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Going Public: The American Commonwealth

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In a recent "woman on the street" interview on PBS, a run-up to the election for governor in Virginia, the prospective voter repeatedly invoked the phrase, "the state of our commonwealth." Virginia, like three other states, is officially a commonwealth.

Perhaps the woman's phrase is also a sign of the times -- that people are worried about "the commonwealth," in a time of rancorous divisions and a culture of private pursuits. For our nation's founders, commonwealth meant not only popular government but also the public world shared by all, for which all have responsibility.

Indeed, one feature of groups like RESULTS and the Citizen Climate Lobby, citizen-based policy efforts which I recently wrote about, is the way they help people move from therapeutic and private questions like "how do I feel?" to public ones like "how can I be effective on an important issue?" They answer a hunger among the people.

Today in America we need a new story in which diverse people can see themselves, countering the false notions that making money, meritocratic success, and other private goods are the only aims in life. The commonwealth is such a story, that needs to be revitalized. Experiences some years ago of house boaters in Seattle who saved their houseboats and helped to birth the environmental movement, offer some lessons.

Terry Pettus, a talented journalist and grassroots community organizer, moved to Seattle in the 1920s. Over the next two decades he was a leading figure in many popular movements, from labor organizing to fights for public utilities and old age pensions. Pettus was shaped by the populist politics of the New Deal, a pluralistic politics that birthed the community organizing tradition which later schooled Barack Obama.

In the mid-1930s, Pettus helped to organize the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a political group of labor unions, farming communities, cooperatives, small businesses, and neighborhood organizations. By the 1940s, the Commonwealth Federation held a majority of seats in the state legislature.

As I noted in my book, Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life:

"Pettus and his wife Berta lived in a freewheeling houseboat community on Lake Union, near downtown. Boatyard workers, sailors, students, poor people, and bohemians mingled with retired radicals from the Industrial Workers of the World. Along the shore, speakeasies and brothels were scattered through small shacks and apartments."

City officials had always disapproved of the community. In 1962 they moved to dismantle the houseboats to make room for high-rise lake-front apartments and other developments. Their complaint against the house boaters was the sewage they dumped in the lake, though the boaters' sewage was a minuscule one half of one percent of the total sewage being dumped.

Few thought that the iconoclastic individualists of Lake Union could be organized, but Pettus knew they could. "People will fight for their existence, if not for abstractions," he told me. He and others formed the Floating Homes Association to solidify the community and they tied their concrete self-interest to an ideal to which everyone could relate.

Most importantly, they redefined the issue from survival of the houseboats to the meaning of progress. Was the Puget Sound only to become a "space age" consumer paradise, symbolized by the Space Needle, or was it a space for a far deeper way of life. "We knew we could never win if the issue was only the survival of the house boats," said Pettus.

Drawing on the commonwealth legacy, Pettus and his neighbors portrayed Lake Union as the embodiment of the commonwealth for and by the people of Seattle, "a gift to us from the Ice Age," as he put it. To make the point they turned the complaint against the house boaters for pollution on its head. "I knew we could never win by debating percentages, claiming 'less responsibility' for pollution than others," said Pettus.

To the consternation of city officials, house boaters demanded that they be permitted to pay for sewer lines to their boats. The association held workshops on welding pipes and hooking up lines. They gained allies like the city's Health Department.

They also organized on multiple levels. House boaters encouraged sympathetic journalists to write articles on the lake and its history in magazines and newspapers. Working with school teachers, they sponsored history tours of the lake. They held neighborhood festivals. They launched an aggressive speaking campaign across the city. They won support from faculty and students in urban planning at the University of Washington.

Throughout, their message connected the lake and its history with work, arguing Lake Union always had been a "working lake," built by the people of the city, that had multiple uses: recreation, commerce, residence, as well as a site of beauty and rest, and a place of sacred meaning for native peoples. The organizing effort tapped deep unease about the environment, and gave it shape in a different narrative of "the good life."

Thus the fate of the house boats acquired enormous symbolic significance. It became a choice between unreflective consumer culture and the commonwealth.

By late 1963, city officials were forced to respond. A city study group called for protection of the lake. The Floating Homes Association was able to block industrial uses, pressing the city to acquire a large area for a public park. The state legislature passed the strongest shoreline management legislation in the country. Pettus, who had been jailed under the Smith Act as a "subversive" in the 1950s, helped to write the legislation.

The organizing effort had contagion effects which continued for many years. "Seattle had a major era of citizen participation," said James Ellis a prestigious lawyer who was sometimes called "the informal leader of the city's elite." As a result, Ellis believed, "there was an incredible flowering in the city."

The lesson of Lake Union remains relevant.

Civic revitalization is needed inside institutions and also beyond them, in renewing concern for the shared public world. We need to remember that the American promise is a commonwealth democracy, built and sustained by the labors of all.

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