Describing Seattle

Cultural Insights — By on September 8, 2008 at 7:12 am

Here is another entry for an expanding collection of posts about the character and culture of various cities.  Charles Johnson is a writer and professor who has lived in Seattle since the 1970s, and he described his vision and experience of this city in an essay for Smithsonian Magazine. An excerpt:

Former UW president William Gerberding once referred to the Northwest as “this little civilized corner of the world,” and I think he was right. The “spirit of place” (to borrow a phrase from D. H. Lawrence) is civility, or at least the desire to appear civil in public, which is saying a great deal. The people—and especially artists—in this region tend to be highly independent and tolerant.

My former student and native Northwesterner David Guterson, author of the best-selling novel Snow Falling on Cedars, recently told me that the people who first journeyed this far west—so far that if they kept going they’d fall into the Pacific Ocean—came mainly to escape other people. Their descendants are respectful of the individual and of different cultural backgrounds and at the same time protect their privacy. They acknowledge tradition but don’t feel bound by it. As physically far removed as they are from cultural centers in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles (the distance from those places is both physical and psychic), they are not inclined to pay much attention to fashions or the opinions of others and instead pursue their own singular visions…Jonathan Raban, an immigrant from England, captures the ambience of this book-hungry city perfectly:

“It was something in the disposition of the landscape, the shifting lights and colours of the city. Something. It was hard to nail it, but this something was a mysterious gift that Seattle made to every immigrant who cared to see it. Wherever you came from, Seattle was queerly like home….It was an extraordinarily soft and pliant city. If you went to New York, or to Los Angeles, or even to Guntersville [Alabama], you had to fit yourself to a place whose demands were hard and explicit. You had to learn the school rules. Yet people who came to Seattle could somehow recast it in the image of home, arranging the city around themselves like so many pillows on a bed. One day you’d wake up to find things so snug and familiar that you could easily believe that you’d been born here.”

In other words, this is an ideal environment for nurturing innovation, individualism and the creative spirit.

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