Seattle's fresh blend

26 Jan 2005 by business traveller
Tucked away in America's upper left-hand corner, Seattle doesn't spend much time in the spotlight. Its crimes are not lurid enough to make headlines, its sports teams rarely win and celebrities avoid the place. Even its earthquakes are modest. So when Seattle had its 15 minutes of fame, residents were shocked. That moment of global glory ? the riotous 1999 WTO summit ? was dramatic, with tear gas, truncheons, plastic bullets and hell-bent mobs. Never before had Seattle seen such chaos. It was rich against poor, new economy against old, conformity against character ? and the city was riveted. Then the dust settled and the rioters went home, leaving the expensive but faceless downtown area the same as before: filled with shopping malls and devoid of character. The protesters had lost their fight, but another war had been lost here long before the rioters arrived, on October 20, 1988 ? the day the city government replaced the heart of downtown Seattle with a mall. When the Westlake Center mall opened its doors in 1988, Seattle officially became a friend of free enterprise and a cosy home for top global corporations. Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing and other firms needed a piece of safe suburbia in downtown Seattle, a place to hold their corporate meetings and to host their clients and customers. And they got it, because the redevelopment of downtown Seattle didn't stop with the Westlake Center. Soon there was a new convention centre, a second mall, a couple of hotels and a handful of glassy retail palaces like Niketown, Gap and Old Navy. Before long, a 15-block area in downtown Seattle had been homogenised like a pint of milk. It is still Seattle ? it rains, and people drink coffee ? but it could be anywhere in America. This area was once a gritty urban paradise of park benches, pigeons, hot dog stalls, department stores and espresso stands ? back when good coffee was hard to find. It had traffic, energy and street vendors. It was like a piece of New York City in Seattle, and the rest of downtown derived its character and essence from this quarter. Nonetheless, following the extreme makeover of its retail core, Seattle boomed. Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks dramatically extended their global reach, and other local firms prospered, as Nordstrom, Costco, Washington Mutual, Amazon, REI and others cashed in on the Clinton-era prosperity. Seattle's population grew by 5% between 1990 and 2000, and in the vast suburbs to the east and south, the population swelled by 30%. ?The whole city of Seattle has really grown up over the last 17 years,? says Katharine Dooley, general manager of the Alexis Hotel. ?Physically it has grown ? the downtown core has expanded. And Seattle has become a much stronger player on the international scene.? Seattle has enjoyed a recent economy boom  ? Land Rovers and Escalades rule the roads, property values have soared and jobs are plentiful ? but prosperity has been a mixed blessing. The biggest downside is the traffic, a daily grinding annoyance that has been worsened by years of official inaction. ?They just keep talking and talking, and traffic congestion gets worse and worse,? says Joan Burton, author of several books about Seattle. The city almost built a subway in the late 1970s but opted instead for a cheaper, less effective downtown bus tunnel. Light rails, freeways and a monorail extension have all been discussed, but nothing has come to fruition. The most effective commuter arteries ? Interstate 5, which runs north to south through the city, and Interstate 405, which loops through the eastern suburbs of Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond ? were built 40 years ago by the federal government. In fairness to the city planners, Seattle's geography presents some daunting traffic-flow challenges. To the east is Lake Washington, a 35-mile barrier that separates Seattle from the hi-tech heavy suburbs of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland. The Lake Union waterway runs east to west, slicing Seattle in half again. Elliott Bay and Green Lake divide the town further, and then there are the forbidding hills, the famous Seven Hills of Seattle. In the protective embrace of its waterways are Seattle's neighbourhoods, including  Capitol Hill, Fremont, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Green Lake, Ravenna and the U-District. These neighbourhoods make up the soul of the city, the places that locals love and cherish. Seattle's geography insulates these enclaves and protects them from character-destroying development. Which means it's only downtown that has fallen victim to the culture-free collections of malls and retail stores. ?Visitors have all those same stores at home ? that's what they tell me,? says Duse McLean, tour guide and co-author with Joan Burton of Urban Walks: 