New-arena debate in Seattle involves city’s self-image

Unless you live in or around Seattle, you probably haven’t heard much about this. The city is debating a proposal to build a $500 million indoor arena adjacent to downtown with the goal of luring back an NBA franchise. The team would replace the Seattle SuperSonics but take that name. That’s the team Starbucks owner Howard Schultz sold in 2006 to Oklahoma interests who, contradicting their stated intentions, soon but not all that surprisingly moved the franchise to Oklahoma City and renamed it the Thunder.

On the surface, the arena debate in Seattle centers largely on money. Chris Hansen, a Seattle native said to have made a fortune in hedge funds, would provide $300 million if local governments will issue $200 million in bonds and grant some tax breaks. Some residents are understandably leery. One reason is Seattle’s sad propensity for remaining on the financial hook after building sports venues that either quickly become outdated, like Key Arena, or have structural problems, like the falling roof of the old Kingdome, which later was torn down. There are also concerns about how the new arena, which would be located just south of baseball’s Safeco Field and football/soccer’s CenturyLink Field, would affect traffic around the nearby Port of Seattle.

But to me, the difference of opinion has at least as much to do with Seattle’s continuing split personality. Do residents want a big-time city, or not?

Since becoming New To Seattle last year, I have perceived alternating strains of the collective Seattle psyche. Almost insufferable braggadocio about living amid beautiful mountains and bodies of water. A profound inferiority complex concerning the weather. Boastful pride for the major companies operating hereabouts, like Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and What I can only describe as insecurity over whether perception of a good life in Seattle will be found out to be some kind of scam. An appreciation of past civic efforts. A fear of thinking big.

Aversion to dramatic moves seems to be a recent development. It wasn’t always that way. Good or bad, during the first century or so after the gringos arrived in 1851, city fathers thought big. They lured transcontinental railroads, removed downtown hills to create more buildable land, fashioned stunning parks and audaciously dug a canal to connect 22-mile-long Lake Washington on the east with route-to-the-sea Puget Sound on the west.

Undoubtedly, the greatest municipal achievement of all was the staging of the 1962 World’s Fair. That put Seattle on the map nationally and even internationally. This is the reason why things that happen in Seattle often get wide media attention.

But as I see it, there’s no way something as big as a World’s Fair could be pulled off now in Seattle. Hell, it’s taken decades just to fix traffic flow along one artery through the center of Seattle, Mercer Street, and it’s still not done.

In my view, it is elements of this split personality that lead to that oft-commented-upon phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. I would define this as a certain lack of warmth and friendliness among the citizenry toward folks they don’t know very well–but who might ask questions.

In this year’s NBA finals, the Thunder f/k/a SuperSonics lost  to the Miami Heat. From what I can tell, Seattle basketballs fans were evenly divided in which team they rooted for. The Thunder, for nostalgia sake. Or the Heat, for spite. Another split.

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