Over just a few generations, Seattle has grown from a pioneer settlement to the largest metropolitan area in the Pacific Northwest. As the city looks forward to its place on the world stage of technology and trade, it also looks to its past.

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Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times

The world has gotten smaller, in part because of Boeing. The company helped early Seattle by firing up its economic engine, shaping its politics and laying the foundation for a strong middle class. Now, having become a global player and facing competition more fierce than it has ever been, the aerospace titan is looking literally around the world for cheaper labor and willing partners. And we are left to question both our relationship with the company and, to some degree, our very identity as a region.

How the images were made

As the city named after Chief Sealth looks forward to its place on the world stage of technology and trade, it also looks to its past, considering what its identity should be.

Any conceptual story of ideals, metaphors, ambitions, past, present and future requires an outside-the-box thinking for visualizing it. I decided on multiple exposures as the most appropriate format to illustrate the themes of ambivalence, rapid change, growth, identity crisis, isolation, moxie and entrepreneurialism.

Why? In each exposure, I find elements that help contextualize my thought process: 1: a global-city requirement, 2: a Seattle hook, and 3: a metaphor to connect the first two elements.

These images are made using a multiple-exposure function on a 5D Mark III camera, which allows me to combine 3 exposures in-camera to produce one final image.

The beauty of this approach is that each image is up for individual interpretation. It is also a wonderful opportunity to try something outside the realm of documentary reportage.

— Marcus Yam

In 1958, Seattle profoundly shrunk the planet with the introduction of the Boeing 707 airliner.

Four years later, we invited the planet to check us out with the Seattle world’s fair, beating out New York City for the privilege of hosting an event that attracted nearly 10 million people and exhibits from 24 nations.

We never looked back.

Now, you can order a Starbucks coffee in more than 50 countries from Hong Kong to Hungary. Microsoft has operations on five continents, and its software runs computers across the globe. From downtown Seattle, Expeditors International acts as a travel agent for freight around the world.

Unlike virtually any other politically blue city, Seattle is bracketed by military bases. Among them are Navy installations that police the 10,000-mile global supply chain. A chunk of that comes through the Port of Seattle. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport offers flights to Amsterdam, Dubai, London and Shanghai, among other cities.

Walk around and you hear a babel of foreign languages — and not just in the enchanting Chinatown International District with such gems as the Uwajimaya supermarket.

A few years ago, I talked on Third Avenue to a group of Russian sailors on a goodwill visit with their warship, something unthinkable during the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War. They wanted to know the way to Pike Place Market.

Does all this make Seattle a global city? Does it even matter?

Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times

Seattle is home to tech startups and corporations that heralded the emergent information age and created their own ecosystem of ideas and entrepreneurs. Along the way, social media exploded, making it possible to connect with each other in myriad ways, any time and all the time. But is all of that disconnecting us as much as it is connecting us?

Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times

As the city named after Chief Sealth looks forward to its place on the world stage of technology and trade, it also looks to its past, considering which parts of its identity it is willing to sacrifice — if any — in order to become a truly global city.

This is treacherous ground. Plenty of native Seattleites miss their gritty old, big small town. “World class” can be fighting words. When local newspaper columnist Emmett Watson coined the term “Lesser Seattle” somewhat tongue-in-cheek a few decades ago, many people took it seriously — and still do.

But this has always been a city on the make.

It never planned to settle for being like Portland, a modest, well-planned place where “young people go to retire.” And it was never going to allow Tacoma’s destiny to interfere with it becoming the Pacific Northwest’s leading city. Seattle has had its eyes on the wider world for more than a century. In 1909 it hosted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition with those eyes open wide.

As a result, Seattle has become much more international than most other metropolitan areas of its size in the United States.

For example, students from more than 98 countries are enrolled in the Seattle Public Schools, speaking 129 languages and dialects. Ten percent of undergraduates at the University of Washington come from foreign countries

According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, 18.6 percent of the city population was foreign-born. That compares with 12.8 percent nationally. Nearly 24 percent spoke a language at home other than English.

All our major companies, and many smaller firms, do business internationally. With prime clusters in aerospace, software and life sciences, we attract some of the planet’s top talent. We’re also one of the leading centers for game development. Gold-standard reports have ranked Seattle as one of the world’s top cities for startup businesses.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with headquarters across from where the world’s fair took place at Seattle Center, is ground zero for multibillion-dollar efforts to cure diseases and enhance global health. Its decisions sway governments and influence international policies.

