My college-age students marvel when I tell them about the Puget Sound area that I grew up in.
In those not-so-distant days, we had a well-loved governor who defined himself as a liberal Republican. He served three terms and was supported by Democrats and Republicans. He founded, and was later president of, The Evergreen State College. That was Dan Evans.
We had conservative Democrats, most notably Sen. Henry Jackson and Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.
And we had a single Narrows Bridge, funded in a way that seems astonishing in its naiveté and simplicity in retrospect.
When I was a child, the Narrows Bridge had a tollbooth. The fare was low (25 cents for a car and driver, as I recall) and was dedicated to a cause difficult to even begin to comprehend now: to pay for the bridge.
Over the years, the toll was reduced and eventually eliminated. The bridge was paid for. The tollbooths were removed and crossing the bridge was free for many years.
Since then, bridges, highways and other huge municipal projects (like our second Narrows Bridge) have been funded on a public/private partnership model that treats the project as a profit-making enterprise.
As we all know, the current bridge fare does not go down — and it never will. It is a sterling example of privatization, with profits guaranteed essentially forever.
If you like that business model, you’ll love the future. We have promises from politicians to privatize more of our institutions.
Charter schools and privatized prisons have, at best, a mixed record. Can we even begin to imagine our National Parks, Social Security and the Veterans Administration being run as businesses?
Before the real estate fever of the 1980s, houses were primarily seen as homes; everyone needed one and everyone should be able to afford one. Affordable housing was not a slogan or a political program; it was real.
Housing was seen as the ultimate expression of the American Dream. A house was a home, not an investment. Few of us would have guessed the contagion of housing speculation and “flipping” would spread beyond New York City.
Federal mental health care laws changed in the early ’80s, which led to a flood of mentally ill patients being released from care and into our streets. The word “homeless” entered our vocabulary in the early part of that decade. We certainly had homeless individuals before 1980, but rarely whole families and never (at least since the Depression) homeless camps.
Yes, America has been great — and it was because we were good, because we cared. We cared about peace and stability and respect for others. We lived our values then — just as we do now — but our values have changed and we have changed with them.
We have normalized homelessness, incompetence and corruption. It has become a cliché to decry how “not-United” our states have become. We were “leaders of the Free World” and willing to bear that burden.
But somehow we have lost our nerve and become afraid — of ideas, technology, change, people who believe or appear different from us and even afraid of each other.
And perhaps for the first time in American history, we are afraid of the future.
Nothing lasts forever, but if nothing else, the true and lasting greatness that once was America will be a marvel to all who hear of it. And most of all, I would guess, will be the astonishment of those asking how we could have let such a rare treasure slip from our hands.
M. (Morf) Morford, a former News Tribune reader columnist, is chairman of the North End Neighborhood Council. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.