The growth rate of Seattle’s commercial and residential construction, much of which I can observe from my home, has reached unprecedented levels. Satellite imagery on Google Maps cannot keep a pace with the ever-expanding Amazon campus in South Lake Union. Facebook and Google are also “sneaking in” their operational facilities closer to Amazon.
Figure 1. Landscape of downtown Seattle, a tourist destination and a builders’ playground. (All photographs were taken by the author.)
Recently erected residential towers designed for luxury living pierce the sky in the downtown area, with many more under construction. Number of annual newcomers to the booming city is measured in tens of thousands of predominantly out-of-state arrivals. Professional geographers and laymen alike can be equally excited in observing the city’s rapid landscape and culture change…and its struggle with an identity issue.
Figure 2. Seattle boasts of having more cranes currently in operation than New York City. View of South Lake Union, the location of Amazon’s campus. The crane on the right is assisting the construction of Facebook’s new building. Google’s building will be constructed just behind this tree in the middle.
San Francisco of the North
Cities often earn flattering comparisons to other places (how many times have you read about “Venice of Asia” or “Venice of the North?”). Observations are based on physical or cultural similarities they may share with a particular city. But they are never perceived as an extension of Venice, a new stepbrother who wants to join the family. Very rarely are the comparisons or nicknames given by a city’s own residents. People in Amsterdam do not call their hometown “The Venice of the North” and write about it in local newspapers on a weekly basis.
It is usually the outsiders and visitors who come up with flattering comparisons based on their own observations. Not in Seattle, however, where scarcely a week passes by without a newspaper article mentioning how our hometown is the San Francisco of the North. Hardly any resident of San Francisco will think of Seattle in such a manner; for them there is only one San Francisco on the West Coast.
[Imagine newspaper articles in Baltimore calling their city “Philadelphia of the South.” The riots would erupt immediately, not because of the geographic orientation with the South, but for being compared to Philadelphia.]
This form of an artificial geographic affiliation is not unusual for rapidly-growing cities or regions experiencing an identity crisis. For a geographically peripheral location like Seattle—compared to the country’s leading demographic, economic, and political centers—one way of attempting to address the crisis is developing a sense of belonging to a specific cultural and geographic context. Geographers use the term vernacular region in order to outline an area to which the majority of residents feel they belong: e.g., the South, the Great Plains, the Bible Belt, Rust Belt, etc. In all instances it involves a specific cultural and historical context of a region and a significant period of time. It takes a considerable amount of time for a place to develop a unique identity by which it is identified both by local residents and outsiders.
But, for the contemporary movers and shakers in Seattle, the term Emerald City of the Pacific Northwest is likely a bit spatially peripheral and culturally meaningless; i.e., it is hardly usable for marketing and promotion. It exemplifies unfavorable distance and atmospheric conditions—most casual conversations about Seattle begin by discussing rain.
During my domestic and international travels, the question of rain was always included in any discourse about Seattle. Interestingly, however, the issue of rain and overcast would seldom become a conversation topic while talking about neighboring Vancouver, British Columbia, or Portland, Oregon.
Minneapolis of the West
A city, or metropolitan area, culturally resembling Seattle the most is Minneapolis, Minnesota. By no means identical, the two areas do share a number of comparable traits. Northern European influence in developing the foundational character of both places is unmistakably evident. Similar population size, and widely held recognition of the discrete neighborhoods that form the city, as well as a strong sense of the boundaries between them (no resident of Freemont will make the mistake of saying that he/she lives in Ballard) characterize both cities. So, too, do low overall rates of cultural diversity (until recently), a prevailing large-town rather than a big-city attitude, and a predominant political philosophy and widespread activism.
Direct railroad connection between Minneapolis and Seattle was established in the 19th century with the completion of the Great Northern Railroad. Since then it has served as a point of population and cultural diffusion westward, which continued to present time, almost a permanent low-intensity chain migration. Minnesota license plates are surprisingly frequent in Seattle considering the 2,000-mile distance and mainly rural countryside between them.
But no city would compare itself to Minneapolis. Not because it would not be honorable (I also have resided in the Twin Cities area), but because it would not be memorable. Like Seattle, Minneapolis’ peripheral location (to Chicago and the East Coast) trumps its rich history and accomplishments. Conversation about Minneapolis too often begin with “What’s out there other than cornfields?” illustrating a person’s lack of knowledge about one of America’s major metropolitan areas, and home to many Fortune 500 companies. This is an inexcusable reality, but it is a reality and not one that Seattle’s movers and shakers feel would fit into their vision of the city’s future. They have already invested heavily in the process of landscape and culture change and feel that they have to find a “correct” and profitable solution.
But they do not have time to wait for the natural process of social and cultural evolution, meaning that the city’s identity should be embraced by the residents, but developed and imposed by the innovative entities seeking to lure even more new residents in coming years. San Francisco of the North (rather than the Silicon Valley of the North, although meaning the same thing) is the leading nickname candidate for that very reason.
Although both are voluntary processes, innovation and creativity are not one and the same. Innovation is linear, specific, like a civil engineering project, while creativity is general and systemic, an artistic form. Creativity evolves from bottom up; innovation is imposed from top to bottom. Innovation is ultimately constraining, while creativity is liberating.
Urban identity created through innovation reflects itself in a city’s cultural landscape. It emphasizes functionality, efficiency, and profitability under the disguise of promoting long-term creative evolution in building an urban landscape and a city’s identity. Considering which entity is currently having the greatest impact on Seattle’s (development of) culture change—Amazon Corporation—innovation and functionality certainly rank high on the list of imperatives.
Figure 3. Amazon’s bio spheres, popularly known as “The Bezos Balls,” tucked between two new office skyscrapers. One of them will be open to the public, but the other two will not.
Amazon’s planetary success occurred not by misunderstanding the process of culture change and impact on population. Its success was based exactly on understanding the operational environment (Internet) and how to maximally utilize it. The company is not in the business of being surprised, but in the business of surprising others—its customers and the competition—with innovations galore.
It would be logical to believe that Amazon’s experts and executives were aware of the magnitude of its overall impact on Seattle prior to rapid spatial expansion. The only excuse for not seeing it coming would be by employing a typical engineering mistake: focus on functionality, efficiency, and profitability. Such an approach almost dehumanizes the living environment and cultural landscape, making both appear anesthetically sterile. Absence of large public spaces, like open squares and public plazas—perceived as a loss of valuable real estate—limits a development of intrinsic values toward the love of place (topophylia). This makes a long-term impact on the evolution of Seattle’s identity.