Solutions in search of a problem

Pike Place Market -- The Original Street Food

Today in Crosscut I have an extended reflection based on a post by my blogging colleague Chuck Wolfe. Wolfe has coined the phrase “Idea Management,” which I adopted and elaborated on. But Wolfe’s point is a good one. We do need, especially in Seattle, a plan to manage the many Big Ideas that can bog us down.

I was reminded of the Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” while reading about another topic all together. But that play seems resonate with the discussion of ideas, problems, and solutions in Seattle. In that play six characters show up as a play is being staged demanding that their stories be finished. The characters are aggressive and keep pressuring the manager of the play. An excerpt:

Door-keeper [timidly]. These people are asking for you, sir.

The Manager [furious]. I am rehearsing, and you know perfectly well no one’s allowed to come in during rehearsals! [Turning to the CHARACTERS.] Who are you, please? What do you want?

The Father [coming forward a little, followed by the others who seem embarrassed]. As a matter of fact . . . we have come here in search of an author . . .

The Manager [half angry, half amazed]. An author? What author?

The Father. Any author, sir.

The Manager. But there’s no author here. We are not rehearsing a new piece.

The Step-Daughter [vivaciously]. So much the better, so much the better! We can be your new piece.

An Actor [coming forward from the others]. Oh, do you hear that?

The Father [to STEP-DAUGHTER]. Yes, but if the author isn’t here . . . [To MANAGER.] unless you would be willing . . .

The Manager. You are trying to be funny.

The Father. No, for Heaven’s sake, what are you saying? We bring you a drama, sir.

The Step-Daughter. We may be your fortune.

The Manager. Will you oblige me by going away? We haven’t time to waste with mad people.

The Father [mellifluously]. Oh sir, you know well that life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.

Sorry, but I love the idea of this play. It reminds me of another favorite of mine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

Just repeat this dialogue above but substitute the word “author” with “problem” and “characters” with “solutions” and you’ll get my point. Seattle loves solutions and big ideas. But we don’t like to spend time considering the problems we’re trying to solve. I think it’s because, in many respects, the solutions to the problems are so obvious.

Street food isn’t a solution, it’s an outcome of density. It’s that simple. If you put a food cart where there are no people you aren’t going to see a dense, walkable, and vibrant neighborhood spring up around the food cart. It works the opposite way. Once we get dense, walkable, and vibrant neighborhoods we’ll get street food.

But it is much easier to spend time with the drama of debating and tweaking food cart regulations and arguing over who’s ox will be gored if the permit process is easier. The same goes for things like carbon neutrality and transit oriented development.

The fact is we know how to do street food. Pike Place Market is a perfect example, but there is also the thriving market culture in Seattle, and all of this doesn’t even count the fact that we already have food trucks. I get that we want to make it easier. That’s a good idea. Just do it already. As FNARF at Seattle Transit Blog said:

I encourage you to pass the most liberal street food ordinance you can come up with. Go ahead, block the sidewalks! Busy sidewalks are GOOD for cities (see the work of William Whyte on this subject). Simplify the permit process.

And especially NO CURFEW. I’m in bed most nights by 9:30, so I don’t care, but there is no reason on earth why food cart vendors themselves can’t decide when a good time to shut up shop is. Late night food is a world tradition, and will actually work to pacify sometimes unruly bar crowds late at night.

Do the decent thing. Say yes to street food.

But remember, this isn’t a solution to anything. Street food works when you welcome growth into our city. People need a place to go, that means density, and it means up zoning. Get that right and the rest takes care of itself.

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One Response to Solutions in search of a problem

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    Sure, street food works. Unless you outlaw it. It’s quite a bit like density, actually. We could have density and tall buildings if only we’d remove the bits of code that keep our buildings from being tall. We could have street food if only we’d remove the bits of our laws that keep people from selling street food.

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