A well-known pundit, sex columnist, LGBT activist, and Editorial Director of The Stranger, Dan Savage frequently writes about housing from an urbanist perspective. On a bright Saturday afternoon with the Capitol Hill Block Party in full-swing down the street, I sat down with Dan Savage to talk about urbanism. Our topics ranged from why cities are havens for queer people, making room for more residents in Seattle, improving transportation, and earthquakes. Below is Part 1 of our interview.
Ben Crowther: Do you consider yourself an urbanist?
Dan Savage: I do. I’m not sure what that means though. I’m not sure what people mean when they use it now as a political and social identity. I’m a city kid. I grew up in a city. I like cities. I want to live in cities. Ever since moving to Seattle 26 years ago I’ve wanted Seattle to face the facts that it is going to be a big city when it grows up. And stop fucking around with single-family zoning dominating the city and stop resisting transit. To disabuse itself of the notion that we should be able to drive through the center of the city at 100 mph like you could in 1961.
You said you want people to live in cities…
I do. People do live in cities and choose to live in cities. The majority of humanity now lives in urban areas and cities. So I am not alone. It’s better for the environment when people live in cities.
Is that why you want them to live in cities?
Sometimes it feels like we urbanists –whatever the fuck that means — we give ourselves blowjobs, snap ourselves in half, fellating ourselves for how high-minded it is of us to choose to live in cities because of the lesser environmental impact, the diversity — all of these things that we choose. We pick those things because we like those things. We’re making a virtue out of a choice we’re making in our own self interest because of our aesthetic or social preferences. And there are people who prefer rural areas and countryside and they’re making the same choice we are to live in a kind of a place that makes them happier. But, we do have the advantage of being able to point to the fact that the place where we choose to live is better for all, including people who make the, what I think is idiotic, choice to live in the boonies.
Do you think urbanism is just a post-hoc justification for those social choices we’ve already made?
No. We should argue ferociously for what we believe in and what we value. We live in a country where we’re constantly subjected to these fucking hymns about real America and the heartland and the values of small town America and all this horse shit. There really hasn’t been a counter to any of that — a counter narrative, a counter argument. There hasn’t been a choir singing a different fucking hymn. The reality is that it’s better in places like Seattle and Chicago and San Francisco and New York — even Detroit and Cleveland and St. Louis, I would argue — then it is in some bullshit nothing town in the middle of nowhere.
What makes it better?
There’s more to eat. There are more people to have sex with [laughter]. There are more opportunities to meet different kinds of people, whether you’re going to fuck them or not. We’re social animals. There’s more to do.
I was really fortunate to grow up in a city. I was a little queer kid and I was weird and interested in things that boys weren’t supposed to be interested in like musicals and ballet and I was picked on for that. But at the end of the day, I would get out of my shitty grade school or shitty high school and disappear into the city where I could find all the other kids like me who were out there taking ballet classes and doing musical theater with community theaters in the evenings. I found my tribe. Kids who grow up in places where, when you get out of school at the end of the day, you’re still trapped in the same boxes with all the fucking shitheads you go to school with, where you don’t have the luxury of being able to get out there and find the other weirdos like you — what a horrible way to grow up. Not just horrible, as we find out later, for the weirdos and fags. Later you talk to the kids who were popular and they were miserable too sustaining that facade and performing that and felt this desperate pressure to conform. Some people, they aren’t conforming — it’s actually who they are — but a lot of people do a good job of making it look like who they are and what they want is what everyone else is, what everyone else wants, are faking it and are just as miserable as the weirdos like us who couldn’t fake it.
I grew up at the edge of Chicago. I didn’t grow up in the middle of the city. I grew up in Rogers Park, which is as far north as you can go without into getting into a suburb and as far east as you can go without getting into a lake. Because it was on the Red Line — then the Howard — it was knit together with the rest of the city. My neighborhood at the far northern edge of the city felt like as much a part of the center of the city as Downtown or any of the closer-in neighborhoods did because we could jump on the L and be anywhere we wanted to be in 30-40 minutes.
You talked about finding your tribe. Is that a social function of cities?
You also talked about the queer kids, the weird kids, and cities letting you disappear. Is that part of why queer people gravitate towards cities?
The anonymity of the city. Yes, absolutely. We didn’t really see queer communities and queer cultures in a distinct form until cities came along.
Some people would say that there are queer communities in rural areas — they look different, they look like small town prides, but that they still pop up in rural areas.
They do pop up in rural areas. Often supported, these days, by technologies developed by urban areas. Scruff [a gay social app] has created communities of queer people in rural areas by allowing them to find each other and connect, sometimes anonymously first for their own safety, in ways that they couldn’t in the past. Scruff and other dating apps become the small town gay bars that you can’t necessarily be seen going into or out of. Or don’t have to risk being seen going in or out of.
Yeah there are queer people in small towns. Of course there are queer people in small towns. I lived in Louisville for a while. I visited other small towns. And there are queer people who choose to live in small towns and don’t want to move to the big city. More power to them. I think they’re crazy. Just as they think I’m crazy. It’s like that one-way street — people in rural areas, people in small towns talk about urbanites sneering at them. But they’re the ones saying we’re all a bunch of latte-sipping, cocksucking, sophisticates who couldn’t change a tire and are going to hell and blah blah blah. There’s a whole bunch of rural and exurban sneering that’s directed our way but god forbid we look at them and say “why the fuck would you live like that?” While at the same time they’re saying “how could you live like that, all piled up on top of each other?”
You touched on urban life being good for your sex life — more people to have sex with. Can you expand and talk about what urban life means for your sex life?
That’s too simple. It makes it too small. Urban life is good for your social life. It’s good for your emotional life. It pulls you out of yourself. You can walk down the street and turn a corner and meet someone. Maybe a lot of that happens online now. But there’s this phenomenon I notice whenever I’m in New York walking around with someone who lives in New York, we’ll be walking down the street, we’ll turn a corner, and we’ll run into some mutual friends. Constantly running into people on the street. Cities have a way of funneling people through spaces where you’re going to encounter people you know or like or meet people you might know or like. That can be social, that can be professional, that can also be sexual. Cities are about possibility and social connection. Cities create a web of social synapses that create a hive-mind that we can all then tap into and that we can all draw from. Cities are exciting. Believe you me, there are cities that are more fucking exciting than this one. [laughter] Seattle ain’t there yet.
Check out Part 2 of our interview with Dan Savage tomorrow.
Photo courtesy of Dan Savage and Wikimedia Commons
Ben is a Seattle area native, living with his husband downtown since 2013. He started in queer grassroots organizing in 2009 and quickly developed a love for all things political and wonky. When he’s not reading news articles, he can be found excitedly pointing out new buses or prime plots for redevelopment to his uninterested friends who really just want to get to dinner. Ben served as The Urbanist's Policy and Legislative Affairs Director from 2015 to 2018 and primarily writes about political issues.