In the city of the nice, critics warn: Don't push it!

Here in America's bastion of politeness, in the city where the smiley face was nurtured, the notion of "nice" could be headed to new extremes.

A raft of civility laws, hyper-tactful public officials, and "behave yourself!" warnings to Seattle Mariners fans are among the signs that leave some residents wondering if Seattle is evolving into America's Singapore, where gum chewing can bring a $6,000 fine, and everyone is always nice - or does hard time.

This city has long stood as an exemplar of etiquette: a place where pedestrians actually wait for the "walk" signal and politics are marked by decorum more than demagoguery. Seattle-style civility is, in part, a legacy of Scandinavian immigrants who settled here and crafted a special brand of "good government."

But today, some say an obsession with "nice" has become a distraction. You can be cited and perhaps arrested here if you staple a poster to a telephone pole, sit on a sidewalk, sleep too long in a public park, or play music in a licensed club that authorities say could attract impolite listeners.

"Seattle would rather make nice than actually be nice," says Susan Balshor, a sculptor who moved here six years ago from Manhattan by way of Nashville, Tenn. "People only find it necessary to pass laws like these when they fear that they lack the moral gumption to do right on their own account."

Others fire back - politely, of course - that seemingly small steps lay a vital foundation for safer streets. Without such efforts, they say Seattle could lose its status as one of America's "most-livable" cities.

"It's time to stop catering to these whining pests bent on domestic terrorism, who have no respect for the law or others ... and show them how other civilized countries deal with their kind," one resident opined to The Seattle Times.

While the typical Seattleite would use more-restrained language, many here believe violence has become too routine at public festivals, and question whether they are safe downtown.

The political figurehead for more laws and more order - the Pacific Northwest's answer to Rudolph Giuliani - is city attorney Mark Sidran, who championed the first civility laws here a few years ago.

Elected to the prosecutor's desk since 1990, Mr. Sidran recently announced his candidacy for mayor, touting his leadership skills against those of incumbent Paul Schell. But the fall vote will also be, in part, a referendum on what "nice" should mean.

Curb that dog

An ad hoc coalition now dogs Sidran's campaign with a voluminous website that decries his pet statutes as assaults on the poor and on civil liberties.

This city spends serious money on an Animal Control SWAT team that sneaks through parks on silent mountain bikes, swooping down to fine pet owners who let their dogs off the leash. Begging can draw a hefty fine.

But laws are only part of the story. When a Mardi Gras riot in February left one dead and many injured, the public demanded answers. Thousands had watched TV replays that clearly showed groups of blacks assaulting whites. During the melee, police officials ordered their squads not to intervene, even as the mayhem increased.

Mayor Schell has set up task forces to find answers to the rioting at Mardi Gras and similar events. But some observers blame the mayor himself for being overcautious - more concerned about avoiding accusations of police aggression than maintaining order.

It's a fine line for any mayor to walk, and Schell has already seen one police chief resign amid allegations of abuses dealing with protesters at 1999's World Trade Organization meeting here.

Seattle's baseball team, meanwhile, is also grappling with whether and how to enforce appropriate behavior.

When the Texas Rangers came to town for three April baseball games, they brought with them Alex Rodriguez, who left Seattle for $252 million. In advance of the series, Mariner management called a press conference and issued a code of conduct, warning fans that impolite behavior directed against the All-Star shortstop would not be tolerated, and that fans who comported themselves in rude or boorish ways risked ejection from Safeco Field.

In the end, thousands booed, and a few fans vented their wrath in ways that led to their ejection.

"In Boston or New York or Chicago people expect that you're going to get mad occasionally," says Joe Martin, a social worker. "There, it's just life. Here, it's extremely bad form."

Indeed, some say Seattle fixates on solving minor annoyances rather than significant problems because it lacks political will.

Traffic here is now officially rated second worst in the nation. Housing costs have soared. Homelessness is increasing. Many view the schools as dysfunctional.

Process and performance

John Fox, an advocate for area homeless, says local officials design public processes that distill the passions of residents into data-heavy reports. "Our elected leaders are quick to point to these processes and imply that we're better - more civil - than other cities," he says. "If you raise your voice here, you're getting personal, and you're typecast as rude, divisive, negative."

But at City Hall, officials say they are hard at work on solutions - from a light rail system to repairing an earthquake-damaged waterfront viaduct. The city has doubled the money spent on homeless shelters and transitional housing, notes Dick Lilly, a spokesman for Mayor Schell.

"Politeness does not keep us from working on the big picture here," Mr. Lilly says.

David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington, gives a similar assessment. "We have just as much resolve as other cities when it comes to tackling our big problems," he says.

In fact, he says Seattle's civility has roots that are closely tied to a quest for good government.

"Because of Seattle's geographical isolation, people here had to be civil to each other or suffer big costs" - social as well as financial, Professor Olson says.

In the early 20th century, he adds, a coalition of populists, progressives, rural granges and city folk broke with the machine-style politics of Chicago and eastern cities. These reformers sought to replace political bosses with ballot initiatives, referenda and other trappings of "good government." With this came a greater emphasis on civility.

Over time, the culture may have evolved in unique ways.

Brian Haughton, a 28-year resident originally from Jamaica, tells of an occasion when he accidentally set a tablecloth on fire.

"Everybody in the restaurant looked the other way. They thought it was impolite to watch."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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