When Fast Company named Seattle its 2009 City of the Year — based on the city's creativity, the editors said — surely, I thought, the weather and the winters must have had something to do with it. Our winters are dark: At 47 degrees latitude, the winter solstice brings sundown at 4:21 p.m. and sunrise at 7:54 a.m. Our winters are gray: While we get only 38 inches of rain per year — less than New York or Boston, Houston or Atlanta — we average 154 days of precipitation. Our winters are long: Cloudy season begins in October and lasts into June; we boast an average of 226 cloudy days a year.
But consider the bounty those long, dark, damp winters have provided the world. There's Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon and its Kindling, Boeing jets, Frango mints, Pearl Jam, Costco, Jones Soda, Jimi Hendrix, salmon jerky. That's an impressive list for a city of just 600,000 people tucked in a remote corner of America, wedged tightly between two mountain ranges, and pushed up against the cold, deep Puget Sound.
Now, in our nation's economic winter, Seattle's multifaceted economy and forward-thinking business climate have given the city a little extra insulation; the jobless rate in January was 6.8%, more than a percentage point better than the national average. This is the kind of city that will thrive and lead us into recovery.
So I set out to explore why, exactly, so many creative, influential minds — both native and transplanted, from Quincy Jones to Bill and Melinda Gates, Cameron Crowe to Sir Mix-a-Lot — who have contributed so much to the world, love this city and call it home.
I grew up in Seattle. My father was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn; my mother, a Tlingit Indian-Irish hybrid from Alaska. They met when they were stationed on the same U.S. Army base in Germany, then settled here to be near my mom's extended family and because my architect dad thought it would be good for his career. (He did some work on the Space Needle.) When I was 18, I moved to New York, where I lived for 18 years. I came back, family in tow, on September 9, 2001. All I can say about my defection is that I left for the proverbial greener pastures. I returned when I realized there is no place greener than the Emerald City.
"Fundamentally," says Richard Tait, who founded the game maker Cranium here and now heads a brand consultancy called Boom Boom Brands, "this is a frontier city," a place of "pioneering spirit" and "big ideas." Certainly, Seattle has been a center for technological innovation since its early days. In the 1850s, just after the arrival of the area's first white settlers, some clever loggers realized that the best way to get their timber downhill to the bay was to slide it. Thus was born Skid Road — now known as Yesler Way, after the man who owned Seattle's first lumber mill. A few decades later, William Boeing moved here from Detroit, established the Boeing Airplane Co., and grew his passion into a global giant. In 1975, two Seattleites wrote the first BASIC programming language for a computer. Their names were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, and their little outfit was called Microsoft.
Since Microsoft put down roots here in 1979 — Allen and Gates started the firm in New Mexico, but had the good sense to move home — Seattle has become a nexus of computerized creativity, with myriad startups and VC firms funded by some of the 10,000-plus millionaires minted here over the past three decades. "The weather lends itself completely to the lifestyle of a programmer," says John Cordell, one of the original architects of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. He compares the intricate craftsmanship of a top programmer with that of a master clocksmith: "You go into a hole and work 80 hours a week for eight months, then come out of the hole and take a break to recharge your batteries. Seattle has eight months of bad weather and four months of absolutely beautiful weather. It's the perfect place for software engineers."
Seattleites' creativity goes beyond the computer. This is home to some of the world's top medical brain trusts: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the Bastyr University Research Institute, a global pioneer in science-based natural medicine. Seattle, the rare city that boosted its municipal arts budget as the economy stalled in 2008, radiates cultural inspiration. There's the Intiman Theatre, directed by the genius Bartlett Sher, and the art-glass scene, led by Dale Chihuly. This is the birthplace of grunge and Sub Pop Records. And for three of the past five years, we have been ranked America's most literate city, based on criteria including education level and the number of bookstores. (We placed a dismal second in the other two.) We are home to a plethora of fine writers, from National Book Award winners Timothy Egan and Sherman Alexie to best sellers such as Tom Robbins and ... Garth Stein.
This city is also an eco-leader. In 2005, Mayor Greg Nickels adopted the Kyoto Protocol for the city after the Bush administration declined to do so for the country, and led the charge with the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. "The same creativity that led Seattle to be the home of Boeing, Starbucks, and Microsoft — and made our municipal utility City Light the first carbon-neutral utility in the nation — will help us restore our planet and boost our economy," Mayor Nickels tells me. He cites McKinstry, a firm that President Obama has hailed as exemplary. "Recently, I personally handed over new construction permits to McKinstry, a company that installs systems to make buildings more energy efficient, that will enable it to hire more than 500 new workers."
But we Seattleites don't flaunt our success. "The drive to succeed is there, make no mistake," says Joe Fugere, a Starbucks exec turned restaurateur who owns Tutta Bella, a local family of popular Neapolitan pizza joints. "[But] the Seattle style of innovation is humble innovation." Humility also means that we don't begrudge others their success. "You know one of the cool things about Seattle?" asks Jenn Risko, the energetic publisher of "Shelf Awareness," the book-publishing industry's leading daily-news source. "The person standing next to you doesn't hate your guts because of how successful you are."
