It’s always a bit of a shock travelling from Vancouver BC to Seattle – the American accent (after the nice soft Canadian ‘oos’ and ‘ehs’), the repeated border checks, and when you get there, the ridiculous number of homeless people. Luckily I was only in safely blue Democrat-voting cities, the shock of meeting someone who actually voted for Trump might have been too much for me. In fact the cities I did visit were all fretting about the threat of a federal crackdown on their clearly lucrative cannabis industries – Seattle is in some ways the Amsterdam of the United States, and its free newspaper The Stranger is rather childishly obsessed with getting high and should, I think, just be called The Stoner.
The First Nations or Native Americans are not as visible as they are just to the north in British Columbia, and their culture is not treated with the same respect; there are totem poles in Seattle, but they’re typically made in Alaska or just appropriated. On the other hand, African-Americans are more visible, notably among the homeless community. The last overnight count found 11,643 homeless people in the Metro Seattle area, 5,485 of them without any shelter. In 2017 144 homeless people died here – 144!! It’s often been said that there is no safety net in the USA, and you really see what that means here. And it gets worse – in January 2018, days after I left, a homeless camp (in Belltown) was cleared and the city then put in cycle stands in a location where there was absolutely no need for them, to prevent anyone making camp there again; likewise public benches have arm rests to stop anyone from lying down.
Originally a pretty wild logging town, Seattle’s development was kick-started by (paradoxically) the Great Fire of 1889 and then the Klondike gold rush of 1897, when up to 30,000 obsessives mined the gold, and Seattle mined the miners, providing supplies, bars and gambling. Soon after this, a couple of hills were regraded (creating space for Chinatown to establish itself in what is now known as the International District) and the spoil was used to create the present waterfront, burying the original Skid Road – not Skid Row – which you can now see on underground tours. However it’s still a city of villages with names such as Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.
Seattle’s twentieth-century history of attracting the new high-tech industries began as early as 1910 with the establishment of the Boeing Airplane Company (their first plane flew in 1916, so 2016 was marked as the centenary). The First and Second World Wars led to ship- and plane-building booms, continued by Boeing’s becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of jet planes. However modern Seattle was really born in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved the nascent Microsoft (founded in New Mexico in 1975) to their hometown of Seattle, which was soon home to lots of start-ups, many founded by the 12,000-odd millionaires created when Microsoft became a public company in 1986. In 1971 Starbucks was founded here, riding a coffee craze that shows no sign of abating, followed in 1994 by Amazon (which eventually made a profit in 2001, and now produces more, and hotter, start-ups than Microsoft). Nowadays Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing platforms are the market-leaders, and the Seattle area is likely to be the centre for developments in this area as well as in AI and biotech. Between 1990 and 2007 the population of Greater Seattle grew from 2.4 million to 3.3 million (it’s now 3.7 million, the 15th-largest conurbation in the US).
In November 2017 Microsoft announced plans to redevelop its Redmond campus over the next seven years, with pitches for soccer and cricket (for its many South Asian employees) at its heart; it’ll be designed around pedestrian and bike movements and will have its own light rail station. Likewise Amazon, the city’s largest private employer with 40,000 staff, is developing a sustainable Urban Campus close to downtown in the South Lake Union district (where the main property developer is Paul Allen’s Vulcan), although it would have been cheaper and easier to build out in the suburbs; Amazon is also subsidising light rail. Currently 20% of its staff walk to work, and ‘only’ 45% drive. Despite the lamentable weather on the ‘Wet Coast’, Seattle does share the trend for inhabitants of tech-savvy cities to favour cycling and public transport (as well as craft beer and third-wave coffee).
However the highest-profile infrastructure under way at the moment is the replacement of the Alaska Way freeway (State Highway 99), along the waterfront, by a two-mile tunnel – the existing viaduct not only cuts the city off from Puget Sound but is at risk of collapsing in an earthquake (and that’s a question of when, not if). There have been delays and cost over-runs, reminiscent of Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ but not nearly as bad, and it should open in 2019, allowing the city to build a linear park and, I would hope, a high-quality (and level) north-south cycleway. Because the tunnel won’t have the downtown exits that the present viaduct has there’s a parallel project, known as the Center City Connector, to join the city’s two existing streetcar lines, creating a new north-south link through downtown; this should open in 2020. This is not to be confused with the Link light rail service which already runs north-south through downtown, using what used to be called the Bus Tunnel (opened in 1990). Even worse than the Alaska Way viaduct was the decision to drive I-5 (the interstate highway that runs the length of the West Coast from Canada to Mexico) right through the east side of downtown; it now carries far more traffic than was ever envisaged and produces insane levels of noise and pollution. One effort at remediation was the Freeway Park, opened in 1976 and hailed as a masterpiece of Brutalism, all concrete blocks and rather sterile plantings above the freeway – the constant traffic noise now makes it less than restful. It’s next to the Convention Center, which is well worth walking through for its excellent displays of contemporary art (on several floors) and a café selling all kinds of weird and wonderful wraps, rice bowls, juices and smoothies.
