olympia, now that we have an REI, Panera Bread, and Trader Joes?  What would you change, and how will you do it?

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