Risko, a New Jersey transplant, came to Seattle, saved money, found a business partner, and launched an e-newsletter that has gained solid circulation and high industrywide regard in just four years. "The creative people who have transplanted to Seattle have sought out this place for a reason," she tells me. "Wherever they came from, they left because that place was stuck in tradition. And these people, these innovators, are not happy with that. They want to turn that idea of tradition on its head."
The question, of course, is why that happens here, not elsewhere. I ask Risko if it could possibly be the weather. (Not that we Seattleites are insecure about it.) She looks at me very seriously and then says: "I think it's the Mountain."
The Mountain. The affectionate term Seattleites use for Mount Rainier, which reaches its zenith 60 miles southeast of the city and is the tallest peak in the Cascades. On clear days, the snow-capped giant seems to sit up tall and watch over its kingdom, which includes our fair city.
"Always being able to look at something bigger than you, that's good for you," Risko says. "You think you're in control, but you see that mountain and you realize that at any minute, it could blow! It changes your priorities." (I laugh, but back at my office, I Google "Mount Rainier." Risko is right: U.S. Geological Survey scientists consider Mount Rainier to be one of the nation's most dangerous volcanoes. Perhaps I should reevaluate my priorities.)
"The natural environment — the mountains, the lakes, the trees — are such a huge part of this city," says architect Eric Cobb, who lived and worked in San Francisco and New York before returning to his hometown. Even in the city, green space has primacy. In 1903, city leaders hired the Olmsted brothers — yes, those Olmsteds — to develop a master park plan. The plan located a park or playground within one-half mile of every house.
The Olmsted legacy infiltrates every aspect of the Seattle landscape today, from pocket public beaches on Lake Washington to the 20-mile boulevard that links city parks and greenbelts. It also affects the built environment. Seattle happens to have one of America's most interesting collections of modern architecture; from the Frank Gehry — designed Experience Music Project, to Rem Koolhaas's Seattle Public Library, and even to an icon such as the Space Needle — which, while distinctive, is not the most beautiful objet d'architecture — our structures have provided plenty of controversy. "There is a bit of libertarian attitude in Seattle," Cobb says. "You can pretty much do what you want to do on your property. But if you design a monstrosity, they will come after you. And while that's not fun, there's something about the tension of that dynamic. It's about balance. It's about restraint. But it's also about taking a stand if it's something you believe in. If you have passion, people will accept it." Eventually.
Like the canny passion of Paul Allen, who has spearheaded more than one city-changing, tax-revenue-generating project despite initial public opposition — the latest being the South Lake Union redevelopment. The idea of transforming South Lake Union (called SLU — pronounced slew) began in 1991, when city leaders made plans for a park intended to help revitalize this dilapidated part of the city. Allen, who had even grander designs on the neighborhood, loaned the city money to acquire some land, with the agreement that when voters approved the plan, he'd forgive the loans. Well, if we learned anything from Bill Boeing or, yes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, it's that it can take a little while for the world to get your genius. Here's the optimist's way of looking at that: Seattle is a can-do place — but you have to really want to do it. So when voters said no to the SLU plan, the land was deeded to Allen to repay his loan. Then he bought more. In the past decade, he has privately turned South Lake Union into a buzzing neighborhood and a center of the biotech industry. It's home to dozens of other businesses too, including Jones Soda and REI, and Amazon is building a huge new headquarters there.
Once SLU had proved its worth and everyone had fallen in love with it, the City of Seattle added a 2.6-mile trolley line linking the neighborhood with downtown. Michael Mann, a top aide to the mayor, tells me about the importance of the SLU trolley (which locals lovingly call SLUT). While I might have expected something about, say, congestion (in L.A.) or environmental consciousness (in our rival to the south, Portland), Mann instead relates a conversation he had with a SLU-based scientist: "He said to me, 'The reason we need the streetcar in South Lake Union is that we need a place for all the scientists to get together. During lunches, we visit each other and have lectures and roundtable discussions, and we can use the streetcar to get back and forth, and we can continue the conversation on the streetcar. We can interact and exchange ideas. That's why we need the streetcar!' "
"Sort of a moving café or bar?" I ask.
"A place to exchange ideas," Mann agrees. "I mean, the streetcar came about for other reasons, but — "
"But that's the best reason," I concur.
And then this occurs to me: Thousands of years ago, when the area that we now call Seattle was first settled, the First Nations — Duwamish, Suquamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot — were peaceable. There was no need to fight, because they had plenty of resources to share: fish and game, water and land, beauty. They built their families and their communities, and that's when creativity first got into Seattle's bloodline. The early Native Americans introduced the longhouse, a central meeting place in their communities. In those long, dark, damp winters, they would get together and talk. Exchange ideas. Sing. Dance. Carve. Devise fishing and hunting strategies. Tell jokes.
Michael Mann's anecdote about the streetcar fits into that tradition — in Seattle's distinct, nontraditional way. This is a destination, a meeting place, for creative people. There's something about this area. The weather. The winters. The Mountain. The sense of purpose of those who have settled here. Perhaps all of us who have found this city have, to some degree, aligned our priorities: Innovation is imperative; quality of life is crucial. In Seattle, we have a cornucopia overflowing with both.
Novelist Garth Stein is the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.