Just another metropolis

There remain only hints of Seattle's scrappy, provincial heritage of fish, timber, and frontier commerce – of even the sonic and binary booms that propelled the modern city to greatness. Seattle no longer feels unique.
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There remain only hints of Seattle's scrappy, provincial heritage of fish, timber, and frontier commerce – of even the sonic and binary booms that propelled the modern city to greatness. Seattle no longer feels unique.

When I first came to live in Seattle in 1990, one had only to look from the streets to the water to see the city's essential history: slow-moving tugs towing rafts of logs like floating islands; Japanese-flagged freighters laden with raw timber destined for the Tokyo construction industry; husband-and-wife gill-netting boats, laying nets across the tide for Puget Sound salmon. Squint, and you could almost see Seattle as it was in the 1850s: a sheltered deep-water harbor on the edge of a limitless forest of massive Douglas firs and cypresses, with an abundant fishery on its front doorstep. Given such lavish natural resources, it would be hard for a city founded here to fail. Add a railroad connection to the interior (James J. Hill's Great Northern transcontinental line reached Seattle in 1893, in ample time for the Klondike gold rush of 1897) and the place was bound to enjoy the kind of extravagant and unruly success that is both the blessing and curse of the American boom town. Yet – even in 1990 – there was a rootedness to Seattle that evaded most boom towns. The cautious, Lutheran, Scandinavian character of so many of its settlers perhaps helped; likewise the Lutheran, Scandinavian quality of its weather. Manic elation is difficult to sustain under the low grey skies of the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle was never likely to emulate the dizzy excesses of Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Hemmed in by parallel mountain ranges to the west and east, its livelihood grounded in tall trees and deep water, the city stood at an odd, proud, provincial angle to the rest of the U.S., insulated by its geography from the crazes and fashions that took hold elsewhere. Entirely predictably, the city's first "big" business was Henry Yesler's steam sawmill, built in 1853 on Elliott Bay at the foot of what is now Yesler Way. Docks, mills, salmon canneries, and shipbuilding yards quickly assembled themselves along the waterfront, forming a basic infrastructure that shaped Seattle's development for more than a hundred years. When William Boeing, president of a family-owned timber company based in Aberdeen, Wash., entered the aircraft-manufacturing business in 1916, he moved into a bankrupt yacht yard on the Duwamish River, where he employed shipwrights to construct his first planes. Built on the "stick-and-stringer" principle, with light wooden frames sheathed in fabric instead of timber planking, early Boeings, such as the Model C training seaplane, were like featherweight avian boats (lovely examples of these shipshape planes hang from the ceilings of the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field). So the pedigree of the 787 Dreamliner is thoroughbred Seattle, reaching back to the fir forest, the mill, the delicate skills of the boat-builder with his spokeshave and chisel. When I arrived here, I cherished this kind of logical continuity. No city I knew seemed on such comfortable and unselfconscious terms with its own beginnings. I warmed to Seattle's downtown, its modest cluster of skyscrapers rising from streets still dominated by turn-of-the-century brick-and-stucco examples of far-west neoclassical swank. Rebuilt after a fire leveled most of the business district in 1889, Seattle had Roman dreams of the grandeur yet to come, and its hotels, clubs, department stores, and theaters were designed like palaces in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. In a region of logging and mining camps, of here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, Seattle meant to stay for the ages. From early on, Seattle had a canny grasp of how to act as a provincial capital. Its potential hinterland was vast if underpopulated, stretching to Alaska in the north and beyond the Rocky Mountains to the east, a nearly boundless territory of isolated, makeshift towns, whose inhabitants might reasonably look to Seattle as their center for shopping, entertainment, medical facilities, and higher education (the very large and highly ranked University of Washington began life as Territorial University in Seattle in 1861, just 10 years after the arrival of the first settlers). The behavior of the city during the gold rush was typical: When prospectors swarmed through, en route for the Klondike diggings, Seattleites mostly stayed home, preferring to make reliable fortunes from the miners rather than chance their luck in the gold fields. Stores sold clothing, shovels, pans, sluice boxes, and hydraulic equipment to the stampede of hopefuls, and for those few who returned with money in their pockets, the city laid on whorehouses, dives, casinos, restaurants, and burlesque shows. Seattle effectively turned Alaska into its own client-state, making the last open