Seattle's rise as the capital of the New Economy

For most of this century, Seattle didn't have to try. It simply was what it was: a provincial seaport where the fishermen, the longshoremen, and the thousands who built Mr. Boeing's planes knew they were not New York, not Paris, not even San Francisco.

They didn't envy such cultures. Indeed, they didn't need them. Seattleites were surrounded by postcard-perfect mountains and unpolluted waters, and within an hour's travel time they could be scooping up oysters, or skiing at Snoqualmie, or pulling up salmon. Even the incessant trickle of rain was their ally, for it freshened the air and kept those less hardy - or with ideas too unsettling - from moving here. Seattle was a hot-chocolate-on-Saturday-night town, and most people liked it that way.

Yet, in the last third of the 20th century, Seattle has metamorphosed from an unpretentious city modulated by a polite, if cool, Scandinavian clannishness to a pulsing urban mecca of conflicting public ambitions and stock-option millionaires. A month before the new millennium, the influx of new people, new dreams - and mountains of new wealth - has recast Seattle into a prototype of the New Economic Metropolis. And yet, precisely because of this change, the once-homogenous community has now polarized into yeasayers and naysayers, opportunists and romantics, haves and have-nots.

When the ministers of the World Trade Organization convene here this week, they will discover a city making its way in the world with two distinct personalities: one devoted to leading the planet toward the promise of the New World Economic Order (while itself becoming at last cosmopolitan), the other committed to preserving the elite Northwest lifestyle and small-town feel.

Roots of modernity

Seattle's transformation began in the early 1970s, when a catastrophic Boeing collapse put thousands out of work, triggered a spate of local bankruptcies, and convinced the region's leaders to diversify the industrial base. Never again, they vowed, would this economy be so dependent on the fortunes of a single employer. A decade later, the payoffs from these efforts had brought a new boom, as well as the disparate frictions of change.

Nontraditional industries were wooed, economic incentives legislated, new thinking encouraged. The Port of Seattle undertook a rapid transition from break-bulk cargo to automation and containerization, a momentous move that not only increased Seattle's standing as a player in the global trade game but also shifted employment away from its blue-collar roots and toward a whiter-collared service economy.

Boosters of this New Seattle began calling for leaders and citizens alike to accept the challenge of turning the rainy city into a "world class" metropolis. The utilitarian Kingdome was erected, and, ugly as it is, the concrete mushroom made possible the NFL Seahawks and American League Mariners.

Seattle Opera, a competent if unresplendent company, announced to the world its commitment to produce Wagner's Ring Cycle every four years. Gerard Schwartz was imported to remake the Seattle Symphony into an orchestra of international distinction. Pollsters and magazines began heralding Seattle as America's most livable city, so southern Californians and others with foreign values began moving here, bringing higher prices for housing, energy, even water.

Decline of the romantics

A resentment between the romantic traditionalists and the pretenders to greatness grew. Yet nothing has better symbolized - and fostered - this fissure than the rise of Microsoft, which has created the world's richest man, dozens of spin-off companies, and thousands of software millionaires.

By bestowing tycoon-style economic privilege upon a disproportionate number of tykes in their 20s and 30s, the high-technology revolution probably has made permanent the split between the city's two contending personas. The New Wealth has driven housing prices beyond the reach of many with ordinary salaries, sent rents soaring, and exacerbated the crisis of homelessness.

With it has come an avalanche of conspicuous consumerism never before promoted, and still not condoned, by the city's pioneer Protestant ethic. What seems to many in traditional jobs like instantaneous and undeserved wealth has widened the gap between those who can afford Seattle and those who cannot.

"It's almost like Seattle has really become a city of yuppies," says Nick Licata, a first-term city councilman. "The poor are being shoved out to Renton and Burien and the other suburban areas."

Only recently have the romantic populists won any significant battles against the champions of the New Economy. Their biggest victory came in 1998, when enterprising boosters sought to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to Seattle. Prior to a City Council vote that would have given municipal support to the private bid committee, the populists caught the public's attention by positioning the decision as a choice to further destroy what remained of Seattle's charms or, by opposing the Games, to preserve those rare and increasingly valuable qualities.

When the Games' supporters said events such as the Olympics were essential if Seattle were finally to gain the world-class status it needed, the populists answered by asking if being world class was worth living with more drugs and prostitution, more housing problems, new assaults on the environment, and diverting essential public resources from citizens and neighborhoods to wealthy visitors and private corporations.

E-mail from citizens to the council ran overwhelmingly against the Games. The council chose to quash Seattle's bid, and a kind of parity was acknowledged between the town's rival personalities. In fact, after November's elections, populists and liberals held most of the seats on the nine-member City Council.

By many standards, Seattle has attained some measures of world-class status, not all of them pleasant: On the plus side, the city is unquestionably an important Pacific Rim trading center. Benaroya Hall, new home to the symphony and an array of touring performers, is acoustically vital and architecturally fresh.

The new baseball stadium, Safeco Field, is a delight, especially when compared to the Kingdome, which will be razed this winter to allow construction of a new football palace. The city's retail core is alive with high-end chains and one-of-a-kind boutiques, as well as splendid restaurants proffering eclectic cuisines. Unemployment is low.

Platinum Seahawks' tickets

On the dark side, tickets for the symphony and the theater and the Mariners are more costly than ever, excluding more of the middle class from the culture. Traffic congestion is assuredly world-class, and the housing situations are getting close. The noble salmon are today an officially endangered species, and the air is so filled with particulate that even the rains cannot keep it clean for long.

Such are some of the issues and ways of thinking that inform Seattle's civic dichotomy. The city will never again be that parochial fishing village, just as the world will never again be a vast undiscovered mystery or a place where mere nations control their own destinies.

Yet Seattle's backwater romantics, like those who oppose the WTO and its auspices, are passionate enough - and resourceful enough - to cast a measure of uncertainty on their opponents' designs, and reduce anyone's vision of the future to a coin toss.

If a city can be a metaphor, then Seattle is perhaps the ideal host for the World Trade Organization.

America's new Oz

*Population: 540,000

*The city has 225 overcast days a year. Annual rainfall is 36 inches - but still less than New York, Atlanta, and Boston.

*As Annie Dillard put it in her novel "The Living": "[Seattle] was not quite raining, but everything was wet."

*Has the largest movie-going population per capita in the country.

*Its police department was the first to use bicycle patrols.

*Home to the nation's seventh largest population of artists.

*Leads cities in number of people over 25 who complete high school (86 percent) or receive a bachelor's degree (38 percent).

*Median family income has jumped from $48,000 in 1993 to $62,600 in 1999.

* Boeing is still the single largest employer, but software companies and Internet firms make it a New Economy hub.

Sources: The Almanac of American Politics and the City of Seattle.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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