America: Reinventing ourselves while reinventing our cities

SEATTLE, Washington: Residents relax in the art museum sculpture park with the Space Needle behind them. Photo: David Crumm.SEATTLE, WASHINGTON: The famous Pike Place Public Market today.

SEATTLE, Washington: For a young writer in 1976, Seattle was a cheap date: a gritty, rainy port city at the last corner of the United States short of the Alaskan wilderness. Our national memory of the exciting space-age world’s fair in 1962, called the Century 21 Exposition with its soaring Space Needle, still summoned hope of American progress. But, in 1976, my ability as a journalist to forecast this city’s future beyond that Bicentennial Year was, quite frankly, lousy.

One major goal of our 2010 American journey as father and son is to explore the nature of change in this nation where change itself is one of our core values.  A major theme emerging in interviews with Americans along the road is that the ability to reinvent ourselves is one of the proudest parts of our national identity.

In Seattle, we saw an example of reinvention on a major geographic scale from 1976 to 2010.

As we move through these 40 days and 9,000 miles, we are retracing a great circle of the U.S. that I made in my first job as a journalist, writing columns for the Flint Journal, my hometown newspaper in Michigan. Even preparing for that first journey was vastly different than today. Many months before I left home in 1976, I posted typewritten letters in the U.S. Mail requesting tourist information about Seattle and, weeks later, got a big brown envelope of booklets and maps. From that packet, I zeroed in on the remnants of the world’s fair, the Space Needle and something I had never experienced: an international food court still surviving from 1962. When I reached Seattle, I rented a room at the downtown YMCA for a few dollars, worked on my stories at the main library’s big oak tables and had dinner one night with entrepreneurs running the booths at the food court. Starbucks already was selling coffee in a tiny storefront at Pikes Place Market, but I didn’t notice it. Musicians were everywhere, but I had no idea an entire genre of rock music would emerge here.

Heading toward Seattle today, Benjamin merely texted a few hours before we arrived to arrange the dinner interviews he most prized, this time with college interns working at Google and Microsoft. We finally found an affordable motel, but only after agreeing to stay half an hour outside of town. Starbucks coffee now seems to be brewing on every corner of Seattle and each civic institution we visited was branded with at least one major Microsoft donation. My old main library with the oak tables was demolished long ago; the new steel-and-glass library has won international design awards and includes a Microsoft auditorium plus floor after floor of public Internet access via hundreds of library-owned computers. The YMCA where I stayed for next to nothing is still there, but now is a trendy YMCA fitness club. Two guys in neat YMCA polo shirts who work in the office chuckled in a friendly way over my story of staying there with other drifters 34 years ago. One of them said kindly, “We haven’t had that old hotel here in years. We’re focused on fitness now. You know, you might want to send in something about your visit for our historical collection.”

So, as a young journalist’s snapshot for the next third of a century, here are Benjamin’s 2010 impressions of this Pacific port city …

Snapshot of Seattle 2010, by Benjamin Crumm …

REDMOND, WASHINGTON. Microsoft headquarters version of the Pike Place Market, open to visitors but mainly a popular lunch spot for the thousands of employees. Photo: David Crumm,

Seattle is the typical American city. Well, at least it should be.

While rising in the Seattle Space Needle, a teenager in our elevator made the inevitable comparison to the Eiffel tower. Both were made for World’s Fairs and both have become iconic images of their respective cities. Both have restaurants on them that are quite expensive. Both cost money to go up and pack people awkwardly close together into an elevator. Most importantly, they both rise until we should get a Google Map’s view of the area, but Seattle’s landscape rises so quickly that the Space Needle only reaches the canopy of this urban jungle, not above it.

But, to simply write off the Space Needle as a lesser version of the Eiffel Tower is unfair to the needle. Its design as a flying saucer landing on a podium is as strong a symbol as any of America’s Cold War fascination with space flight. While the space ship’s view isn’t as high as its French peer, it does include the Puget Sound, a remarkable body of water with edges bespeckled by greenery.

While the two spires invite comparisons, the cities do not. The streets near the tourist areas of Seattle are filled with noisy tourists going on duck-boat tours into Puget Sound. The blaring of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” from  one of these car/boat contraptions, while the passengers quacked using plastic duck bills had me wishing it was duck season. Of course, annoying tourists are no reason to hate the attraction itself. Pike’s Place Market and the accompanying waterfront were delightful, the market for its distinct local character and the waterfront for its gorgeous views.

Throughout Europe, museums and historic sites are major goals when seeing cities. In Seattle, that presents a problem. The Space Needle is a historic site, but only since 1962, a practically brand new structure by European standards. There is a handful of museums, but they tend to focus on recent popular culture and don’t have the impressive, grand and serious feel of major European establishments. Filling that void in Seattle now is commercial tourism. The goal at Pike’s Place Market is shopping from little toy cars to classic Life magazine ads suitable for framing. Asian pastries and small cheesecakes sell next to fruits and vegetables. There are men who yell while throwing fish, street musicians looking for a dollar and the pilgrimage site for Starbucks drinkers: the first store on Pike’s Place (not to be confused with the new Starbucks store one block away). It’s all asking for your money and yet it’s still all very appealing.

Moving downhill to the waterfront, the cramped urban streets open and I finally felt freer, that is until I started looking at restaurant prices on the piers and immediately felt poor. One of the big downsides of Seattle, now crowded with titans of technology like Microsoft, is the sheer cost. Finding a cheap meal that’s not fried is nearly impossible. Finding a cheap place to stay in the city is even harder.

The refurbished waterfront is at least free to walk along and is well worth such a physical exertion. While the piers in the area appear to serve only ferries and cruise ships there is evidence of industry and the meeting of tourism and trade have always appealed to me, giving the tourism a sense of reality and giving the industry a generally needed beautification.

Just before leaving Seattle I visited Microsoft. Led around by a friend who is interning there I was taken through shiny new office buildings that felt happier than the stuffy gray cubicles I envisioned. I got to accompany him into what felt like a hermetically sealed back room and look at the employee factory store. I then got to load up on free cans of soda from the employee cafeteria.

Leaving Seattle, I pondered the same thoughts I had after leaving Brussels earlier this year. Touring Seattle is worthwhile, but what I really felt as I left is how good it would be to live here. Seattle has an air of success and growth, yet everywhere I went I could feel the city’s blues and greens from the nearby forested mountains and the even closer water. If they could just do something about the freeways that are more congested than a sickly person with a sinus infection and, if I could find some high paying job in the area, I just might return.

(Story and photos published by Editor David Crumm and his 21-year-old son, Benjamin, who are traveling 40 days and 9,000 miles recreating a reporting trip that David Crumm made in 1976 when he was 21.)

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