Toddlin' in Seattle
I’ll show you around Seattle in this whimsical ode to the Emerald City
Somewhere on the flight from Washington DC to Seattle, I looked out of the window. A placid cover of cloud was spread out. And then a snow covered peak appeared, abruptly disturbing the cloud blanket. It appeared unreally glorious, and threateningly close for the airplanes to fly past. After 21 hours of continuous travel, I was drifting in and out of sleep and became doubtful whether the incredibleness of it all was a reality or an illusion. So I looked around to check if the person sitting next to me/beside me caught the sight too. But he was fast asleep. By now the coherence of the clouds had reappeared, and an announcement was made that we will be landing in Seattle shortly. I decided that I must be hallucinating.
It was only much later that I hesitantly recounted the experience to Linishya, a friend I was visiting in Seattle. We were at a Starbucks at Pike Place market, which was a fancy, yet an unfulfilling experience. This was the first Starbucks store ever, and what a pity that I was off coffee. “Oh! It must be Mt Rainier then” Linishya said. I was still unsure. So she took my arm and walked across the street to a platform overlooking Elliot Bay (an inlet of the Pacific Ocean) towards Bainbridge Island. She pointed in the south. Over CenturyLink Field, which is Seattle Seahawks’ home ground, I could make out a faint outline of a white-top mountain, its peak polished in a curve. “Yes that must be it” I agreed, relieved that my sanity was still preserved after all the feverish travel.
I was in Seattle to study the technology landscape of this once sleepy lake town district. Seattle is speedily evolving into a technology powerhouse, thanks primarily to Amazon and Microsoft but also to Expedia, Boeing, Nintendo, and several start-ups that have setup their hubs here. Seattle is however still mostly associated with Starbucks, Seahawks, the Space Needle, fleece jackets and rain. A curious eye however may discover much more — there's just as much culture and nature to be enjoyed in Seattle, as coffee.
“This is Amazon”, Linishya waved out from her car. “But where is it?” I wondered, for I could only see regular buildings that together looked more like an unplanned residential complex. It turned out that these modest buildings in South Lake Union neighbourhood constitute the Amazon campus. They are stamped amply with Bezos’ hallmark frugality and unassumingness. There was not even a signboard. Only when I peered into one of the glass windows did I notice the large trademark letters stuck above the reception wall.
I would walk around this campus multiple times in the coming days. Overlooking the lake, the Amazon complex would appear serene, almost tranquil, for most part of the day. And then around lunchtime, a feverish activity would seize it – thousands of men and women would pour out in the streets over to the waiting food trucks and sandwich restaurants. In a matter of minutes, the whole complex would transform into an over-running bazaar. “This is the Amazon punch” Dan said while caressing his dog, when we both stood in the queue at Chipotle. “It’s better to come for lunch before the Amazonians have theirs, or, wait till this mad rush is over”.
We grabbed burritos and squeezed ourselves in the centre high table. “We even have a farmers market on Thursdays” Dan added. I made a mental note to check it out for I found it difficult to link an association between hi-tech industry and organic farmer market. “How do they cross, really?” I wondered. For many of us outsiders, the history of Amazon is so intertwined with that of Seattle that it becomes difficult to separate out the two - which is a shame. I would later come to believe that Amazon’s culture is at odds with Seattle’s. Amazon is a like a thriving city that runs in a clockwork fashion, whereas Seattle is inherently relaxed like the far-off Scandinavian countries.
On the back of a paper napkin, Dan wrote down a few places for me to check out while I was in Seattle. The list suggested a flight in a single engine five-seater plane. These planes line up along Lake Union and Lake Washington, and offer a fair deal at ~100 USD for a 20 minute flight. Watching Seattle alone from the sky – away from all the noise and life that gave it colour – would make it a melancholic experience I thought. Some other day to fancy Seattle from the skies then!
Someone had once advised me that the best way to learn about a city is to walk its roads. So I decided to study Seattle by treading its veins. I would walk from Lake Union where Amazon is located, all the way to downtown, a good thirty minutes distance on feet. Seattle’s downtown is fairly compact. It appears unannounced from between the high rises. Like other city centres on the West Coast, Seattle downtown fits in the essentials: Macy’s, Gap, Nordstrom (the very first), and so forth. Despite its uber-casual, sporty reputation, Seattle is home to some very high-end clothing boutiques, some of which punctuate the downtown. I was tempted though by the huge Barnes and Nobles store in the very centre and picked up a few books from its well-stocked basement (“Pretty ironical, given this is the home of Amazon and its Kindle” I was reminded later.)
While I wandered around, what caught my eye were folks – including office goers and women – wearing Seattle Seahawks number 12 jerseys. When I asked Linishya about it later, she educated me on the notion that Seattleites are the biggest fans of their local football team, so much so that wearing popular number 12 was to underline that the roaring supporters add one more to the playing 11. “If I am not mistaken, we hold the world record for the loudest cheer during a game”, she added.
Apart from being a shopping hub, downtown is Seattle's finance hub, its commercial maritime hub, and its centre of nightlife. And not to forget - food is practically a religion here. The city is home to chef Tom Douglas. Frankly, I had not heard about him before I came to Seattle, but once here, I was reminded time and again about his influence on the culinary scene in the city. Despite not being a foodie, I made a note to check out one of his restaurants. And what better place to soak in this experience than the Dahlia Lounge! In 1989, Douglas opened his first restaurant, this very Dahlia Lounge where I now sat with a colleague from Denmark, Peter. Perhaps it’s not as celebrated a restaurant as it used to be in yester years. However, it still remains a prominent fixture in quality dining in the Pacific Northwest. “You can make out when you are at an American diner” Peter commented as we waited for our food. “They all have a bar where Americans will linger on for a drink before dinner. This is so unlike Europe where we would always have drinks with food”. A diligent observation, I thought, and something that my unaccustomed eyes would have scored out completely.