frontier dependent on the city for shipping, supplies, and services, and handsomely enriching itself in the process. Few cities have enjoyed such a long-distance reach into their hinterlands. In the mid-1990s, I conducted an experiment. Driving eastward, I stopped at towns along the way, trying to find out where allegiance to Seattle's big-league sports teams, the Mariners and Seahawks, gave way to support for the Minneapolis teams, the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. At the 500-mile mark, Missoula, Mont., was solidly for Seattle. I crossed the continental divide near Butte and drove on to Billings, where, with 830 miles on the clock, I saw a travel agency advertising weekend packages to Seattle, with hotel, Mariners tickets, and a show at the 5th Avenue Theatre thrown in. A day or two later, I was more than a thousand miles from Seattle, at a barbecue lunch on a North Dakota ranch, after a long morning's calf-branding. Minneapolis was now 600 miles away. I asked my neighbor which baseball team was most closely followed in these parts. "Seattle Mariners," he gruffly said, as if I'd asked a silly question. Seattle's reach is that long. The Montana novelist Deirdre McNamer had a piece in The New York Times Magazine not long ago, describing how she and a Missoula friend would drive to Seattle to get their hair done. Five hundred miles for a haircut. It's been a long while since I last saw a gill-netter at work off Seattle's waterfront, a laden timber freighter heading north, or even a log tow. Puget Sound chinook salmon are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Market changes and Clinton-era restrictions on logging in federal lands have drastically reduced the visibility of the timber industry. Most of the lumber mills, whose acrid steam used to give the coastal Northwest its characteristic smell, have closed down during my time here. Seventeen years ago, Seattle was still, if only just, a regional city, connected with its hinterland by a complex skein of cultural and economic threads and tendons. Grunge rock – the music for which Seattle was becoming famous when I first arrived – provides a nice example. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the founding members of Nirvana, both came, in Cobain's words, "from the bowels of a redneck logger town called Aberdeen, WA," but it took Seattle, the local metropolis, with its clubs, record producers, and studios (not to mention its ready supply of heroin) to broadcast to the world the band's drum-heavy strain of back-country Weltschmerz and fury. Like the wood-products industry, the rock scene depended on a close, symbiotic relationship between the outlying counties and their provincial hub. Since then, Seattle has become a post-regional city, paying far closer attention to the hourly fluctuations of the Nasdaq and Nikkei indices than it does to what's happening in its immediate vicinity. Increasingly divorced from the hinterland, it now seems to float more in virtual space than in the regional space which – until surprisingly recently – used to define and sustain it. For both the hinterlanders and many old-guard Seattleites, this uprooting has been a painful and incomprehensible process, alienating them from the city they'd long regarded as theirs by right of birth. Microsoft came here with its 28 employees from Albuquerque, N.M., in 1979, for a tangle of reasons. Bill Gates and Paul Allen were returning to their hometown; the high-tech side of Boeing had warmed the bed for the nascent software industry; the University of Washington was turning out a steady supply of graduates in computer science; the growing satellite cities of Bellevue and Redmond on the east side of Lake Washington offered cheaper office space than could be found in the Bay Area (which was considered as a possible alternative); Gates' Seattle network of influential family and friends could be counted on as a deep pool of advisers and investors; and the out-of-the-way character of the city provided the right atmosphere in which to develop a then-experimental – and always congenitally secretive – company. Microsoft's impact on Seattle was already making itself felt on the streets when I arrived. Its young workforce, androgynously dressed in cargo pants and T-shirts, topped by Velcro-fastened outdoor gear from Eddie Bauer and REI, looked like a culture in the making. Their air of perpetual studentdom was reinforced by the way Microsoft called its headquarters "the campus," and they worked eccentric, student hours, "pulling all-nighters," which explained their seemingly permanent attachment to paper cups of espresso coffee. Caffeine was their acceptable vice, as cigarettes and Martinis had been to earlier generations, and a symbol of their sleepless labors at the keyboard. Had Howard Schultz (who bought out Starbucks from his former employers in 1987) not existed, Seattle would have had to invent him. Not since the great influx of blue-collar workers who came from the south and east to work for Boeing during the Second World War had Seattle seen such a tide of incomers. The college-educated migrants of the 1990s, most from the urban east coast and California, generated a riot of new construction: For them, pastel-colored condo blocks, mountain-bike