Civic Amnesia

Seattle's got a serious memory problem.

MAYBE THE SUMMER'S heat wave has broiled a few brain cells or caused a civic aneurysm. Or perhaps Seattle's 2001 sesquicentennial marked the next stage of senility. The city and some of its prominent citizens have been showing signs of serious memory problems lately.

Where to begin?

Many people seem to have forgotten the advantages of having two daily newspapers, especially the people that own those newspapers. I read through the depositions in Hearst Communications v. Seattle Times Co., the King County Superior Court lawsuit over the joint operating agreement (JOA)depositions Seattle Weekly had to pry out of the partiesand it's clear that going way, way back, executives on both sides sensed the JOA was leading inexorably to the demise of one of the papers. Through questions from lawyers, it's clear too that some of those execs were also exhibiting memory problems on deposition day, chiefly Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, whose deposition is filled with memory gaps. Blethen often can't remember basic figures regarding profitability, important elements of the JOA agreement, nor even what he was thinking at some crucial times. In one memorable exchange, Blethen is asked by a Hearst lawyer if he ever said or thought "that the newspapers were cash machines in the year 2000." Blethen's reply: "I can't recall what I thought in the year 2000." Wow. Ray Milland only lost a weekend!

As I've already pointed out in this column, the Times' memory was also recently scrambled on the subject of former King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll when the paper ran a front-page obit featuring his Husky football career and virtually ignoredor willfully "forgot"his central role in the most important political scandal in the city's past half-century, a scandal in which both the Times and Post-Intelligencer played major roles.

BUT POLITICAL SCANDALS are where "memory" always tends to fail.

Take so-called "Strippergate." Some members of the extended Colacurcio business clan can't remember with whom they attended City Council-candidate fund-raisers, whether they gave donations, or to whom they gave donations. "My memory is a little foggy," Frank Colacurcio Jr. told the P-I.

The memory difficulties extend to the City Council members who accepted Colacurcio campaign donations. It didn't occur to them that it might look bad because the Colacurcios had business before the council or because of the family's history in this town.

One could ascribe some lapses to the fact that Seattle is a city of newcomers. It is also a city that tends to value its privacy over its public life. It is a city where people can breeze in and rise far fast. There's no requirement that one learn the ropes or pay one's dues. And since we went from log cabins to the jet age in a mere 100 years, there's always that enduring sense that we're still on the move. For some folks, history is just, well, lame. Unless, of course, you can use nostalgia to gloss up some new enterprise, like using rock songs to sell SUVs.

THAT IS CLEARLY being played out in the monorail project, where its backers have appealed to the "coolness" of the existing monorailthe futuristic New Frontier symbol of the Century 21 World's Fairto make the case for a citywide system that was often touted as an extension of the old line or even a companion to it. During the campaign, monorail advocates such as Tom Weeks assured fans of the old monorail, including me, that continuing to run the old monorail along Fifth Avenue as a spur was very much an active possibility, and more than $20 million had been budgeted for this. But after the vote, the idea was quickly scrapped in favor of running only one line on Fifth. The plan is the Green Line will replace the old monorail. Period.

The memory-challenged City Council is about to approve tearing down the old monorail's supports and rails, despite the fact that the entire working line has been designated a historic landmark by the city. If you can tear down a historic landmark, what the hell good is the designation? Green Line advocates maintain they are "preserving" the old monorail by preserving the Seattle-Center-to-downtown route, which to me is like saying that if you tear down the Smith Tower and build a new skyscraper in its place, you're "preserving the route" of the old building's elevators. The old monorail cars will likely be headed for a museum.

This is a kind of memory problem you cannot ascribe to ignorance of the past or hazy recollections or "no one told me." It's willful vandalism done in the hope that Seattle will forget when the new monorail is up and running. That could well be. The new city is built on the foundations of the old.

But you can't have a sophisticated, vital, big-league city without stewardship. And you can't be a great city if you are prone to forgetting, because memory, really, is who you are.

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