From the Desk of Serin D. Houston: Exploring a Storied Landscape

HoustonSerin D. Houston is an assistant professor of geography and international relations at Mount Holyoke College. Her new book Imagining Seattle: Social Values in Urban Governance is now available. 

I grew up in rural, northern Vermont, a place where the rolling hills descend into windy riverine valleys, where hillsides of maple trees burst forth in orange, red, and yellow in the fall, and where meteor showers sparkle against dark skies. If we walked together through this place, I could show you the depression in the bedrock and the mossy grove where my friends and I used to build forts. I could take you to the spot where I buried various pets growing up. I would invite you to soak in the view that my husband and I gazed upon as we exchanged vows and married. Stepping off the contemporary trails, I could point out the old barbed wire and rusty sap buckets from the dairy farm that preceded my family’s presence on the land. We could talk with neighbors about the varied work that they do, and the engagement with land and place that sustains them and our community. We could visit the town’s welcome sign, which states “Chartered in 1781,” and speak about the violent dispossession of lands and territories from the Abenaki, people who inhabited Vermont then and still do today. As we moved through the stories woven into this place, you would know that this is where my heart and spirit sing.

With such an affinity for a rural place and community, you might wonder why I spent time in Seattle city departmental offices, municipal archives, and meetings. I went to Seattle because this city is also a profoundly storied landscape, one where residents describe in exacting detail favorite local coffee shops and restaurants, where “the mountain” (Mount Rainier) figures prominently in depictions of the place, and where changes in the built environment elicit reflections on the loss of Seattle’s soul. I wanted to learn these stories and inhabit some of the dynamism of this place. In the aftermath of the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meetings and the declaration of a state of emergency in the city, I was curious about how city employees and residents alike recast Seattle. What different narratives emerged in this context? What work unfolded to reclaim status as a politically progressive place? Having learned about Seattle through other research endeavors and past years living in the city, I returned to dig beneath the surface of the hip, liberal, and “cutting-edge” veneer to examine the translation of sustainability, creativity, and social justice into practice. I was particularly interested in how such efforts often end up inadvertently reproducing inequities. Must this be so?

With the goal of exploring the intersections of social values, place making, and social change, I embarked on my research journey in Seattle. I traversed both insider and outsider positionalities throughout this research, as I simultaneously felt enlivened by the stories of the place generated by my experiences and awash in the persistent newness of my encounters and learning. My deep sense of belonging in Vermont helped forge connections with interviewees who felt similar significant attachments to Seattle. I resonated with efforts to build reciprocal relationships in communities, as this echoed my experiences at home. Simultaneously, not being of Seattle enabled me to ask questions that punctured some of the well-rehearsed progressive narratives of the city. I did not have an attachment to how Seattle should be. I was curious about how people made sense of it now. While marketing and branding endeavors often pitch a single and glossy representation of Seattle, I situated myself within the multiple and varied practices of sustainability, creativity, and social justice that shape this place.

My interviewees were the principal storytellers and guides who invited me into a complex interpretation of Seattle. They offered expertise, thoughts, and time for a variety of stated reasons, including a commitment to intergenerational knowledge sharing, a sense of civic duty, a desire to discuss the intricacies of policy making and implementation, a hope for concrete suggestions, and an admiration for my research ambitions. As one interviewee explained, “You have got guts and a very light, very friendly, very upper middle-class voice. There is guts in there. I mean you have got the audacity to think that whatever you are doing is worth an hour of my time. That takes guts.” These “guts,” in many ways, relate to my own sense of place in Vermont, as I find the sustained study of place intellectually and politically insightful. An abiding commitment to examining and participating in social transformation fueled my “guts” as well.

With my book, I wanted to better understand how social values materialized in Seattle and who accordingly experienced tightened or diminished affinities with the city. My work underscored a broad truth—unless equity is central to endeavors, inequities are often reproduced. This is an important insight since Seattle is frequently heralded as a leader of progressive urban activities. Unearthing where and how inequities surfaced in some sustainability and creativity policy efforts in particular inspired me to discuss alternative pathways forward. Such work is necessary given the impacts of climate change, xenophobia, nativism, resource exploitation, and staggering inequalities. Indeed, my research affirms that crafting regenerative, just, and equitable places across the rural to urban continuum is imperative and existentially worthwhile.

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