shops, Starbucks on every other corner, kayak schools, and assembly-required furniture showrooms sprang suddenly into being. Outside of Abu Dhabi in the 1970s, I'd never seen so many tall cranes maneuvering ponderously against the sky. The rise and rise of Microsoft had an intense magnetic force, drawing into its field dozens of small software outfits, angling to be acquired by the "big M." Departing executives, retiring from Microsoft when their stock options vested, set up their own Seattle-based enterprises, such as Rob Glaser's RealNetworks. Other businesses, such as Expedia.com, were spun off from their parent company (Microsoft) but stayed in the area. Seattle, swarming with qualified job-seekers (the inept waiter at one's restaurant table almost invariably turned out to be a recent arrival, with a degree in computing), became the perfect site for Internet-related start-ups, from Amazon in 1994 to Zillow just last year. (Zillow is a site where, dear to Seattle's moneymaking heart, you can surveil your own and your neighbors' houses and check their current market prices.) By the mid-1990s, it was far easier to find obliging venture capitalists (or "VCs," like the Viet Cong) than it was to find a carpenter or plumber. For a period, the city seemed flooded with money in search of the next smart idea to be hatched by a couple of kids in a garage. Such a bonanza might have overwhelmed a smaller city, but Seattle was sufficiently big and diversified to seem on the surface rather underwhelmed by its latest stroke of fortune: having taken the gold rush in stride, it wasn't about to have its head unduly turned by Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. It helped that much of the frenetic action was taking place across the water on the Eastside, in Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond, which indigenous Seattleites tend to think of as remote, like a chunk of southern California that has unaccountably washed up on their shore. Boeing, the grizzled giant, supplied a counterbalance: Even now, and even after its head office moved to Chicago in 2001, it remains Seattle's biggest employer of local labor, outstripping Microsoft by a ratio of almost two to one (60,000 to 35,000). With queues of container ships anchored in Elliott Bay, waiting to be unloaded at the docks on Harbor Island, and the Alaskan fishing fleet headquartered at Fishermen's Terminal on the Ship Canal, it was possible, if you chose your vantage point with care, to pretend that the city was going about its business as usual, more seaport and manufacturing center than Silicon Valley North. It took the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization in late November 1999 to fully expose the deepening rift between the old city and the new. It was the delirious top of the boom, with the Nasdaq set to break 4,000 by Christmas, and venture capital growing on trees. At the "Battle of Seattle," the headlines and pictures were overly concerned with black-masked "Oregon anarchists," smashing the windows of chain stores and looting them; but what I saw was an enormous, mostly local, all-age crowd of men and women – welders, machinists, dockers, store clerks, fishermen, timber-industry workers, students, marching together under the aegis of the union federation AFL-CIO, in a peaceful and sometimes witty demonstration. "Globalization" was the catchword of the moment, but the real target was much closer to home. These were the people whom the boom had left behind. The demonstrators were protesting Seattle's leaping rents and house prices; the unfathomable workings of the "new economy," in which companies were valued not on their ability to make money but their capacity to spend it at a hell-for-leather burn rate; the marginalization of once-prized manual skills; the takeover of the city by alien, baby-faced stock-option millionaires. Earlier in the year, a fleet of primrose-yellow vans had appeared in the streets wearing the livery of the newest extravagantly bankrolled start-up, MyLackey.com. The lackeys, capped and braided like bell-boys, ran errands and did chores. The company name, however facetiously meant, was incendiary, suggesting as it did a gleeful return to an upstairs-downstairs master-and-servant society – which was exactly what the WTO demonstrators feared, for they knew all too well on which side of the baize door they were expected to belong. On the morning of Nov. 29, when I was driving my then seven-year-old daughter to school over a high freeway overpass, she was excited to see a banner strung from the boom of a mammoth crane, and held in place by men dangling gymnastically from ropes, a hundred feet above the ground. One waved to her as we passed by at eye-level. The boom was aligned due north and south, and the banner showed two enormous arrows. The southward arrow pointed downtown, and said "WTO"; the northward one said "DEMOCRACY." Where had democracy fled? To the – relatively – blue-collar city of Everett, Wash.? To Canada? To the arctic wastes? It was impossible to tell. Since I moved here, greater Seattle – which includes the moraine-like sprawl of tract housing and subdivisions along the urban corridor on Interstate 5 and the Eastside cities and suburbs – has grown in