Allen made his mark all over Seattle, not least on the economy. It was vital to the city's health and prosperity.
For all the world-changing vision of “Idea Man” Paul Allen, he was a throwback in at least one way.
The Microsoft co-founder, who died this past week at 65, may be the last of the great moneyed stewards who invested deeply and with abiding personal affection for the city of Seattle.
From the South Lake Union innovation district to new offices and a restored historic railroad temple at Union Station, he left great monuments. These laid the foundation for the city’s economic leap of the past decade.
In some cases, it was good business, especially for his Vulcan Real Estate operation. But this is another echo of the past, when moguls and major companies saw a vital connection between the health of their firms and their hometowns.
And given the breadth of his genius and interests, no wonder Allen’s wealth went into science, culture, sports and philanthropy, much of it here.
Such ties were once a national phenomenon.
John Henry Patterson’s National Cash Register largesse in Dayton, Ohio, a century ago. Banker Hugh McColl Jr. often overriding his board to revive a dead downtown Charlotte in the 1980s and 1990s. The Busch family and St. Louis. The captains of industry that made Chicago into a world city, unleashing their favorite architect Daniel Burnham (“Make no small plans…”).
Such connections certainly powered the Pacific Northwest, from the Weyerhaeusers in Tacoma to generations that used their money and influence molding Seattle, not least William Boeing.
These stewards played an outsized role in Seattle for decades. They were essential to the “reinvention DNA” that makes Seattle stand out from so many cities that can’t adjust when their old economic cornerstones shatter.
Nationally, this local stewardship is mostly gone. Blame mergers, generational change, cultural shifts and the triumph of “shareholder value” over the good of other stakeholders.
For example, a handful of giant banks are the product of hundreds of smaller institutions that were once the leadership and employment backbones of the communities where their CEOs lived. Now those places are merely “markets,” getting carefully allotted charitable donations.
Most of America’s super-rich live in their own comfortable Geography of Nowhere (with apologies to urbanist James Howard Kunstler, who coined the term for suburbia). Multiple mansions and compounds and spacious Manhattan apartments.
No place is actually home, in the way most of us would understand it. A place to be loved, tended, passed on better than we found it.
(As late as the 1990s, I would run into McColl, one of the most powerful bankers in the world, on the main street of downtown Charlotte. He was a throwback, too.)
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Thus, even with tech seeking to “disrupt” philanthropy and change its own stingy ways, much of this giving is impersonal. It remains to be seen whether algorithms can replace the moguls who could write checks and knock heads for the greater good locally.
And sure, critics would ask, “Whose good?” But every city that lost these stewards has suffered, often seriously, even if the place appeared more democratized on the surface.
I mean no disrespect to Bill Gates. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a creditable experiment in giving back when the marketplace has so disproportionately rewarded one individual. But the Gateses want to save the world, and good for them. Apart from putting its headquarters in Seattle — no small asset! — the foundation is mostly planetary in its reach.
The Gateses, Warren Buffett and Paul Allen signed the Giving Pledge, where the wealthiest commit to giving away most of their riches. This is another laudable effort by people of conscience in our new Gilded Age. But it’s not synonymous with the intense intimate commitment to a place.
Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, has been slow and late to large-scale giving. For old timers, that’s not the Seattle way. But such aloof giving might be the new one.
Last month, however, Bezos and wife MacKenzie donated $2 billion to fund low-income preschools and aid for homelessness. The money will go through existing nonprofits. While details are still being worked out, this is a national donation.
Free-market purists might argue that Seattle should be happy with Bezos doing what they see as his only responsibility: Running a successful business.
But even if they’re right, Bezos’ benefits here came partly because of Allen’s free-market-of-the-heart commitment to the city.
Bezos, to his credit, wanted a sustainable headquarters, not a car-dependent suburban office “park.” Allen had land in South Lake Union, part of a vision he had for a grand park which the public rejected.
The resulting urban-innovation district generated more than $551 million in tax revenues last year, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. South Lake Union has more than 59,000 jobs, an increase of 164 percent since 2010.
The area is not only part of Amazon’s headquarters, but also hosts high-end offices and labs for such outfits as Google, Facebook and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, among others.
To put a fine point on it, Allen could have made his real-estate investments anywhere. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Allen was acquiring South Lake Union land, the smart money would have gone to the Sun Belt.
But Allen was personally invested here. Smart money wouldn’t have, say, saved Cinerama.
His was a different True North, not only money. We shall miss him so much.