Still, being a “world city” or “global city,” terms that emerged as globalization took hold in the 1990s, carries a specific connotation.

Sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod identified only three from the United States in her influential 1999 book, “New York, Los Angeles, Chicago: America’s Global Cities.”

These, she wrote, “occupy hegemonic positions in the spatial structure, aesthetics, economy, changing demography, contentious politics, and evolving meanings of American history.”

Without so much as a “I left my heart” to San Francisco, much less Seattle, Abu-Lughod called those three cities “perhaps the most impressive objects our culture has produced.”

In 2008, Foreign Policy magazine commissioned the consulting firm A.T. Kearney and the Chicago Council on World Affairs to produce a global cities index. They identified 60 cities, topped by New York, London, Paris and Tokyo.

Seattle was not among them.

The Mori Memorial Foundation in Japan ranked cities using 70 indicators including the economy, research and development, “cultural interaction,” livability, environment and accessibility. Vancouver, B.C., made the cut. Seattle didn’t.

We did come in No. 29 in the Global City Competitiveness Index assembled last year by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

But you won’t find us on prestigious lists compiled by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC) at Loughborough University in England. The think tank analyzed the “intercity connectivities” of the planet’s most important “strategic places.”

New York and Los Angeles were the only U.S. cities in the top 20.

Looking at “intensive” and “extensive” globalization in a second study, researchers honored a dozen American cities, but not Seattle.

GaWC has sliced the categories even more finely and precisely, and here we get a better sense of Seattle’s standing. This is where the term “Alpha City” was born to distinguish the most powerful places.

For example, only London and New York are Alpha++ cities. Eight more are Alpha+, and the rankings continue on down. Seattle is considered a Beta city, among 19 that “link moderate economic regions into the world economy.”

We’re not just below New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but also San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Miami, Boston, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston.

Lesser Seattle, indeed.

Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times

As the pressure to look outward and ahead intensifies, the sense of having a balanced lifestyle diminishes. Do we want to become a workaholic, cold society too busy to care about the needs of others, much less ourselves? Too busy to play? There is much to lose, including an appreciation for the incredible beauty all around us.

All this attention has been paid to world cities because of their rise in importance in a globalized, complex and highly interconnected economy. They are where the most talented people and capital go, where the key decisions are made. In many ways, they are eclipsing national governments in influence.

As Foreign Policy put it, to be a global city “means power, sophistication, wealth and influence.”

According to the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, the world’s top 100 metropolitan areas generate half of the planet’s total economic output. The top 20 are responsible for 30 percent.

So what does Seattle lack?

One big factor is population. Most Alpha cities are huge.

Seattle is the nation’s 22nd largest city and 15th largest metro area. But people alone don’t make the difference. For example, Dhaka in Bangladesh holds more than 15 million souls, but ranks below Birmingham, Ala., on the GaWC measures. Amsterdam and Brussels are Alpha cities with smaller populations — but the former is a national capital and the latter is capital of the European Union.

Population does translate into hefty economic output. Leading cities also have large populations with many high-skilled individuals and innovative “ecosystems.” Their size acts as an accelerant on key areas measured by the Global Cities Index: Business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement.

We are not the critical trade link between America and Asia. That’s Los Angeles. Nor do we hold the world’s commanding heights of technological innovation. The Bay Area does, at least for now.

Also, Seattle is not a financial center, an essential requirement to play big in the financialized economy. Although the city and metro area boast some brands and influential companies recognized around the world, (Amazon, anyone?) Seattle is not a corporate hub on the level of Dallas or Atlanta. Nor are we the center of the global oil industry such as Houston.

Financial hubs and corporate headquarters generate not only great wealth but also political power. As generators, they have an outsized role in deciding how capital will be deployed.

Another limitation is higher education. Universities are engines of innovation and draw the creative class to them. The University of Washington is one of America’s great public institutions, and a few fine smaller universities are also here. But we lack the critical mass of multiple eminent universities found in the top global cities.

Still, Seattle is no slouch. All of its aspirations and efforts have helped it acquire a unique status:

No other North American city or metropolitan area outside of Vancouver ranks as well as Seattle for its size. We punch above our weight.

Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times

“Lesser Seattle,” that sense that we live in a small big town, is being buried under the footprint of an ever-expanding building boom. The world is in our view, but as we invite more people and ideas, we wonder if we risk losing the ties that bind us — our sense that we are special people in a special place.

This ability to reach beyond our present reality may prove the point that being a global city is partly a state of mind. Seattle is well aware that it is perched on the Pacific Rim in the Pacific Century.

Along with substantial economic assets, its tolerance, culture, quality of life and spectacular setting keep attracting smart people and entrepreneurs — as well as tourists with money. Seattle is also blessed with civic stewards who have the means to match some expansive motives.

Phoenix, on the other hand, is a much more populous city that hits well below its weight. Phoenix is inward looking. Its economy is based on speculative real estate, low-wage jobs and the hope that people will keep moving there. It has gained international notoriety for anti-immigrant policies, even though the city itself is more liberal. The ethos is to be left alone in the sunshine.

But the world will not leave any city alone. You either compete or decline.

Seattle is facing a crossroads with two of its world-class economic clusters.

Boeing, its headquarters now in Chicago and operating under a different corporate priority than “old Boeing,” is moving to diversify its operations outside the Puget Sound region.

While it still employed more than 84,000 in Washington state last fall, that might change radically in the years ahead, particularly given a downturn or labor trouble. We might hold our own. But the uncertainty is historic.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, which played such a critical role in our rise as a tech center from the 1980s on, is at its own turning point. Although it continues to make vast amounts of money, it is under pressure on a host of fronts and will soon be getting a new chief executive officer.

Another trouble spot is the Port of Seattle, which lost about 25 percent of its container traffic to Tacoma even as the Northwest’s overall market share is declining. The shipping business is changing rapidly, with larger ships, a wider Panama Canal set to open in 2015 making shipments from Asia to the East and Gulf coasts easier, and competition from Prince Rupert and Vancouver, B.C.

While none of this makes disaster or even contraction inevitable, it will require all of the leadership, reinvention skills, moxie and luck that have helped Seattle in the past.

The world is much more competitive now both at the bottom and the top. It is not flat, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argued. It is, as urban scholar Richard Florida put it, “spiky.”

In other words, some places will do well and many more won’t, especially on a planet with 7 billion people, a surplus of labor and the disruptions of climate change and competition for resources.

Beyond a sensitivity to business costs, Seattle can’t compete with full-on cheap. Even China is losing manufacturing jobs to less expensive countries. And we wouldn’t want to operate in this environment, even in the United States. Cheap always brings poor incomes and low opportunity for most, along with high levels of social ills.

That’s not to say we aren’t facing pressure from below. Don’t hate South Carolina for being hungry for Boeing jobs. “Free trade” destroyed its textile industry and tens of thousands of jobs. It had some of the worst unemployment in the nation during the recession.

As I have written elsewhere, the world wants what we have and is making a run for it.

One factor that intensifies this phenomenon is that even before the Great Recession, things were locking into place in these barely United States. For a variety of reasons, most cities and states are finding it much harder to substantially improve their situation. It reflects the struggle most individuals are facing.

The pie is not growing the way it did for most of the last half of the 20th century. So the fight for pieces of the pie, even crumbs, is turning nasty.

The housing bubble concealed this ugly trend. Now the slow, brittle recovery is making it worse.

One example is a study from the Kauffman Foundation that showed the top American technology hubs in 2010 were largely unchanged from 1990. Seattle moved up from 12th to fifth, but few new players emerged. What the study signaled is that nobody is going to become “the next Silicon Valley.”

Many communities will be concentrating on keeping or reinventing what they have.

For us here, the most serious rivalry we face is from above.

Seattle is competing on quality, high skills, innovation, ideas and capital. The rivals are those global cities, which tend to keep consolidating power. We also must contend with other Beta cities such as Guangzhou, Caracas, Ho Chi Minh City, Cape Town and Minneapolis.

We will likely never be an Alpha world city. Given the other things we value, we wouldn’t want the downsides — especially in population.

But we are a world city. We must be to thrive. And that’s a good thing.

Jon Talton is economics columnist for The Seattle Times. Marcus Yam is a Seattle Times staff photographer.