23 Walks Through Seattle's Parks and Neighborhoods. Fortunately, the damage has remained limited to the 15-block area surrounding the Westlake Center. Elsewhere, the Westlake retail core forms a stark contrast with the ?real? downtown, which, thanks to the city's recent prosperity, is thriving like never before. For one thing, all that wealth has bought some great new toys. Downtown Seattle boasts the world's most expensive baseball park, a brand-new football stadium, a state-of-the-art symphony hall, a superbly renovated opera hall and an outrageous new music museum, the Experience Music Project. Seattle Art Museum, or SAM, is another late addition to the downtown scene. SAM's Grand Staircase is the most elegant piece of architecture in town, and its ?Hammering Man? sculpture has become an icon. Every few months, it seems, there is another grand opening. In May 2004, the city unveiled Seattle Central Library, a $165 million glass and metal extravaganza, designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas and featuring lemon yellow escalators and flying glass cornices. In June, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame opened in Seattle Center. In 2006, SAM will open a new sculpture park on the waterfront, and in 2007 it will complete an expansion that will triple its current size. Seattle's general prosperity has improved other parts of downtown, especially Pioneer Square and the waterfront. Those once derelict neighbourhoods are now among the top tourist draws in Seattle, says David Blandford, director of PR for Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau. ?Pike Place Market is still the most popular, then the Space Needle, then Pioneer Square and the waterfront; in general, people like to hop a ferry and tour the harbour,? he says. Pike Place Market, Seattle's signature attraction, was almost torn down in the 1970s, but was saved by local legend Victor Steinbrueck, an architecture professor, and friends. It's a crazy, chaotic labyrinth that extends deep beneath street level and rewards exploration. No corporations are allowed in the market, except one: the very first Starbucks. But there are hundreds of food stalls, craft shops, delis, news stands and restaurants. Seattle's first craft beer maker, Pike Pub and Brewery, is here as well. Down the hill from Pike Place is the waterfront. Formerly a run-down collection of docks and warehouses, it is now a tourist-friendly strip of import shops, harbour tours, an aquarium and cruise-ship terminals. The waterfront offers an abundance of fish-and-chip joints, but locals frequent Ivar's Acres of Clams for its deep-fried fish. Pioneer Square, once the exclusive domain of down-and-outs, has also been brought back to life by Seattle's prosperity. This is where the city was founded, and its stone buildings have been transformed into roomy nightclubs. By day, it features bookstores, art galleries and coffee shops, and after dark, it is the city's premier party district. At night, Pioneer Square boasts excellent bands, cheap beer and loud, appreciative audiences. All the nightclubs are within a few blocks of one another, near the corner of First and Yesler. One $12 cover charge gets you into all the clubs, allowing visitors to sample blues, hip-hop, sixties rock 'n' roll and even grunge. At the north end of downtown is Seattle Center, a 74-acre park created for the 1962 World's Fair. The Space Needle has aged gracefully, and from its observation deck, on a sunny day, the emerald green Pacific Northwest is on spectacular display, its mountains and lakes and oceans all visible and sparkling. ?First-time visitors always find Seattle gloriously beautiful,? says Dooley, of the Alexis Hotel. She adds, ?It's also a very casual city: you can go anywhere in a pair of jeans and feel comfortable.? Indeed, the citizens of Seattle are relentlessly casual. They seldom wear ties, they don't carry umbrellas and, during the Seattle Opera's most recent Wagner Ring Cycle, which takes place every four years, locals in ski parkas sat next to out-of-towners in tuxedos, says Burton. In some ways, Seattle's working-class roots still show. Many residents are descendants of the Scandinavian settlers who fished the cold seas and cut down the wet forests. Those industries, along with the Port of Seattle and Boeing, still employ hundreds of thousands of people. But the city also boasts dozens of world-class restaurants and hundreds of art galleries, and is one of a handful of cities with resident opera, ballet and symphony companies. It is the most college-educated city in the country, and it attracts professionals from Asia, the East Coast, California, Canada and elsewhere. The resulting fusion of classes and cultures, combined with steady rain and iconic natural beauty, has created a city like no other. ?All in all, we've been lucky,? says McLean. Not many people around here would disagree with her.

