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Seattle's Little City Halls

HistoryLink.org Essay 3270 : Printer-Friendly Format

Creation of Seattle's Little City Halls, now formally known as Neighborhood Service Centers (NSC), was inspired by a 1972 trip to Boston by aides to Mayor Wes Uhlman. The early program, while popular with citizens, was criticized by the press and by Uhlman's political enemies as a thinly disguised "ward" system. The Community Service Centers, as they were then called, survived repeated attacks, and were taken over by the new Department of Neighborhoods in 1991. NSCs now serve Capitol Hill, Lake City-North Seattle, Downtown, the University District-Northeast Seattle, Greenwood-Northwest Seattle, the Central Area, Ballard, Greater Duwamish, Queen Anne-Magnolia, West Seattle, Lake Union-Fremont, Southeast Seattle, and Delridge.

Boston Born

Robert Gogerty and David Marriott, aides to Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman, returned from a 1972 trip to Boston excited about that city's "Little City Halls" program, which featured neighborhood centers for the delivery and coordination of municipal services. Gogerty and Marriott persuaded their boss to organize a similar program, building on existing Model City Program Multi-Service Centers and customer service offices operated by Seattle City Light and other city departments.

David Wood, head of the Mayor's Citizen Service Bureau, was assigned the job of pulling these disparate agencies together to form a coherent system of Community Service Centers (CSCs). The program's announcement in May 1973 quickly drew fire from The Seattle Times and Uhlman's critics on the City Council, notably John Miller, Tim Hill, and Phyllis Lamphere, who suspected that the mayor was creating an informal "ward system" to promote his reelection that fall.

Eyes of the Storm

Even friendly Council Members were miffed by Uhlman's assembly of the Centers without their advance approval. Funding the program in the 1974 budget was sequestered by the Council pending further study. David Wood resigned as program head in January 1974, and was succeeded by Walt Crowley, who supervised neighborhood services for the Department of Human Resources (DHR).

Crowley marshaled detailed statistics documenting public use of the Centers and drafted a strategy to shift the program away from the Mayor's Office and base it in DHR with an emphasis on social service delivery. Uhlman made this proposal on January 24, 1974, and the City Council endorsed it on April 1, 1974, and released the CSCs' funding.

The initial program included centers in West Seattle (later shifted to White Center), Ballard, the University District, Rainier Valley, Fremont (under contract with the Fremont Public Association), and Lake City. Most staff, including veteran neighborhood facilitators such as Rob Matson, Patty Whisler, and Ed Steyh, were funded via the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).

Once More Unto the Breach

After Crowley's 1975 promotion to coordinate Community Development Block Grant planning, management of the CSCs was assigned to John Mitsules, former director of the Ballard-North Greenwood Seattle Model City Program and a long-time Uhlman ally. Renewed charges of political cronyism led the City Council to reject Mitsules' appointment and withhold funding until completion of a program audit in 1976.

The embattled Little City Halls squeaked through another budget battle that year, and found a new benefactor with the election of Mayor Charles Royer in 1977. His administration expanded the system of Centers and shifted them to the Office of Neighborhoods in 1988. Mayor Norm Rice created the Department of Neighborhoods in 1991, and it took over the renamed Neighborhood Service Center (NSC) program.

As of May 2001, the city operates NSCs serving Capitol Hill, Lake City-North Seattle, Downtown, the University District-Northeast Seattle, Greenwood-Northwest Seattle, the Central Area, Ballard, Greater Duwamish, Queen Anne-Magnolia, West Seattle, Lake Union-Fremont, Southeast Seattle, and Delridge. These centers typically offer information and assistance to citizens in paying utility bills, in using city programs and benefits, and in participating in neighborhood planning and other community involvement activities.

Gary K. Kaminura and Christopher K. Leman, "Seattle's Little City Halls" typescript dated 1988, University of Washington, in possession of Walt Crowley, Seattle, Washington; Brent Cook et al., Neighborhood Service Centers: 25 Years of Service to the Community (Seattle: Department of Neighborhoods, July 1997); The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, April 7, 1974; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1992; Author's archives.

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