With the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers facing off in the NFC championship this weekend, it's fun to read local columnists turning to Northwest history rather than the history of the sport.
Art Thiel reminds us how sensitive Californians are to the cold and damp. Denizens of foggy San Francisco think 60 degrees is chilly. History shows that weather in the Northwest can drive visitors to depression and despair, as illustrated in the journals of Lewis and Clark, who endured a miserable cold, wet winter at the mouth of the Columbia River.
It was dreadful seasonal weather that drove Ulysses S. Grant, then young Army officer at Fort Vancouver, to drink — though both Grant and President Abe Lincoln turned rainy-day boozing to their advantage. Lincoln, impressed with Grant's Marshawn Lynch-style of doing battle, ordered up a barrel of whatever Grant was drinking for the rest of his generals. "He fights," said Lincoln.
Danny Westneat takes on the bigger picture of the San Francisco vs. Seattle rivalry. Their Victorian mansions were built with our trees, our state's oysters fed their boomtown bellies. We have a lot of current and past links with The City. Their current mayor, Ed Lee, is, as a matter of fact, a Seattle native (from Beacon Hill). And one of the Bay Area's most iconic authors, Jack London, was conceived in Seattle, where his parents were friends of the Yeslers.
Seattle has always aspired to be the "next" San Francisco. We aspired after New York for a while, but our real urge was to be the dominant city on the Pacific Coast. San Francisco was our nearest large urban market for trade, contact with the outside world and raw materials with which to build our own city. We were the underdog, the scrapper.
When the first gold from Alaska reached San Francisco — before Seattle's famed "ton of gold shipment" — that city, which had known gold rushes before, merely yawned. Seattle was the town that leaped at the opportunity to turn itself into a base-camp for gold seekers in the Klondike, and Seattle's first big fortunes were made. It was San Francisco that lost an opportunity, and we who feasted.
But never have we had the "class" of San Francisco. We sought to change that with the world's fair in 1962, by turning Seattle into a tourist destination filled with white-tablecloth restaurants. When the Space Needle's founders were looking for a name for their revolving restaurant, they floated "Top of the Needle" to the citizenry, who strenuously objected that it too closely mirrored San Francisco's "Top of the Mark." The namers backed off and came up with "Eye of the Needle," which was deemed more original. But their goal remained the same: to signal to the world a new level of international dining featuring regional foods — Dungeness crab, salmon, apples, Tillamook cheese — whipped into fancy dishes by French-trained chefs.
Still, even where we succeded in cultivating class, we fell short on romance. The old joke was that San Francisco was the mistress, Seattle the wife. San Francisco's roots were in the good life, the grape, the Mediterranean. Seattle was all about sensible shoes, our power center a Rotary Club.
One thing has struck me in the rivalry as it's being played out now in football. Seattle is the underdog with a fiercely loyal, almost tribal fan base. As a rabid, 49er-hating 12th man myself, I cede nothing to San Francisco. But what I find significant is that San Francisco cares enough about Seattle to hate us back. That is a sure sign that the once-superior city is slipping — a sure sign of civic insecurity.
These games really aren't about cities — San Francisco, where I once lived, is a truly great city. I love it still, 49ers or no. The Bay Area has also been a breeding ground for alternative cultures and lifestyles since the 1850s; it's deeply embedded in big aspirations, and major weirdness. Win or lose, it will be a great city no matter what happens at CenturyLink field on Sunday. So will we.
These games can measure the civic psyche. Seattle is bolder, more confident than we used to be. I was lucky enough to attend some recent games, including last week's playoff defeat of the New Orleans Saints. The roar of the crowd, the battering weather, the energy produced on and off the field was a city calling upon all its powers and regional elements to assert itself on the national stage: Rain, wind, seagulls, lightning, hail, energy. It was the most fantastic football game I have ever experienced, thrilling and chilling to the bone.
It's a reminder that Seattle didn't get where it is today without being fiercely competitive. We took the land. We fought Tacoma for the railroad. We fought and swindled for every gold nugget we could get out of the Alaskan miners' hands. We re-shaped the land on an epic scale — moving mountains and re-routing the waters. We're home to fierce competitors like Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Our so-called "Seattle nice" is a relatively recent invention; what lurks beneath is a people determined to be known and respected — and a football team that reflects that ambition. Fighting San Francisco is another chance to seize the moment.