Somewhere on the flight from Washington D.C. 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 to the planes. After 21 hours of continuous travel, I was drifting in and out of sleep and became doubtful whether the incredibleness of it all was real or an illusion. So I looked around to check if the person sitting next to me had seen it too. But he was fast asleep. By now the coherence of the clouds had reappeared, and an announcement said that we would 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 in Pike Place market, which was a fancy, yet 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 unsure. So she took my arm and walked me across the street to a platform overlooking Elliot Bay, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. She pointed to the south. Over CenturyLink Field, which is the Seattle Seahawks’ home ground, I could make out the faint outline of a white-tipped mountain, its peak polished in a curve. “Yes that must be it,” I agreed, relieved that my sanity was still intact.
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 set up 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 amply stamped with Bezos’ hallmark frugality and unassumingness. There wasn’t even a signboard. Only when I peered in through one of the glass windows did I notice the large trademark letters stuck above the reception wall.
I would walk around this campus many times in the coming days. Overlooking the lake, the Amazon complex would appear serene, almost tranquil, for much of the day. And then around lunchtime, 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 a large bazaar. “This is the Amazon punch,” Dan said while caressing his dog, while we 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 farmers markets.
“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 the two–which is a shame. I later came to believe that Amazon’s culture is at odds with Seattle’s. Amazon is a like a thriving city that runs like a clockwork, whereas Seattle is inherently relaxed.
Dan wrote down a few places for me to check out while I was in Seattle on the back of a paper napkin. The list included 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 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 time then!
Someone had once advised me that the best way to learn about a city is to walk its roads. I decided to study Seattle by treading its veins. I would walk from Lake Union, all the way to downtown, a good thirty minutes away on foot. 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 high-end clothing boutiques, some of which are here. I was tempted though by the huge Barnes & Noble 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–wearing Seattle Seahawks number 12 jerseys. When I asked Linishya about it later, she educated me on the notion that Seattleites are big 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 also Seattle’s finance hub, its commercial maritime hub, and centre of its nightlife. And not to forget–food is practically a religion here. The city is home to chef Tom Douglas. I hadn’t heard a lot 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, however, it still remains a prominent fixture in quality dining in the Pacific Northwest. “You can tell 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 the food.”
The rest of downtown is roaring with new construction and high-end re-purposing of historic buildings. The construction boom came as a curious surprise to me given that many cities around the globe are still struggling to find a way out of the financial crisis. It turns out that in Seattle, 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 authorities on local subjects. So I decided to catch one’s eye while having lunch at the Local 360 gastro-pub. Local 360 is a sustainable restaurant in the heart of Belltown. Highly recommended, I would end up here for on more than one evening during my stay. The name comes from the fact that it sources the 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, housing is fast becoming unaffordable, driving out artists and farmers, the city’s original inhabitants.
A tad more educated on Seattle’s ways, I decided to walk around some more. 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, as well as handicrafts and artwork. Walk in, and the market opens up into a space containing dozens of other shops and restaurants packed on various floors. Wandering around, I came across Rachel, the market’s life-sized 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 metres away is the quirky ‘Gum Wall’, a hallucinogenic crowdsourced piece of art. It’s a brick wall, where people stick masticated gum. It’s probably the only one of its kind in the world. At that moment, I didn’t realise how momentous this 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, the Gum Wall became devoid 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 –gleaming like some piece of futuristic creation–stood anachronistically against the diffident background.
In the next few days, a strange affliction came over me. I began to steal away to walk across several pedestrian walkways that Seattle has to offer. I walked on Fairway Avenue, one of the main arteries of the city, the Lake View Cemetery on to Lake Washington. Sometimes, below the expressways, I would come across 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 my impatience to cover as much ground as possible in the limited time I had.
Eventually, over a couple of mornings, I managed to run around Lake Union. There is a part-cemented, part-unpaved track that runs alongside it for the most part. One morning, while on the western side of the lake, I came across the floating homes.
Not to be confused with house boats, these floating homes are permanently attached to a dock, and even have a sewer system. 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 home communities. It was perhaps on one of these that the movie Sleepless in Seattle was filmed, I wondered. It was still early morning but a 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 in with nature,” said Thomas, a friend of mine who had recently moved to Seattle. “If you look in one direction you have awesome city views, and if you look in the other, you see water, and in yet another direction, snow-capped mountains.” 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 the dying light. This beautiful sight would remain imprinted in my memory for long time to come, and whenever I think back on Seattle, I will remember these few moments. I put 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; called The Pink Door and there was no signboard out front, except, yes, a pink door to walk through. “Seattle retains its tranquillity, and in the madness that we live in,” she answered referring to the warring work environment. “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, Rainier emerged, not as a faint shadow anymore, but in its full glory. It stood proud and tall, benignly watching over the Emerald City.