There’s something in the air in Seattle. And while at first sniff you might assume that it’s coffee, nose a little harder and you’ll notice that Seattle doesn’t run on caffeine – it runs on innovation.
It’s not for nothing that this city has spawned Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks, for starters.
Even Pike Place Market – famous today for its tourist count as much as for its stalls for locals – was founded in 1907 as a way for farmers to sell produce directly to customers.
“Seattle’s a boom and bust town – it’s been gold boom and bust, tech boom and bust,” says Ryan Reese, co-owner of Pike Place Fish Market, known for its “fish throwers” – workers who hurl the (often heavy) goods between each other as they get orders together.
“This town always comes back,” he adds, calling the city “gritty, gritty.”
The northernmost major city in the contiguous United States, perched on the west coast around 100 miles south of the Canadian border, Seattle as we know it is relatively new. The city was founded in 1869 and named after Chief Si’ahl, a Native American leader of the local Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. The settlement was, of course, built on indigenous land.
Just 20 years after its foundation, the entire central business district – 25 city blocks – was razed to the ground in the “Great Seattle Fire” of 1889.
But Seattle rebuilt. Within a year, the CBD was back – and it was over 20 feet higher in some places.
Decades later, Seattle did it again. The city was preparing for its time in the spotlight as host of the Century 21 Exhibition, or Seattle World’s Fair, which would draw in nearly 10 million visitors in 1962.
The Space Needle, which towers 600 feet above the city with a rotating deck on top, was built in just one year. It’s still an iconic landmark not just of Seattle, but of the entire USA.
“There’s always someone in Seattle who can do it a little bit better,” says Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle’s MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry), where exhibits include the original hand-stenciled Starbucks sign, and the first commercial aircraft ever made by Boeing.
“We don’t necessarily invent things – we make things better,” he adds.
Residents of over 80 countries around the world drink up Seattle’s innovation every day. That’s the number of countries where Starbucks has its over 32,000 stores. Whether or not you’re a fan of the company, it’s done what few businesses manage – making its product a truly global one.
Not that the Seattle coffee scene is all about Starbucks, by any measure. Residents of the “Emerald City” line up for their caffeine fix at dozens of smaller businesses, like Cone & Steiner. What’s now a slick “corner store” with coffee bar was originally founded in 1915 by Sam Cone, a new immigrant to the city, and his brother-in-law (the Steiner to his Cone).
The general store – in what today is the SoDo area of Seattle – became a place for the neighborhood to gather and catch up on what was going on.
Sound familiar? In fact, in a twist of Seattle fate, the original location of Cone & Steiner is now the headquarters of Starbucks. Meanwhile Cone’s great-granddaughter, Dani Cone, reopened the general store in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2014. She now has two locations.
“I think this area is a fertile ground for ideas, for innovation, and for considering what’s possible,” she says. “There’s just something in the DNA of this place.”
Starbucks isn’t the only Seattle company to reinvent its entire industry, of course.
This is the home of Amazon, of Microsoft – and of Boeing. Its innovators, says Garfield, see room for improvement where others see perfection.
“They’re like Bill Boeing. They look at the boat, it sails beautifully. He can make it fly.”
The company delivered its last 747 on January 31 at a ceremony that marked the end of an era for the “Queen of the Skies” which debuted in 1969.
While Amazon and Starbucks might have changed our everyday lives, Boeing has changed the planet – for better or worse. So, then, has Seattle.
“If you think about our DNA, it’s Boeing, it’s computer engineers with Microsoft, it’s cloud engineers with Amazon,” says Garfield.
“We’re great engineers.”
One Seattle place that has defied innovation is Scarecrow Video, home to the largest private video and “physical media” archive in the United States. Videos, DVDs Blu-rays and LaserDiscs are all on the shelves. There are around 145,000 titles on display, according to the store’s Matt Lynch.
Why so many? That’s a terrible question, says Lynch. “You wouldn’t walk into the Louvre and say, ‘Why do you have so many paintings?’ Somebody has got to keep this stuff alive and kicking and available to people who want to see it.” He calls it “a cultural history that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
The feel is of an old-school video rental store – though the organization isn’t your average. One section is labeled “Little Bastards” – “for anything tiny that wants to kill you, like “Chucky” or “Leprechaun,” says Matt Lynch.
“It’s not nostalgia, it’s history – cultural history,” he says of the store. “We all have communal experiences. We all see the same movies, experience the same art. These movies collect all those experiences for us.”
And that’s the other side of Seattle – one that refuses to march with the crowd.
From the 18-foot sculpture of the Fremont Troll, clutching a car in its hand in a freeway underpass, to grunge music, which became the sound of a generation, Seattle’s history of innovation means that it always does its own thing.