Letter From Washington

Future Splash

Seattle’s 35-year voyage into the 21st century.

Seattle fantasized about becoming the first city of the 21st century when it hosted the World’s Fair of 1962. But the fair’s organizers were less than prescient about what the next century would bring. The newfangled monorail that ferried visitors from Seattle’s dowdy downtown to the fair’s gleaming pavilions owed more to Disneyland of the 1950s than it did to the future. Inside the fair, the exhibits hawked a similarly conservative tomorrow. Easy-to-maintain kitchens, direct-dial long-distance telephone service, and a machine that made change from a greenback were among the big hits. Even the fair’s futurist symbol—the skyscraper-tall Space Needle that contains a revolving restaurant—had more to do with selling overpriced and overcooked food than it did with space or space travel.

A decade after the fair, Seattle was on the move again, but it was moving backward. Seattle of 1972 had more in common with the Great Depression of the ‘30s than with the 21st century. Boeing, the area’s largest employer, wallowed in the deepest of its periodic slumps, dragging the entire economy down with it. Seattle’s self-image as a big-league city had taken a separate beating two years previously, when its major-league-baseball franchise–the Seattle Pilots–fled to Milwaukee (!) after just one season. The city seemed on the verge of slipping into Puget Sound and disappearing forever.

But Seattle didn’t disappear. Far from it. Three-and-a-half decades after its fair, the city has emerged as an international destination for the ambitious and the fashionable. Visiting the city last weekend for a science convention, I smelled the unmistakable air of self-importance wherever I went. Downtown was filled with people noshing trendy food late into the night. Tourists wandered the streets wondering which incipient Seattle trend would be the next big thing. The science journalists attending the convention with me made their pilgrimage to the technological Mecca of Microsoft, just a few miles away in Seattle’s east-side suburbs. Other conference goers, taking a cue from Sleepless in Seattle, hatched plans to move into their own houseboats on Lake Union.

How did this happen? I wondered. How did this timber, fish, and airplane town of my youth transform itself into a strutting, moneyed, hard-driving city of the future?

I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s in a town called Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle. Back then, Seattle was as isolated, provincial, insecure, and wet as it is connected, worldly, smug, and wet today. Growing up as kids in the Northwest, we rightly ignored Seattle and concentrated our energies on snowshoeing the Cascade and Olympic ranges, fishing for salmon from dinghies, or just prowling the mysterious undergrowth of the rainforest. Seattle back then was like the small towns of coming-of-age novels–anybody with the slightest ambition longed to leave. Nobody was surprised if, after charting nationally, regional hit makers like the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Sonics chose to jet to Los Angeles. Who could blame them?

For that matter, who could blame me for decamping to attend college back East? In my absence, Seattle slowly changed its mind about how to get to the 21st century. Maybe the idea dawned on young Seattle entrepreneurs as they watched ships, heavy with fir and cedar, depart for Japan and return filled with exotic electronic goods. The Japanese lesson was clear: Making money by extracting natural resources was capitalism for chumps. The way to get rich was to add value to commodities.

Several local fortunes were made based on this concept. A shoe store called Nordstrom, for example, reinvented the department store by adding service, and took the idea nationally. A few musicians updated the 4-by-4 noise of the Sonics and invented grunge, temporarily making Seattle music city (and this time, the city’s rock ’n’ roll stars stayed put rather than fleeing to Los Angeles). Salmon, glorified tuna fish in my youth, became exportable haute cuisine, thanks to cheap air transport. Then Starbucks figured out how to sell a 5 cent product for $1.25, and took the concept internationally. It’s only a matter of time before the timberfolk steal a page from this playbook and start peddling gourmet wood.

The futurists of 1962 were on safe ground when they predicted that the 21st century would be shaped by computers like the UNIVAC mainframe they displayed at the World’s Fair. What they couldn’t have foreseen was that local son Bill Gates and other software developers would figure out how to market bits of plastic worth just a couple of cents each (floppy disks) for hundreds of dollars. Gates, as is well known, started Microsoft in Albuquerque before relocating to his hometown. I often wonder if the future would have burst upon Seattle with quite the same ferocity if New Mexico’s sun had cast the sort of spell on him that Washington’s rain obviously did.

Seattle’s spacey 1962 fantasy about itself is finally coming true these days as Gates and another home-grown billionaire, Craig McCaw, have partnered in a telecommunications company by the name of Teledesic, which intends to loft 840 satellites into orbit by 2002 to create an “Internet in the sky.” Thirty-five years ago, Seattle invited the world to visit. Now, the city’s entrepreneurs plan to encircle it.

With the passing of each year, the Space Needle looks more and more like a prop from a bad science-fiction movie. Although it hasn’t dominated Seattle’s skyline since the ‘80s, when the economic boom sprouted a host of taller buildings, it remains the city’s symbol of progress. My family insists on calling the big black skyscraper that soars over downtown the “box” that the Space Needle arrived in.