This essay is drawn from an unpublished manuscript about Seattle, Speaking of Seattle. Copyright ÃÂ© 2008 by Jean Godden. Seattle is not your basic metropolis. It's not like any other city in the world, in ways that are both good and bad. How different is Seattle? For one thing, it's a large city where everyone knows everyone else. Or at least knows your sister-in-law, so better not speak ill of her. It's a city where people can be laid off and, refusing to believe they won't find another job in their beloved Seattle, they refuse to move on. So they start a new business and either go bankrupt or become multi-millionaires. And yet Seattle is also a city that newcomers find uncommonly hard to know: often overcast, misty, and a little standoffish. The expatriates want sunshine. They want clear skies. They want distinct seasons. And they want instant camaraderie. Those things are sometimes in short supply in the far Northwest. Gordon Edelstein, former director of Seattle's ACT Theatre, once compared Seattle and New York audiences, as he was leaving to return to the East Coast. He was quoted in The New York Times saying, "In Seattle when the curtain rises on a play, the audience is open, but their tacit agreement is that life is pretty good, it's important to be comfortable, and human beings actually can be healthy." He contrasted that outlook with life in the Big Apple. He said, "The curtain rises on a New York audience and everyone agrees we're basically sick and we want redemption and we want a good time, but we're not made uncomfortable by deeply disturbing news about our psyches. In fact, that feels like the truth to us." Seattle definitely is not New York City West. Nor is it Los Angeles North. Nor even San Francisco Bye and Bye. So what makes Seattle different? Is it an acquired taste like olives and oysters and dry martinis? Let me see if I can shed some light. Things have been changing rapidly in the years since I started putting down roots. Seattle. It is most certainly not the Seattle that I encountered when I arrived here at age 17. Here are the biggest changes I've noted from years of chronicling the town. Culture. The oft-repeated line from Sir Thomas Beecham, the famed orchestral conductor, warned that Seattle in the 1950s was in danger of becoming "a cultural dustbin." Even if Beecham didn't say it precisely that way, the city certainly didn't have much culture to offer in its first 100 years (1851-1950). Prior to the 1962 World's Fair, there was little professional theater, no resident opera company, little dance, and only a small start-up Seattle Art Museum. Today there are more equity theater companies in Seattle than in any city west of the Mississippi. Seattle Opera sells out performances of Wagner's Ring more than a year in advance. There's a remarkable symphony hall, renowned for its acoustics; a stunning new opera house; a downtown art museum that recently doubled in size; an incredible new art sculpture garden; and a fabulous central library that's a major tourist attraction. Sports. Here the city has gone from the home of a beloved but bush league minor league baseball team — the Seattle Rainiers — to being a headliner in major league sports. It is a town with major league stadiums and arenas: football, baseball, basketball, and women's basketball. Inevitably, in a city of individualists, there are spoil-sports who complain about the city's overemphasis on stadiums, but the city's sports stadiums turn other cities green with envy. Fans flock to "the Safe" in good times and in lean ones. Having such great digs is the opposite of the poor-me mindset that beset the pre-Safeco Field players. One of the teammates from that era said, "I looked down at my outdated uniform — I looked like a clown. And I played like one, too." More than one industry. In the early 1970s, when the rest of the country was enjoying prosperity, Seattle was caught up in the infamous Boeing recession. The airplane manufacturer cut its 100,000-work force in half and the entire city felt the pain. At the time, there appeared a billboard, an ironic joke, saying, "Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the light?" Trouble was, the city had depended far too heavily on a single airplane-building industry. But no more. Now such corporations as Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Real Networks are headquartered here. Starbucks Coffee and Nordstrom, Paccar and Weyerhaeuser are giants in their fields. Biotech firms are establishing a new industry. Oh, sure, Boeing layoffs still hurt. So did losing Boeing headquarters when the muck-a-mucks moved to Chicago. (Never mind that they said it was so they wouldn't have such a distance to fly — fly, mind you. How ironic is that?) But the loss of Boeing headquarters was good, if bad-tasting medicine. The city no longer can be dismissed as just a kite factory. Gourmet food. Seattle cuisine ain't what it used to be — and for that, thank goodness. In the days before the Seattle World's Fair, there were two possibilities: greasy spoons and hotel dining rooms. There was precious little between working-class fare and the white-linen table service, fit mostly for commercial travelers. Today, the region's business directories list more than 2,000 places to dine, from street-front coffee shops with tempting pastries to restaurants where East Coast critics come to sing praises. It's an article of faith that, at all times, at least one Seattle chef must be in the air, winging toward New York City to show off the latest in Northwest cuisine. Wealth beyond anyone's imagining. In the 1950s, Seattle had timber barons and shipping magnates, a few bankers and developers, but no over-the-top, Rockefeller-style wealth. The rich lived quietly. The mansions, such as they were, were hidden away behind the high hedges and forest groves. Wives of the timber barons and bankers belonged to the Sunset Club, a semi-secret society that no one was allowed to talk about or write about. The only way to know if Mrs. Old Money was a member was to read her obituary. The Sunset Club tradition continues today, housed in an anonymous brick building on Boren Avenue. It has no marquee, no designation, no way of guessing that behind these walls is the old-money venue where the well-coiffed heirs of the timber fortunes take their tea. But, although the Sunset Club still functions today, it represents the old guard life in Seattle, the era before the wide-open 1990s, the decade when Seattle soared in world imagination, and youngsters barely out of their teens — nerds with computers — became multi-millionaires. Microsoft famously created 2,000 millionaires and a handful of billionaires virtually overnight. Ordinary people — wage slaves like me — had to stop and think: How much is a billion? It is (pause for breath) one thousand millions. But this new breed of millionaires