DON’T BLAME SEATTLEITES for having a bit of an identity crisis. Over the years, we’ve seen and read the depictions by outside media, as well as our hometown outlets.
Do you recognize yourself and your neighbors in these portrayals?
“Lawless again in Seattle” was an Aug. 4, 2020, editorial in The Wall Street Journal, which regularly has a few things to say about our city, such as in its April 30, 2020, editorial “Mindless in Seattle.”
“CRAZY TOWN” was the June 12 Fox News video report on the notorious Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ being the early, wincing acronym for what later became CHOP, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest).
Or are we still the city described in a March 27, 1962, Look magazine issue devoted to the Northwest and “the good life”? One of the stories was headlined, “Why aren’t we all living there?”
Pick a decade, all the way back to the 1800s, and you can see how outsiders viewed us. Back in 1883, an Atlantic Monthly writer visited Puget Sound and sent to East Coast readers a dispatch from the hinterlands.
Helen Hunt Jackson was quite enchanted by our raw beauty: “Bays within bays, inlets on inlets, seas linking seas — over twelve thousand square miles of surface, the waters come and go, rise and fall, past a splendid succession of islands, promontories, walls of forest, and towering mountains.”
She worried what we’d do with all that beauty: “At the rate trees are being cut down, and lumber shipped away from this region, it is a comparatively simple calculation to reckon how long it will take to strip the country bare.”
And guess what Helen Hunt Jackson had to include? ” ‘It doesn’t really rain all the time, does it?’ I said to a discontented Newcastle woman, who had been complaining of the wet winters. ‘Well, if you was to see me hanging out my clo’es Monday morning, an’ then takin’ ’em in an’ dryin’ ’em by the fire, I guess you’d think it rained about all the time,’ she replied resentfully.”
Presumably the spelling of “dryin’ ” and “ ’em” was to fully illustrate the hickness of the locals.
LET’S BOUNCE AROUND the decades of portrayals. First stop: At times, we even contribute to these sometimes-farcical versions of ourselves. The New York Times, Nov. 15, 1992: “Grunge: A Success Story.” The NYT gets punked.
It was a masterful example of a mainstream trend story. “How did a five-letter (sic) word meaning dirt, filth, trash become synonymous with a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon?” wrote Rick Marin, now a Los Angeles TV writer.
It hit all the buttons, including a reference to fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who had never been to Seattle, as “the guru of grunge.”
In a phone interview, Marin, who’s working on the new “Law and Order: Organized Crime,” remembers that after he finished the story, his editor came up with that fantastic idea editors always have: some kind of factoid box! Such as, for example, a lexicon of grunge-speak.
Marin called Sub Pop records, the Seattle label that first featured Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. It decided to pass off Marin to a 25-year-old who had worked for them. She had a sense of humor.
At the time, Megan Jasper was a sales rep to Caroline Records (she’s now CEO of Sub Pop).
On the phone, Jasper began making up grunge words and terms. For example, stuck in her memory was a guy who worked at a diner in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she used to live. He walked around with a T-shirt that said “Flippity-Flop.” That now became “a grunge term.”
“Goofy things,” she says. “It all became so absurd. I truly thought he’d realize this was a bunch of nonsense.”
But, no. Marin says, “She was young. She was gonna stick it to the stuffy New York Times writing about her little cultural moment. I trusted her.”
The lexicon appeared.
WACK SLACKS: Old ripped jeans. FUZZ: Heavy wool sweaters. PLATS: Platform shoes. KICKERS: Heavy boots. SWINGIN’ ON THE FLIPPITY-FLOP: Hanging out. BOUND-AND-HAGGED: Staying home on Friday or Saturday night. SCORE: Great. HARSH REALM: Bummer. COB NOBBLER: Loser. DISH: Desirable guy. BLOATED, BIG BAG OF BLOATATION: Drunk. LAMESTAIN: Uncool person. TOM-TOM CLUB: Uncool outsiders. ROCK ON: A happy goodbye.
The story ran, says Jasper, “And my phone started blowing up.”
A few days later, she says, at a show at The Crocodile in Belltown, customers began showing up with the lexicon pinned to their shirts. Then T-shirts with the lexicon were printed.
Jasper says she later got a call from the editor of the story.
“She yelled at me, asked me why I lied. I said I was answering ridiculous questions with ridiculous answers,” says Jasper. At the end of the conversation, she remembers, the editor did ask where she could get one of the T-shirts.
NEXT STOP: The Nation magazine, Oct. 17, 1936. The phrase “The Soviet of Washington” enters popular culture in an article headlined: “Circus politics in Washington State.”
