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Smack dab in the middle of downtown Seattle the early stages of construction on the city's new opera house make the entire block across from the Post Office between Second and Third Streets look like a war zone. Where the sidewalks were, plywood planks support the braver pedestrians and piles of dirt and rubble spill out into the edges of the street. Seattle's fleet of mountain biking bicycle couriers have a heyday of dodging the construction runoff, but for most downtown traffic, the construction makes getting around that block an arduous task.
But Seattle is the boom town of the nineties, and it can't boom without throwing off some flak. Almost every day, it seems, battalions of tractors and cranes transform messy lots into restaurants and theaters, creating endless opportunities for just about any kind of business as the population of the city keeps growing and growing. As a result, Seattle sports rough edges, and the Emerald City has become a fascinating study in contrast--a place where Kurt Cobain and the Seattle Symphony share an audience and recent college graduates always find a job, despite the fact that Washington is one of the nation's poorer states.
When I visited Seattle in June, I first stumbled across this contrast in a coffee shop across the street from the opera house construction site. In the ground floor of an office building, local coffee moguls had recently installed a Seattle's Best Coffee, a Starbucks-like franchise (Yes, the very same as our dear Science Center coffee cart and Loker Commons fare). One morning, as I sat in that coffee shop with the entertainment supplement to the Seattle Times and a cappuccino, feeling quite sophisticated searching for cultural enlightenment to the tune of an espresso drink, a crew of construction workers left their concrete solidifying in the forms for the opera house foundation, crossed the street, walked past me into the cafe and congregated under the "Order Here" sign. How funny, I thought, for men in mud-encrusted boots and greasy overalls to want to order coffee in a place like this--wouldn't an IHOP or some well-Formicaed equivalent be more in keeping with the hard-hat genre?
So it was an even bigger shock to my stereotyping sensibilities to hear one of the men order a round of "double mochas, dry please." Not only did they drink coffee in the yuppie-est of places--they drank complex coffee. Cultured coffee. Sophisticated coffee.
In a way, the contrast of the espresso drink with the well-soiled workers matched their project; it seemed oddly fitting that a crew of rough workers turning a messy city block into a tribute to high culture would drink elegant drinks. In fact, the contrast reflects the entire mood of today's Seattle. Just now, as flocks of young professionals move to that young, rainy corner of the world, cities like Seattle and Portland try all sorts of culture on for size. Like a kid searching her mother's closet clothes to try on, they emerge with an eclectic selection--new and entertaining. Not what mom would put together, but certainly more refreshing and creative.
Maybe that kind of unpredictability is the lure of the Pacific Northwest these days. The siren call that beckons so many immigrants from California and New Jersey to move in, raise property taxes and start drinking more coffee is the opportunity to create an entirely new culture.
In Seattle, Shakespeare productions litter public park amphitheaters in the summer and new museums pop up yearly, but never without a twist. What was once the Seattle Art Museum has recently transformed into the sparkling new Asian Art Museum, which has one of the best collections of Asian cultural artifacts in the U.S. A new form of theater, sort of a cabaret performance in which actors set up for a night in a bar or nightclub and mix their scenes with live music and audience participation, is becoming more and more popular as the city's hordes of twentysomethings desperately search for new places to channel their must-have-something-fun-to-do-on-a-Friday-night energies. Every evening at six o'clock, local teenagers and anyone else who feels like listening (regardless of their predominately atheistic beliefs) crowd a Catholic church on Broadway, right in the middle of the gay district, to watch a choir of monks sing their nightly praises. Jacked up four by fours scuttle among skyscrapers downtown, and many a business executive can be found packing a briefcase into a VW van every day after work. Normalcy just isn't an issue in Seattle.
Baffled by the city's sudden popularity, everyone who lives there (and many who don't) tries to pinpoint exactly what it is about Seattle that makes so many people want to pack up their lives and move there.
What does this particular city, all shoved up against Puget Sound, so far away from major cultural centers like New York City and Los Angeles, have that keeps people coming? Maybe there is no answer, and that's the answer. Like any frontier, Seattle allows new ideas and combinations. What may seem like an overzealous stretch towards sophistication--espresso in gas stations, at bus stops, in hair salons--is actually just old-fashioned American entrepreneurism in disguise. The same powers that created Budweiser and fast food have latched onto Vienna Roast and steamed milk. It just took a place like Seattle to make that acceptable.
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