As for more conventional tourist sights, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and the Museum of Flight are all well known, but there are many more: I enjoyed the Wing Luke Museum (of the Asian Pacific American Experience), with excellent exhibits (including on local boy Bruce Lee) and tours of the historic Freeman Hotel (1910), first home to many Asian immigrants to the US. There’s also the vaguely similar Northwest African American Museum , which opened in 2008. The main history museum (given that the state history museum is in Tacoma – see my forthcoming post) is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), which moved in 2012 to the former Naval Reserve Armoury in Lake Union Park; its main permanent exhibit, True Northwest: The Seattle Journey, includes the first Boeing plane. I’m also intrigued by the Center for Wooden Boats, also in Lake Union Park, which has exhibits on the area’s boat-building history but is also recommended by locals as a great place to rent rowing and sailing boats. History buffs should also not miss the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, a brilliant little free museum in the former Cadillac Hotel (1889), downtown near Pioneer Square, which stresses Seattle’s rôle as jumping-off point for the gold rush and has information on visiting the Alaskan parts of the park (which I visited when writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, of course).
Of books and beer
It’s hard to believe now that until 1976 Seattle bars were not allowed to have windows, lest the sinners inside be visible to passers-by. Virtually all of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s little surprise that nowadays there are craft breweries all over. This is also a great area for wine (Merlot being the big thing in Washington, and Pinot Noir in Oregon), and there are also new distilleries producing gin, vodka and even absinthe. Anyway, there are fourteen breweries in South Seattle (an area with an industrial brewing heritage), including half a dozen in the up-and-coming Georgetown area, on and near Airport Way South. They all have tasting rooms, in other words bars, but you should also make a point of stopping in at the Jules Maes Saloon – its website is still listing the gigs for April 2008, so better see their Facebook page. Lowercase Brewing is an excellent new place that has a growler-sealing machine for take-outs, while the Machine House Brewery makes the closest equivalent to English real ales, served from hand pumps in full-size imperial pint glasses. And then grab some tasty tacos at tiny Tu Cantinas at 6031 Airport Way South.
It’s a bit more of a surprise to learn that Seattle was designated a City of Literature by UNESCO in 2017. Of course there are good writers here (although it’s arguable that the best is actually the British Jonathan Raban) and the central library by Rem Koolhaas (opened in 2004) is great (go to the top and work your way down), but there are also lots of good bookshops and the Hugo House literary centre. This will move to a new permanent home on Capitol Hill in mid-2018, where they’ll be able to hold even more of their mostly free readings, launches and classes. There are also lots of readings and other events at the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Ballast Bar at Capitol Cider, and even a monthly Silent Reading Party at the Hotel Sorrento. Open Books is devoted purely to poetry, Kinokuniya to Japanese books and comics, and there are great second-hand bookshops on the lower level of Pike Place Market that the tourists never see. And being Seattle, many bookshops contain a congenial coffeeshop – Little Oddfellows at the Elliott Bay, Raconteur at Third Place Books, El Diablo at Queen Anne Books, and the Bookstore Bar & Café (more of a gimmick than a bookshop) at the Alexis Hotel on Pioneer Square.
Also in January 2018, a few days after I left, the first Amazon Go automated supermarket opened at 2131 7th Ave (near Blanchard, just north of downtown) – this has no checkouts, but customers tap in with a smartphone app and are then tracked by cameras and shelf sensors and billed automatically. The technology seems to be working fairly well, despite journalistic attempts to beat it, offering another alternative to queuing and dealing with human beings in shops. In 2017 Amazon bought the Whole Foods chain, beloved of the organic middle classes, and was soon generating bad publicity for introducing new stock-control technology which led to empty shelves and rotting food. Most amazing of all is that Amazon opened a genuine physical bookshop in Seattle (at the University Village shopping center) in 2015 – talk about reinventing the wheel.
I flew quite a few times with Alaska Airlines when I was writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, and they’ve always been one of the better US airlines – but they’re now very much a Pacific Northwest airline rather than an Alaskan one, firmly based in Seattle. So it’s a little surprising to see that they’re opening a new base in the area, at Everett – they’ll fly to eight cities from there, none in Alaska.