The rest of downtown is roaring with new construction and high-end repurposing of historic buildings. The construction boom came as a curious surprise given that many cities around the globe are still struggling a way out of the financial crisis. It turns out that the construction is fuelled by the need for additional office space by local companies, mostly Amazon (no surprises), and to accommodate all the techies that are making Seattle their new home.
Bartenders are some sort of authority on local subjects. So I decided to catch one’s eye while having lunch at Local 360 gastro-pub. Local 360 is a sustainable restaurant in the heart of Belltown. It was highly recommended to me. I would end up here for more than one evening during my stay. The place is so called since it sources majority of ingredients from within a 360 mile radius of Seattle. Brian served my drink and we got chatting. “We will be like San Francisco in five years” Brian said, “every Silicon Valley company has an outpost here, and that’s driving the house prices through the roof”. Despite all the new construction, the housing is fast becoming unaffordable and driving out the artists and farmers, the original inhabitants of the city.
A tad more educated on Seattle’s ways of working, I decided to walk around a bit. I ended up at the cobbled Pike Place Market, a touristy farmers market that first opened in 1907 and still retains its old-world charm. The market is full of stalls offering flowers, fish, meat and vegetables, and crafts and artwork. Walk a little inside, and the market opens up into dozen other shops and restaurants packed on various floors. Wandering around, I came across Rachel, the market’s life-size bronze pig mascot. This metal pig charmed most tourists who scrambled to get their pictures taken with it. For my part, I could not resist the temptation of taking a selfie with Melusine, the twin-tailed mermaid of the original Starbucks logo.
A few meters away is the quirky Gum Wall. The wall comes across as a hallucinogenic crowdsourced piece of art. It’s a brick wall, where people stick chewed over gum. Perhaps it’s one of its kind in the world. At that moment, I didn’t realise how momentous was the visit to this wall. A month after my visit, municipality workers vigorously steam-cleaned 2,350 pounds of gum stuck on this wall. And for the first time in 20 years, this Post Alley Gum Wall became barren of gum. I would later hear stories that some volunteers have taken up the laborious task of “re-gumming” the wall.
As the sun dimmed, I crossed the street at the market’s north end to a platform that offered a view of the city. Some distance away, the space needle – gleaminglike some piece of futuristic creation – stood anachronistically against the diffident background of Seattle.
In the next days, a strange affliction took over me. I began to steal time to walk across several pedestrian walkways that Seattle has to offer. I walked on Fairway Avenue, one of the main arteries of the city, across Lake View Cemetery onto Lake Washington. Sometimes, below the expressways, I would come across enshrouded trails that had become hangouts for mountain bikers looking for a quick escape within the city. In Seattle, the water constantly beckons. So I mostly walked alongside it, sometimes breaking into a run driven by the impatience to cover as much as possible in the limited time I had.
Eventually, over a couple of mornings and in broken strings, I managed to run around Lake Union. There is a part-cemented, part-unpaved track that runs alongside it for most part. One morning, while coursing it on the west, I came across the floating homes. Not to be confused with house boats, these floating homes are permanently attached to a dock, and have lasting sewer systems. And just like a house boat, they offer incredible water views. During the Depression, low-income labourers first built these tax-free homes, and today Seattle boasts one of the country’s largest floating homes’ communities. It was perhaps on one of these floating homes that the movie ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ was filmed, I wondered. It was still early morning but few diehards had their fishing rods ready. I stopped briefly to observe. A family had their kayaks in the water; the man was teaching his two daughters how to paddle. The water was unruffled except for sporadic disturbances from the sea planes that had begun their flights. This place is only a few kilometres away from the tech giants of Seattle, and yet, all the activity and accompanying feverishness seemed far off, as if it had dissolved in the transient moment.
“We moved to Seattle because we love the way the city blends with the nature”, answered Thomas, a friend of mine who had recently moved to Seattle, when I asked. “If you look one direction you have awesome city views, and if you look another, you see water, and in another, snow-capped mountains”, Thomas added. We were in his Bellevue apartment balcony watching the sun set over Puget Sound. Far off, we could see college teams of rowers practising in dying light. For some reason, this beautiful sight would remain imprinted in my memory for long time to come, and whenever I thought back on Seattle, I would remember these few moments. I asked the same question to Linishya on my last evening in the city. Linishya had discovered another gem of a place for our last dinner together; it was called ‘The Pink Door’ and there was no signboard in the front, except, yes, a pink door to walk through. “Seattle retains its tranquillity, and in the madness that we live in” she answered, “we need someone to pull us back to sanity. I find Seattle to be that someone”.
Seattle grows on you. On my first day, what seemed like an alien city only understood and relished by the locals, began to come across as livable. I even began to flirt with the notion that I could spend a whole year here. As I left for the airport, I thought about how I would describe this city to someone who’s never been here. Seattle was fast becoming a carrefour of arts, food, culture, technology and capital. Perhaps this is how a great city – be it Thebes, Jerusalem, Tyre, Babylon, or Alexandria – evolves. The cities of the ancient world grew along trade highways. In our times, it’s the technology and information highways that transform cities into major metropolises. And Seattle seems well located in that regard.
As the airport approached, I looked up. It was a bright sunny morning. On the horizon, Mount Rainier emerged, not as a faint shadow anymore, but in its full glory. It stood proud and tall, benignantly watching over the Emerald City.
A version of this story appeared in Outlook Traveller