still awes and amazes us. These are the people who still shop in Seattle grocery stores, who sit beside us in coffee shops and who help to support our charities, boost our arts, and donate heavily to education, the environment, and health. Once when I was shopping at a supermarket near the University of Washington, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, fresh from again being named the richest man in the world, entered the store and stopped at the bakery to cadge a free cookie. Standing behind me in a grocery line, another shopper said, "The average income of people in the store just shot up several hundred million." Funny. I didn't feel any richer. A wine industry. O, the grapes. O, the glorious grapes! Wine may be the metaphor to explain this region to the rest of the world. Decades ago, Washington had a slumbering wine industry. Yes, there were vineyards. Grapes were grown to make grape jelly, grape juice, grape candy, and sweet, cloying, sacramental wines. Then came the youth culture, jiving young people who craved a beverage to call their own: Ripple, Thunderbird, Annie Green Springs. Jug wine, the dregs of California's vineyards, finally shared shelf space with the beginnings of a discriminating wine culture. A New Yorker cartoon from that era showed an urban couple — very East Coast — seated at the dinner table. Says she, pouring wine into a glass: "It's a modest little wine from Washington." That cartoon would no longer strike most people as funny, not in a state that vies with California, frequently taking home gold and silver medals for its rare and costly vintages. In the 1990s decade, the number of state wineries soared from 50 to 208. Today they say that there's a new winery added every week. Medicine. There's plenty of nostalgia for the family doctor who made house calls or for the small private hospitals that once lined First Hill in Seattle. But those also were the days when diseases like tuberculosis and cancer were almost certain death sentences. The city's medical-industrial complex built slowly but surely. First there was the invention in Seattle of the kidney dialysis machine and, with it, the revelation that people didn't need to die when their kidneys failed. And then there were transplants — kidney transplants, heart-lung transplants, bone marrow transplants, liver transplants, stem cell implants — medical miracles. The smaller hospitals — Seattle General, Maynard, Cabrini and Doctors — became part of bigger hospitals. Swedish Hospital grew and grew, consuming half a dozen blocks, spanning vacated streets, finally digesting Pill Hill. Group Health — one of the nation's first medical cooperatives — grew, too, branching into clinics and facilities all over the region. The University of Washington Medical Center, fueled partly by research dollars from the state's powerful congressional delegation, became a more-than-regional facility. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center now attracts powerful, well-to-do, knowledgeable, and well-advised patients from all over the world. When the late Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer, was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, he could have gone anywhere in the world. He conferred with a noted doctor at Harvard. Sagan asked, "Where should I go?" The Harvard doctor got up and closed his door and uttered words that, for him, must have been blasphemy: "If it were me, I'd go to Seattle." Youth culture. Seattle has always been a young town. The early settlers were twentysomethings, and today the "average" Seattleite — if all Seattleites were one — is a 29-year-old single woman. But today there is a different view of youth, and that different view stems partly from the 1990s and Seattle's 15 minutes in the spotlight as the cradle of grunge culture, home to such grunge bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. One of the charming things about Seattle's rock culture is its willingness to kid itself. At the height of the furor over Seattle as grunge capital of the nation, The New York Times sent reporters to write about the phenomenon. One story concerned the lingo — the lexicon of grunge. The dowdy Times printed a glossary so everyone would know what grunge slang meant. How cool. How trendy. And how wrong. Turns out it was a first-class hoax, a sendup of the mainstream culture. The trendsetters at C/Z Records, a local music label, had invented the glossary on the spot. The national newspaper of record was red-faced, forced to print a correction. For its part, C/Z Records produced a set of T-shirts emblazoned with pseudo-grunge: words and phrases like "harsh realm," which supposedly meant bummer; "wack slacks," supposedly old ripped jeans, and "lamestain," an uncool person. The Times ended up looking very lamestain. All this progress in image, technology, and diversity is, of course, pretty wonderful. But I'd be fooling you if I didn't point out that there are downsides and drawbacks. This last metropolitan bastion of single family homes and individualistic neighborhoods is going to have more density than before, and we could end up smothering the very charms that draw people here. Among the danger signs: Housing prices have been literally going through the roof. What can I say when people are buying $500,000 houses only to tear them down to build $2 million houses? Seattle places among the top six worst U.S. cities for traffic congestion. Although Seattle is building a new streetcar system and is poised to help initiate a regional light rail system, improving mobility is going to take time. Lastly, I worry that people are arriving here so fast that they don't have time to understand some of the city's long-cherished traditions. They jaywalk. They honk their horns. They lack fondness for polite Seattle or honest-to-a-fault Seattle or anti-style Seattle. During my career as a newspaper columnist for Seattle dailies, I once wrote about Seattle's preference for casual dress. I'd meant to be funny. But I had a phone call from a woman, a newcomer who must have been having a bad day. She started with complaints about Seattle's lack of color — where were the tangerines, the reds, the yellows, the limes? She was annoyed by the frequent rain. "Well, we'll be headed back to Southern California soon. We're only here for the stock options," she said, maybe intending to make me feel better. Ah, the stock options. At a guess, she and her mate were brought to the Northwest — kicking and screaming — to make cartloads of money in the software industry. The good news is they may be leaving, the sooner the better. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they'll catch the Seattle disease. They'll see the city's 42 shades of gray through rose-tinted glasses and fall in love with the subtle sense of community that makes this city utterly, ultimately unique.