Photo by Jerry Gay
Neighborhood District Coordinator Rob Mattson has been working in the Ballard area helping connect people with each other and resources at the city of Seattle for 40 years now.

Rob Mattson, Ballard's man behind the curtains

If you told Neighborhood District Coordinator Rob Mattson he was your hero, he would disregard you. Even as a whole circle of people at the Ballard District Council one by one said that Mattson was their hero, as happened at April’s meeting, his reaction was at best a caustic smile.

Though jokingly referred to as the unofficial mayor of Ballard, Rob is quick to give credit to others and quicker to reject any kind of compliment one might offer him. He plays the role of the unsung hero impeccably.

“I’m sort of that background guy behind the curtain. That’s the way I like to do it. I tell my coworkers that, I tell citizens that,” Rob said. “It’s more important I leave a legacy of people who are savvy, able to do things and able to speak up.”

He added, “I am not a civic leader, I don’t want to be a civic leader. I don’t want to be a recognized godfather. I want to recognize good.”

He was reluctant to give an interview to the Ballard News-Tribune, answering that he was more than willing to pitch ideas for other, more worthy people to profile. But, after a bit more prodding, his helpful demeanor took over and he granted the newspaper an exclusive inside look.

Rob and his wife Mary first came to Seattle in 1971, when they bought a house in Fremont. They had come from Texas, where they both attended Texas Tech University. He dabbled in law school but quickly found that’s not what he wanted to do. They have four children (one daughter, three sons), three cats and two dogs, including his seeing eye dog. Currently they reside on the side of Sunset Hill “without the sunset view,” though they have also lived in downtown Ballard and Phinney Ridge.

Anyone who knows Rob knows two things: 1) that he’s blind, and 2) that his blindness has never really affected the way he lives.

That being said, Rob was not always blind. He started to lose his sight the senior year of high school due to a genetic eye disorder that commonly affects young people. By freshman year of college he was legally blind.

“We have four children, have a very normal life, and we travel and do things and do the normal sort of stuff,” Rob said. “For me, it’s not a major lifestyle change from me and the next door neighbor.”

Though he “stumbled around” college without any seeing aids, when he moved to Washington one of the first things he did was get trained in using a Seeing Eye dog. His current one, Ty (as in Tyrone), is a very affectionate golden lab that is happy to greet anyone. Many of his seeing eye dogs, which are generally matched to fit the owner, have been golden labs.

“These dogs all have personalities, they’re just like children,” Rob said. “This guy is very social, very eager to please. A hard worker. Easily distracted by people who want to pay attention to him. Squirrels that run by. Girls on the street.”

In Seattle, a new, lifelong career opened up for him. In 1973, Mayor Wes Uhlman started a program of Community Service Centers -- miniature city halls that coordinate municipal services within the neighborhoods. Rob, when he was still a long-haired youth, was one of the first to start the job in Ballard. Barring a couple short six-month stints here and there in other city functions, he has never left.

Now the CSC is called the Neighborhood Service Center, and instead of being run by the Mayor’s Office, it’s run by a new department which opened in 1988 called (at the time) the Office of Neighborhoods. Also in 1988, the Ballard District Council was formed, and Rob has always acted as a staple to the monthly roundtable community meetings.

When it comes to Ballard, Rob has plenty of love.

“The truth is, when I first came here, when I first took this assignment … Ballard was amazingly receptive and welcoming,” Rob said. “The fact that I was young, that I was from the city government, that I was blind -- it didn’t really make a whole lot of difference. People judged you on what you could bring.”

Perhaps more than anyone, Rob can speak to the changes that have taken place in Ballard. He said he witnessed three “renaissances,” including in the late 80s when the neighborhood began to gain back its self-esteem.

“People found that sense of community pride all over again. That’s something this area stumbled and struggled in for many years. Ballard was not a place you wanted to say you were from. The area, It was sort of backwater, people thumbed their nose at it,” Rob said. But, “We looked around as a community and said we’re not like other communities … we’re something sort of special and unique and sort of safe.”

Another renaissance, in the late 1990s, the renovation of the Majestic Bay Theater sent a message to the rest of Seattle, that Ballard is “still worth saving,” Rob said. Over time, restaurants and bars began cropping up. Ballard Ave became a destination. Condominiums and apartments moved in. And streets formerly filled with crusty fishermen were invaded by flocks of hipsters and young 20-somethings.

For old timers, and Rob kind of counts himself as one, all the neighborhood’s new attention can be a bit much. He referred to a recent writeup in USA Today which named Ballard as one of the 10 best destinations tourists haven’t heard of yet and scoffed at the fact that the article focused mostly on bars, breweries and restaurants.

“You read that kind of stuff as an old timer and you think: Some carpetbagger is writing a new script for this neighborhood. Young, hip, cool. Part of me wants to sort of reject that and say ‘No. No, that’s not Ballard. A few cool bars does not define Ballard.”

He said no one aspect of Ballard defines it. It’s a destination for nightlife, yes, but it is also home to decades-old trade and industry. It has Nordic heritage, fishermen, active community groups, environmentally conscious residents, a proud history. For Rob, Ballard should be recognized not as a single part, but a whole consisting of many parts.

“It’s a complex neighborhood,” Rob said.

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