Gathering Lesser Seattle

Emmett Watson (1918-2001), Mecca Cafe, circa 1982 Cary W. Tolman / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Emmett Watson (1918-2001), Mecca Cafe, circa 1982
Cary W. Tolman / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Within Seattle here circa 2015, there’s a cathartic struggle simmering between our city’s poignant past and the feral future that now beckons fiercely.

While the armies of Amazonia, driven collectively mad by economic fundamentalism, threaten to gentrify every remaining remnant of Old Seattle, pockets of savvy resistance continue to slowly gestate here, catalyzed by the promise of genuine economic democracy and urban citizenship for every New Seattle acolyte.

Among the best citizen movements of our city’s past was a mirthfully apocryphal one that called itself Lesser Seattle. Catalyzed during the 1950s by the legendary longtime local newspaper columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2001), Lesser Seattle was a collective satirical response to the appallingly absurd concept of Greater Seattle.

During that postwar boom decade, several city tourism and growth boosters formed an umbrella group which they called Greater Seattle, Inc., aiming to promote local economic investment and expansion. Seattle circa 1955 was much like Seattle circa 2015 — only now the boosters’ collective lust for growth seems more fueled by Heisenberg’s crystal meth than by good old-fashioned Seattle caffeine.

Writing then from within the hallowed halls of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Watson’s journalistic response to the circa-1955 boosters’ bullshit was the creation of Lesser Seattle. Although the apocryphal organization began as a mere civic prank within Watson’s mirthful mind, the comical concept quickly grew localist legs, since Watson was apparently not the only postwar Seattleite who then loathed the blind expansionist designs of Greater Seattle, Inc. — and thus “Keep the Bastards Out!” (KBO) would eventually become a rallying cry among many of his most avid readers.

The most crucial thing to understand about Lesser Seattle — as well as about Emmett Watson — is that both were ultimately driven not by xenophobia, but rather by a healthy civic anxiety concerning the potential destructive consequences of mindless, aimless urban growth. Contrary to his comical columnist contempt for Californians (the “Bastards” of his mirthful KBO slogan, who began migrating to Seattle in droves during the 1970s), Watson in fact always welcomed outsiders — regardless of ethnicity and/or geographical origin — who could bring something special to Seattle and thereby make it a better city than it was before their migration here.

(I will dare here and now to parenthetically speculate that Watson — a politically progressive Seattle native and lifelong resident — would have absolutely adored Kshama Sawant, the radical woman firebrand from South Asia who’s presently preventing Amazon-era Seattle from being ultimately consumed by idiocracy.)

Emmett Watson passed away on May 11, 2001, just as the twenty-first century was getting genuinely underway here in the erstwhile Century 21 City — and just after the February 28, 2001, Nisqually earthquake, the local natural disaster that eventually begat the world-class man-made disaster we now regretfully know as the Bertha Boondoggle. Uncanny, indeed, that Watson’s now no longer here to comment publicly on that absolute civic absurdity with genuinely satirical poignancy.

Obviously, Amazon-era Seattle needs a twenty-first-century Emmett Watson — now more than ever. Ain’t that so?

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