Jim Diers: Doing it the Seattle way

Seattle, conservative pundits like to observe, is an island surrounded by reality.

For which solid, Seattle liberal Jim Diers has a ready reply: "There's a lot of reality here," he says with a characteristic burst of laughter.

Diers, at 52, should know. He's been around the civic block a time or two.

Diers was the first director of the Department of Neighborhoods, serving in that capacity from 1988 to 2002. He immersed himself in grassroots activism, endless meetings and the often numbingly glacial speed of the famous Seattle process. But he got things done, including the development of the Neighborhood Matching Fund and the P-Patch Program.

Diers was booted from his post by Greg Nickels - he had supported Paul Schell in the mayoral primary. It was Nickels' way of saying there was a new gun in town.

Diers landed handsomely on his feet. These days he's working as liaison to Seattle communities for the University of Washington Office of Partnerships, is director of the South Downtown Foundation and on the faculties of the University of Washington Department of Architecture and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

That's a fairly heroic portfolio. As a result, Diers has his hands in a lot of what goes on around town at the neighborhood level and in smaller communities in the region.

And there's talk of his running for mayor. Neighborhood activists adore him. And he's written a book "Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way," which - though the title may sound Seattle-liberal-dippy - is a substantial, interesting primer, full of case studies, on how Seattle works at the community level.

"Neighbor Power" traces its intellectual roots back to 1930s community organizer Saul Alinksy. As Diers' book makes clear, building community requires far more than good intentions. Other regional cities, universities and civic activists around the country are paying attention to Diers' tome, and Diers himself is making the rounds to read and discuss his book.

"I wrote the book trying to get people engaged and trying to get government to understand that active citizens are not a threat," Diers said.

Diers is out there, all right, still talking about neighborhoods, still plugging for their welfare. If Nickels thought Diers would simply disappear from the scene, he obviously didn't know this man.

An activist family

Diers was born in British Columbia in 1951. His father, a Lutheran minister, believed in the social gospel, instilling a sense of responsibility and conscience in his children. Diers' brother is a bishop in the Lutheran church. Other siblings are active in pursuing the mission of what in the Jewish faith is known as "repairing the world."

During his college-activist years at Grinnell, he studied colonialism, nationalism and the Third World. Diers remembers his mother telling him: "You need to care as much about your neighborhoods as you do about people across the world you don't know."

After he graduated in 1975, Diers and his wife Sarah Driggs looked at a map, saw the Northwest corner with its ample blues and greens, and came west in 1976. "I arrived at my position with the city of Seattle via a rusty orange 1971 Volkswagen squareback," Diers writes in "Neighbor Power."

'Seventy-six was a watershed year in Seattle: The brand-new newsmagazine The Weekly (to become Seattle Weekly a decade later) was changing the way the city thought of itself, and the East Coast slick magazines were extolling the city's "livability." Seattle had replaced Santa Fe as the "in" place.

Diers and his wife moved into Southeast Seattle, where they have lived ever since, and Diers plunged into neighborhood projects while supporting himself with menial jobs. A defining moment came while working on the Empire-Kenyon Apartments, where rent increases and poor conditions, including the need for a crosswalk nearby, were burning issues.

As Diers writes in his book: "Then one day a child was killed while using the striped crosswalk on the busy street. We organized a community meeting and invited the Engineering Department. 'What will it take before we can get a signal installed?' the chair demanded of the city representative. 'Another death?' 'No, two deaths' was the reply. 'We have standards.'"

Neighborhood Matching Funds and the Troll

Diers' neighborhood activism continued until, in 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed him director of the Office of Neighborhoods, which, in 1990 under Norm Rice, became the Department of Neighborhoods.

The department's deployment of "little city halls" throughout Seattle's neighborhoods has proved to be an invaluable stroke in putting people in touch with city government. Office coordinators need to exercise extremely fine political skills with the patience of Gandhi as they steer various community groups and agendas through the "process."

"When you give people opportunities, they respond," Diers said. "People become alive. I love that spark in people."

Looking back, Diers hesitates to cite his accomplishments at the Department of Neighborhoods - so many other people were involved, he says - but certain things stand out.

The Neighborhood Matching Fund, which grew to support more than 400 community self-help projects each year, tops the list.

Regarding his own neighborhood, Diers speaks and writes about the Columbia City renaissance, Bradner Gardens Park, Powerful Schools and the Eritrean Community Center. "Neighbor Power" contains numerous case studies, including the P-Patch Program, Capitol Hill's Bobby Morris Park, the Seattle Peace Park, the Rainier Community Center and the Fremont Troll, the origins of which "Neighbor Power" recounts in all its political burlesque: Not everyone thought the newborn troll was cute.

Although the tone is unrelentingly optimistic, "Neighbor Power" is also detailed and instructive in its case histories. Nearby cities - Tacoma, Everett, Walla Walla, Burien - have been in touch with Diers about what he has written, and his book has caught the attention of city planners as far away as Australia.

But, in its way, it's a classically Seattle book.

And because this is Seattle, the question still abides: What about the mayor's race?

"I've never had an interest in public office," Diers said. "I love what I am doing now. It would be hard to walk away."

And yet: "Since Greg [Nickels] has been in, programs have been dismantled," Dier said, citing cuts to the Neighborhood Matching Fund. "I don't think he gets it. The only place the city is building sidewalks is South Lake Union."

Whatever future incarnation Diers may assume, it's safe to say the preacher's son with a social conscience is going to continue to be heard from.

Perhaps no image better summarizes Diers' approach to life than in the aftermath of his summary dismissal from the Department of Neighborhoods. He was invited to a composting party at the Interbay P-Patch where he read his termination letter aloud. Then copies of the letter were torn up and composted.

Diers addressed the crowd: "When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. And when someone gives you s---, make compost."

Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, by Jim Diers. Published by University of Washington Press. $18.95, paper. 176 pages, 36 illustrations.

Mike Dillon may be reached through editor@sdistrictjournal.com[[In-content Ad]]