We’re now in the 10th decade of Seattle being tagged with that label. It gets dragged out whenever a reference is needed to our liberal politics. This city, after all, was where 65,000 workers took part in the Seattle General Strike that began on Feb. 6, 1919, and lasted for six days.
Seattle-born writer Mary McCarthy wrote in that Nation article that, “with some authority,” the term was attributed to U.S. Postmaster and national Democratic Party leader “Big Jim” Farley.
Farley denied saying it, according to the late Walt Crowley in HistoryLink, but there it was, Farley supposedly toasting “to the 47 States of the Union and the Soviet of Washington.”
Says University of Washington history professor James N. Gregory about McCarthy, “She is unclear how she knows Farley said it. But it quickly caught fire. Both the left and right liked the quip for different reasons and have kept it circulating ever since.”
Gregory wrote at length about our “Left Coast City” in a Spring 2016 article in the journal Pacific Northwest Quarterly.
“There is a difference between reputation and reality,” he wrote. “Seattle is not actually a left-wing city dominated by radicals. Nor has it been in the past. Compared to European countries where Socialist and Communist Parties win elections and govern at time whole nations, states and cities, the United States has never had much of a Left. Radical movements here have been episodic and rarely get very far in electoral politics.”
NEXT STOP: Look magazine, March 27, 1962, with “more than 7,000,000 circulation.” The easygoing Northwest lifestyle is encapsulated in an entire issue devoted to the Pacific Northwest.
Sure; in one story, there is a reference to the “Soviet of Washington.” But that’s part of a story about, “What oddity will titillate the voter next?”
Among politicians featured: “One candidate dropped his campaign to play in a golf tournament,” and, “Three candidates trained for office by leading a dance band, coaching and wrestling.”
The headliner in the issue really is Jack Ballard.
“Take a good look at the man in these pages. The chances are, he has you beat a mile. His name is Jack Ballard; he lives near Seattle; he is married, has children and owns a suburban home. Thus, in many ways, he is like many other men. But in one way, Ballard is a very special man. He has looked status in the eye and stared it down,” begins the story.
“Most men yearn for promotions; Ballard spurns them, because five of those offered him in recent years would have meant leaving the life and the land he loves.”
The photos accompanying the story show Ballard and his wife, Lila, and children on a ferry to the San Juans. Another photo shows his son, Dean, on a boat with his dad, a salmon on the line. Another shows Jack and Lila in their living room, Jack saying, “People ask how much money you make. The question should be, ‘What did you do with it?’ ”
Ballard died in 2003 at age 82. His son who had that salmon on the line now is 70. He is a retired Lakeside math teacher. Ballard says the magazine had been looking to photograph a home designed by Seattle architect Ralph Anderson. And there was his family, living in Mercer Island in such a home.
But after meeting Jack Ballard, a regional sales manager for G.E., the magazine decided to shift the story to him.
His dad worked alone, says Dean Ballard. “He could take Wednesday off and fish the Skagit. He liked hunting, playing tennis. He didn’t think work should be the whole thing.” he says. “He did as much work as needed to keep everybody happy.”
Ballard says his own life reflects that.
“I like to do things besides gainful employment. Skiing, hiking. I played volleyball, some hunting and fishing,” he says.
NEXT STOP: the high-tech, caffeinated 1980s and ’90s.
It wasn’t that long ago that there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no Starbucks. Remember, before the pandemic, that if you traveled overseas, or even to another state, there was that instant reference point for Seattle. If not “Grunge!” then one of the big three behemoths.
Let’s mark when the media made it official.
Aug. 25, 1991, The New York Times: “A city in the Espresso Lane.”
“Seattle has become the coffee capital of the country,” says the story. “It has the highest per capita consumption of ‘gourmet’ coffee beans … Now there are 35 Starbucks in the Seattle area that continue to do a land-office business.”
The Starbucks website says it now has more than 32,000 stores around the globe.
With Microsoft, there were a lot of moments to its dominance. The mentions begin small.
The first time Microsoft appeared in The Seattle Times was Oct. 10, 1979. It’s not for a news story, but a classified ad for a programmer. “Position involves designing, debugging & maintaining compiler, interpreters & operating systems for microprocessors.” The pay was $18,000 a year, $69,000 in today’s dollars.
The mentions continue to a story in 1985 about Microsoft using something called “electronic mail,” to Microsoft going public in 1987, making billionaires of its founders.
By Oct. 2, 1995, Fortune magazine had run a story titled: “Bill Gates & Paul Allen talk. Check out the ultimate buddy act in business history …”
That story calls them “the undisputed masters of the digital universe.” It’s official.
