22 February 2009

Seattleite With Norwegian Roots Writes About Seattle: Now, Then, and in the Future

He goes by the name "Knute Berger," or possibly "Mossback," or even "Skip." He responds to all three names. However, truth be told, he could have a fourth name, the name he used in autographing my recent purchase of his book: "Pugetopolis." The name scrawled across the cover page is "Knute Olsson." He is a Seattle ‘boy’ who has Norwegian roots. His Norwegian grandfather, Knute Berger, changed his name from Olsson to Berger so as not be thought of as a "dumb Swede." Like many Norwegians, he didn’t much like the Swedes.

Knute is the third of four Knutes and third of five generations of Bergers who have grown up in Seattle. He describes himself on his blog as:

“…a Seattle-based writer and commentator with a new book, "Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice" (Sasquatch Books). I also write the "Mossback" column for Crosscut.com, a Northwest news and analysis website and serve as Editor-at-Large of Seattle magazine where I write the monthly "Gray Matters" column. On Fridays at 10 am I'm a regular media roundtable guest on "Weekday," KUOW-FM (94.9), Seattle's NPR station. I also write a political column for Washington Law & Politics magazine.”

Read Knute's blog at www.pugetopolis.blogspot.com/

On Friday, February 20th I left my home in Ballard to attend a function at the Swedish Cultural Center on on the east slope of Queen Anne Hill. Knute read from his book "Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Whimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice," a collection of Berger’s columns filled with anecdotes where he deciphers Seattle’s myths from reality. He opened the gathering with an oral history of his Norwegian ancestry and talked about growing up in Seattle. He shared a tale about his father’s memories of being terrified by bedtime stories of terrible trolls read to him by his own father. This resulted in Knute's father being frightened to hike up the Queen Anne Hill greenbelt to school, for fear of being attacked by a giant walrus. It’s the Norse way to terrorize children at bedtime to instill in them the idea that life is precious and fleeting.

Knute then went on to read three of the nearly 75 columns previously published in the "Seattle Weekly," "Seattle" magazine, "Eastsideweek," Crosscut.com, and other local publications. He shared with us – a standing room only crowd – his perceptions of the myth of Seattle Nice; what he learned as a boy scout and while growing up in Seattle. He had the room in stitches when he read from his book: “… Mossback doesn’t like the way things are going. Too much growth, too much change, too many outsiders trying to grow palm trees—or skyscrapers—in our backyards. I think the only way to turn this thing around is to adopt measures that will turn newcomers off, yet reinforce local values:

• Hire consultants—from North Dakota
• Recycle or you die!
• Outlaw designer pets
• Weather restoration act
And my favorite…
• Mandatory lutefisk

Only Mossback could spew such an eloquent description of this “…grotesque, gelatinous fish dish from Scandinavia." Mossback had to choke down a pile every Christmas Eve to get his presents. That’s Calvinism on a plate! Served properly, this steaming pile of lye-soaked, boiled cod takes on the consistency of sperm and exudes a fishy odor.”[1] He takes this a step farther, saying, “The legislature should pass a law: once a week, everyone has to eat a plate—or maybe a barrel—of lutefisk. Lutefisk testing stations at the state border can pass out samples, giving immigrants a chance to turn around before it’s too late.” It may hold off the Californians, but the Minnesota immigrants might see this as a plus!

I’ve only just begun reading the book, but what I’ve read is great. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about Seattle: past, present and future – through the eyes of a fellow Norwegian-American.

As for the Q & A session that followed his book reading, below is a list of the questions that were asked and answered:

1. Seattle’s tendency between tolerance and prudishness.
2. What about historic preservation (by inclination); i.e. the Denny’s in Ballard.
3. What does Seattle look like in 20 years?
4. (Comment on) The Role of Bicyclists, Motorists and Pedestrians in Seattle.
5. (Comment on) Transportation and the Light Rail.
6. (Comment on) The Initiative Process in Washington.
7. (Comment on) Bookish City in jeopardy of loosing both daily newspapers.
8. (Comment on) The Denny’s teardown and what REALLY happened behind closed doors.
9. (Comment on) The digital age transforming our cultural interactions.
10. (Comment on) The cross purpose of the rising cost of living in Seattle: poverty vs.prosperity.
11. (Comment on) The demise of bowling allies in Seattle (vs. Tacoma).
12. Dick’s Drive-In … if we loose Dick's it time to leave town.
13. If you could re-write the Seattle Landmarks Ordinance… what would it look like?
14. What is the proper role of nostalgia vs. significance?
15. Andy’s Diner vs. Denny’s, why was there a difference in the community uprise?

He addressed each question with genuine insight, a thoughtful response, and a touch of humor. If you would like to hear his responses to these or other questions, come see him on Wednesday, February 25th at Town Hall Seattle with Timothy Egan, or check out his blog for future book readings.

[1] Knute Berger. "Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice." Sasquatch Books: Seattle, 2009, p.258.

Luci Baker Johnson

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