Experience Music Project

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were born and raised in Seattle, attended high school together and founded Microsoft together. Then their paths diverged. Gates has become the richest man on the planet and spends most of his time at Microsoft. Allen, on the other hand, has become the sort of wealthy businessman who likes to have fun with his money. He bought a football team and a basketball team, plays guitar and collects Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. Allen's most visible contribution is the four-year-old Experience Music Project, or EMP. Originally conceived as a small shrine to Seattle native Jimi Hendrix, the museum evolved into a monument to popular music. Allen hired America's hottest architect, Frank Gehry, gave him $250 million and put him to work. The result was EMP. The building is a fantastic series of wild curves and sharp angles and metallic finishes, all sky blue and ketchup red, with patches of silver, gold and purple. Inside is more of the same, with fractured visual spaces and broken lines. The central shrine is called Sky Church, a vaulting room with awesome acoustics and a massive wall of shifting lights. Visual impact aside, EMP serves a loftier purpose as well; it's a nonprofit organisation with a gentle educational message. ?It's impossible to look at the last 50 years of American culture without looking at popular music,? says Robert Santelli, director of EMP programmes. ?Popular music shaped our tastes and defined us as Americans. So Paul thought, ?Why not create a space that exhibits this?'? EMP succeeds in this mission, and many of the displays leave a lasting impression. Visitors have two clear favourites, says Santelli. ?For baby boomers it's Hendrix, without question, and young people fall in love with Sound Lab. They go straight into the music, they play guitars, they mix records or sing backup, they burn CDs. The video generation loves that.? And yes, confirms Santelli, Paul Allen is a frequent visitor.


Seattle's daily business is done downtown, which is also home to the city's heavyweight tourist attractions. But few people live there; most commute from nearby residential neighbourhoods. These enclaves offer entertainment of a subtler sort, including pubs, restaurants, bookstores and theatres. Each neighbourhood has its own reputation: Queen Anne is rich and settled, Ballard is working class, Capitol Hill is artistic while the U-District is cheap and cheerful. The University of Washington has 40,000 undergraduates, so everything is cheap. The campus is worth a look, but all the action is on University Way (the Ave). In the middle of the Ave is University Book Store, the place for Northwest lore ? trees, history, geology, cuisine, guidebooks and so on ? plus stacks of local freebies like The Daily, The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Further down the Ave is Magus Books, a favourite used-book store. Then there's Big Time Brewery & Alehouse, whose good food and coffee-shop atmosphere make it an elevated dining experience compared with most U-District eateries. Capitol Hill is close to downtown, but it's another world culturally ? a place of vintage clothing, quirky coffee shops, theatres and art houses. The highlights here are B&O Espresso, which has carved out a reputation for its desserts, and craft brewer Elysian Brewing Company, which produces a lager that's full-bodied and strongly hopped, in the Northwest style. Then there's blue-collar Ballard, a friendly place where Seattle natives usually outnumber newcomers. Hiram M Chittenden Locks, which enables boats to travel between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, is a quirky but popular attraction. Underneath is a fish ladder where visitors can watch salmon and steelhead migrate. Nearby is Ray's Boathouse, an antidote to the small portions and precious atmospheres that typify some of Seattle's top tables. Ray's serves fresh seafood with a minimum of fuss, and the presence of the Ballard fishing fleet makes everything here taste a little fresher. University Book Store,4326 University Way NE, tel 1 800 335 7323, www.ubookstore.com Magus Books,1408 NE 42nd St, tel 1 888 246 9632 Big Time Brewery & Alehouse,4133 University Way NE, tel 1 206 545 4509, ww.bigtimebrewery.com B&O Espresso,204 Belmont Ave. E, tel 1 206 322 5028 Elysian Brewing Company,1221 E. Pike St, tel 1 206 860 1920, www.elysianbrewing.com Hiram M. Chittenden Locks,3015 NW 54th St, tel 1 206 783 7059 Ray's Boathouse,6049 Seaview Ave NW, tel 1 206 789 3770, www.rays.com


Seattle is served by British Airways from London Heathrow. Return lead-in fares cost £4,817 in first class, £2,249 in Club World, £827 in World Traveller Plus, and £407 in World Traveller. For a review of Seattle's top hotels, see page 44 of the February edition of Business Traveller magazine.
Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below