Back then, Fortune was a premier business magazine brand. It mattered when it decided to profile another company, this one called Amazon.
Dec. 9, 1996. Fortune magazine: “The Next Big Thing: A Bookstore?”
“Back in 1994, Jeff Bezos was a young senior vice president on the rise at a thriving Wall Street hedge fund. But when the explosive growth of the World Wide Web caught his eye, he saw an even bigger opportunity: online commerce,” begins the story.
“Two years later, Bezos, CEO of the internet bookstore Amazon.com, is one of a crew of young entrepreneurs using cyberspace technology to steal real-world customers from traditional businesses …”
In January, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index listed Bezos as worth as $185 billion, in second place after Tesla founder Elon Musk, at $195 billion.
NEXT STOP: WTO, 1999. CHAZ, 2020. Wild, wild in the streets.
Where were you on Nov. 30, 1999, when, according to a Dec. 1, 1999, Seattle Times story, up to 35,000 protesters took to the streets in downtown Seattle, and at least 225 were arrested? Well, maybe you weren’t even born, as CensusReporter.org says two-fifths of residents in our metro area are under 30.
Where were you around the days of June 9, 2020, when Seattle police abandoned their East Precinct on 12th Avenue as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone was created?
You likely were watching those events on TV, reading about them in the paper, scrolling through news sites, going on Twitter (but not for WTO; the online platform wasn’t created until 2006).
Did you have out-of-town friends or relatives calling, asking whether you were safe?
Here are a couple of lingering images of what the outside world saw: the Dec. 13, 1999, cover of Newsweek, three cops with face shields arresting a protester who’s on the ground. “THE BATTLE OF SEATTLE,” blares the headline.
And here is the June 12, 2020, Fox News coverage of CHAZ: “CRAZY TOWN. Seattle helpless as armed guards patrol anarchists’ ‘autonomous zone,’ shake down businesses: cops.”
But a June 14 Seattle Times article pointed out a few things. The “CRAZY TOWN” image of a burning Seattle actually showed a scene from St. Paul, Minnesota, from May 30.
There was something else: That same Fox News package showed a photo of a young guy wearing a tactical vest, holding an assault rifle, standing in front of a sign stating, “You are now entering Free Cap Hill.” The problem was, the photo of the armed guy had been at CHAZ on June 10, and then digitally inserted by the sign.
Fox said it regretted the errors and removed the images.
But what do you think will be remembered? The correction or the image?
FINAL STOP: Now largely forgotten, Erastus Brainerd was arguably Seattle’s best promoter ever. In 1897, he headed the advertising campaign that made this town the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Yes; a few miners struck it rich. But it wasn’t the gold that made fortunes. It was the merchants who sold them the “ton of goods” for their trek north: 150 pounds of bacon, 400 pounds of flour, 75 pounds of dried fruit, 200 feet of rope, a stove, gold pans, picks, shovel, snag-proof rubber boots, medicine, mosquito netting, to name a few items.
According to a National Park Service history titled: “Hard drive to the Klondike: Promoting Seattle during the Gold Rush,” of the some 100,000 miners who started for the gold fields, 70,000 departed from Seattle.
According to John M. Findlay, UW history professor emeritus, this wasn’t a case of outsiders painting a picture of Seattle.
He says, “The city seized upon the Klondike rush as an opportunity to advertise the hell out of itself. It sent promotional materials across the U.S. and even to Europe, advising potential adventurers that the best route to the mines was through Seattle. It outspent San Francisco and Tacoma and Vancouver on self-promotion.
“And the habit didn’t wear thin. A big attention-getter was the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. The national media covered the event and gave it much attention — but again that was because Seattle took the lead by creating the fair.”
To lead the promotion, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce appointed Brainerd, who had been news editor at the Atlanta Constitution and editor of the Seattle Press-Times (later renamed The Seattle Times).
“Before the practice of swaying public opinion had become commonplace,” says the Park Service history, Brainerd was doing things like writing feature stories and placing them in publications throughout the country.
He subscribed to a clipping service, and if he thought a story was negative or “misinformed,” he would write the editors, demanding a retraction.
Says the NPS history, “Often Brainerd’s letters employed a deceptively innocent tone, as though the publicity for his city had erupted spontaneously, and was not the result of his calculated efforts.”
Brainerd was like a modern-day lobbyist, says the history. He asked employers, ministers, teachers and others to write “spontaneous” letters to out-of-town friends and newspapers, to make it look as if there was a groundswell of unsolicited support. He even offered to provide the details to include in the letters, and postage.
Come to think of it, Brainerd would be highly sought after in modern Seattle’s corporate world.