All-America City

Linda Burton posting from Olympia, Washington – Birds singing outside the window are always a good sign. A breakfast ticket, an elevator ride, a warm greeting at the front desk as I pick up the morning paper. In the breakfast room I lay my paper on a table by the window and head for the buffet, scrambled eggs and sausages, fruit and yogurt; over on the bar the toasters and the bagels sit, ah, I see, this was once a dining room in the hotel, now serving breakfast just for guests. Coffee, orange juice, I think I’m set. It’s time to eat, and read the paper, what better way to start the day? The paper is the Olympian, a fitting name. City traffic moves on Capitol, across the street in Sylvester Park a backpacker stretches on a bench. The newspaper tells of plans for celebrating the 4th in the communities around; family festivals, fireworks, parades with a four-legged fourth (Otis the police dog will be Grand Marshall), a Volkssport walk. And the All-America City awards are announced; fourteen new cities are named. Olympia, Washington received that honor some years back, I remember; that’s right, I’m having breakfast in an All-America City!

The award is bestowed by the National Civic League each year, to recognize outstanding examples of community problem solving; I studied up on it when I got back to my room. The League lists three core values: (1) Faith in people and their unlimited potential to solve problems and strengthen the communities they call home (2) Belief that diversity and inclusiveness are assets to be valued and practiced as a mean of moving communities to even higher levels of achievement (3) Conviction that democratic processes are the basis for creating high-performing local governments.

So how are those values evidenced in Olympia, the capital city of the state of Washington, population 46,478?

For thousands of years the Squaxin, Nisqually, Puyallup, Chehalis, Suquamish and Duwamish people called this area home; the first recorded visit by Europeans was 1792 when Peter Puget charted the site. Fast forward to 1846, when Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith claimed the land that is now downtown Olympia. In 1851 Congress established the Customs District of Puget Sound for Washington Territory; now Olympia had a Customs House. Oregon Trail immigrants were arriving, the population was expanding, and residents settled on the name Olympia (there’s an awesome view of the Olympic Mountains to the northwest). A small fleet of steamboats knows as the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet began serving the area and on January 28, 1859, the city of Olympia was incorporated.

What do I know about the city today? I know that friend and CCUSA Board Member Bob Jacobs was Mayor from 1994 through 1999, and I know that he believes strongly in community activism. I know that highly respected Evergreen State College is here, and that Olympia has been named one of the best college towns in the nation due to a vibrant downtown scene, and easy access to every outdoor activity you can think of. I know that Olympia is a hub for artists and musicians (Kurt Cobain lived on Pear Street at one time).

And I know the terrain is beyond gorgeous – this city has snow-topped mountains on either side and easy access to the Pacific Ocean by car, camper or boat. The area within 25 miles of Olympia is 89% forests, 7% water, and only 3% built up. I can’t seem to find the specific community project that resulted in the All-America City award for Olympia back in 1986-87, but I can look around and see the results of how this community honors its setting and its heritage.

Let’s take public parks and nature conservation areas. There’s the 600-acre Woodard Bay Natural Area, preserving more than 5 miles of Puget Sound waterfront. There is Percival Landing Park along Budd Inlet, a boardwalk, a playground, and open space, recently renovated with tremendous community input and support. There’s second-growth forest in Watershed Park; there’s Priest Point Park, Burfoot Park, Sunrise Park, and Yauger Park, all with their own stories, such as Trillium Park’s; it was created by the efforts of adjoining neighborhood associations.

I look forward to my visit in this capital city; exploring its charming neighborhoods, bench sitting and people watching in the downtown square, listening to summer evening music in the park, taking in the history in the halls of the capitol, and most importantly, meeting the people who had a hand in creating what is here today. Those birds are still singing outside, I think I’ll head for Sylvester Park right now and take a stroll around this All-America city.


What’s happening, read the Olympian for July 2:

Winners of the All-America City Award