population by 37 percent, from 2.4 million to 3.3 million. In a far-flung state, considerably bigger than England, Seattle, broadly defined, holds slightly more than half the total population and its votes. The governor and both Washington's U.S. senators are liberal Democrats whose elections were bitterly fought by the state's timber, mining, ranching, farming, and construction lobbies. Resentment of Seattle's financial and political power has intensified as its numbers have risen: One needn't travel far out of the city to find it viewed as the Great Wen, William Cobbett's name for London in 1821 – smug, tyrannical, leaching the life out of its suffering hinterland. Far from despising the hinterland, Seattle loves it, if anything, too dearly, calling it "the environment." At weekends, Seattleites disperse into the environment to pursue such urbanite pleasures as skiing (but not snowmobiling), fly-fishing, hiking, mountaineering, bird-watching, kayaking, and sailing. No city in history has so proclaimed itself as the place to come if you want to get closer to nature (its latest promotional slogan is the grating coinage, "Seattle – Metronatural"). So the hinterland presents itself to the conurbation as a giant recreational park, whose every last vestige of wildness – stands of old-growth forest, salmon spawning habitat, bear and cougar territory – must be vigilantly preserved or restored, whatever its long-time residents might have to say about the matter. Seattle, which likes to flaunt the title of "America's most educated city," knows best. As soon as one leaves the suburbs of Seattle, incomes fall precipitately, as if off a cliff. An air of quiet – too quiet – distress pervades once-prosperous timber towns such as Forks, on the Olympic Peninsula, whose best hope now is to divert tourists, meaning Seattleites, on their way to hike in the rainforest that Forks used to cut down with chainsaws. An underpatronized cafe in Forks isn't a bad place from which to contemplate the host of cultural luxuries to which Seattle has recently treated itself – the new opera house, the just-reopened and greatly expanded art museum, the dazzling public library designed by Rem Koolhaas, the new downtown sculpture park, the state-of-the-art symphony hall, new baseball and football stadiums, the botched fantasia of Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project – or to reflect on Seattle's latest political controversy, which was about whether to replace the aging and earthquake-vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct with a $3.4bn tunnel. As people on the make snub and discard those who've helped them on the way up, so do cities, and Seattle, disentangling itself from its roots over the past 20 years, has made many enemies, but seems unconcerned – and no wonder. Its stake in the expanding commerce of the virtual world is big and growing bigger. As the nearest port in the continental U.S. to Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, it looks to the rise of China with more equanimity than any other American city (and, for the same reason, it views the nuclear ambitions of Pyongyang with more apprehension). Cyberspace and Asia beckon. But this is a very different city from the one I settled in in 1990. Most days, I take myself off to Fishermen's Terminal, a mile from where I live, to buy a cigar at one of the last remaining proper cigar stores in Seattle and wander its 76 acres of clanking masts and spars. So much water, scattering the reflections of dock pilings rooted in deep mud, is consoling, and so are the smells and sounds, of paint and sawdust, the churring of power tools, the old skills of patiently mending nets and diesel engines. I like the boats, and the people who tend them – reminders of what work used to be, of what Seattle used to be. But I'm not fooled. Five years ago, the terminal – the U.S.'s last dedicated fishing port – began opening berths to yachts and cruise vessels. The fleet of trollers, gill-netters, and purse-seiners is an increasingly marginal part of the Seattle economy; like my cigar, it's fast turning into a quaint anomaly and a draw for tourists in search of a splash of local color to take pictures of, a taste of old-fashioned "real" life in this virtualized city. Given the present strength of salmon runs in southeast Alaska, the fishermen will continue to make a decent living, at least for the next year or two, helped by the growing discrimination of consumers and restaurateurs who reject cheap farmed fish in favor of expensive wild ones. So the oilskinned fisherman survives by courtesy of the Amazonians and the Microsofties, much like the Sussex thatcher who's kept in business by London owners of weekend cottages. The cigar butt is flipped into the dock, making circles in the water like a rising fish. For me, it's back to Seattle's present, to the screen blossoming to Windows XP, the black Thermos mug emblazoned with the green Starbucks logo, and the peculiar silence of a 21st-century boom city minting money, intermittently broken by the distant whistling noise of incoming 767s on their glide path over Lake Union. It seems to me – as it never could have seemed in 1990 – that I might be anywhere.


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