A Long Walk through Downtown Seattle Offers a
Peek into the Soul of Washington's Emerald City
None of us guys sharing the hotel elevator will make Esquire's best-dressed list. One wears a T-shirt and tweed jacket, two sport polo shirts and khakis, and I'm clad in a pile sweater and a pair of Levi's. They are bound for a business conference, and I'm going for a walk -- a long stroll through the soul of Seattle.
Of all the ways to explore a city, I believe foot power is best. The slower and closer to the ground I go, the more I can experience. On my 12-hour jaunt, I will not only see the Emerald City's sights, but I will also hear its sounds, smell its aromas, taste its flavors and touch its textures. Best of all, I'll have the opportunity to meet some of the 3.3 million folks who live in this corner of the Pacific Northwest.
From the downtown Sheraton, I turn toward the waterfront, which lies seven blocks away. Even though traffic is sparse at 7:35 in the morning, I notice nearly everyone obeys crosswalk signals. Either this is a city of law-abiding citizens, or police paranoia runs rampant.
My first stop is Seattle's famed Pike Place Market. Started in 1907, this nine-acre National Historic District claims to be the nation's oldest, continually operating farmers' market. Its collection of fishmongers, greengrocers, craftspeople, commercial merchants and street performers draw an average of 27,000 visitors on a summer weekday such as this.
Fortunately, few shoppers have yet arrived. Drivers unload goods, retailers stack racks of produce, and rubber-aproned seafood dealers fling fresh fish onto crushed ice. Since this is where leading restaurants buy their fare, I may be gazing at tonight's dinner.
"People take these home on the plane," market employee Paul Levitan says, pointing to a headless salmon. "You can even carry it onboard."
I try to envision lugging a dead fish through airport security. It would probably smell better than my shoeless feet at the metal detector.
Across from Pike Place stands world's first Starbucks. Built in 1971, this one still sports the original logo in which the company mermaid exposes more than Janet Jackson.
"Is it a privilege to be assigned to Starbucks Number One?" I ask Sean, the barista.
"Of course it is!" he says laughing. "I've got a full time job on the side, and I pay them just to work here." Seattleites may not jaywalk, but they do have a sense of humor.
The sky is clear and the day warm. I head northwest past a grassy park where a platoon of apparently homeless folks emerge from sleeping bags. One of them studies the business section of The Seattle Times.
Beyond lies Belltown, a neighborhood featuring fine restaurants surrounded by homes, apartments, condos and townhouses. The streets are clean, trash is absent and a floral bouquet perfumes the air. It wafts from the local P-Patch, one of Seattle's 46 city-sponsored, community gardening plots.
"People missed their gardens at home," a passerby explains. "When they moved downtown, they started growing their flowers and vegetables here.
Reversing direction at the waterfront, I head southeast along a broad, seaside walkway. Gritty cement guardrails separate me from the sea, their support pillars decorated with miniature ship wheels and propellers. A caressing breeze carries the nautical scent of saltwater and creosote.
Shops and restaurants lie interspersed along the sidewalk, and soon the aroma of fresh bread triggers hunger pangs. Thumbing my thighs at Dr. Atkins, I stop in the Seattle Sourdough Baking Company for a carbohydrate fix.
"The sign says this is the best sourdough in town. Is that true?" I ask.
"Yes. That's what the sign says," agrees the matronly clerk.
She offers a sample, and I bite into the leavened bread that was once the staple of Western mining camps from California to the Klondike. Tangy, chewy and deliciously sour, the dough stands as advertised.
A few blocks later, I stop in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, a century-old enterprise that blends a carnival-style curio museum with a kitschy souvenir shop. Retail shelves feature puzzle boxes, fake shrunken heads and pennies inscribed with the Ten Commandments while walls display a cornucopia of the bizarre. There is a petrified dog, a stuffed platypus and a pickled pig born with eight legs and three mouths.
My favorite is Sylvester, a mummified male recovered from the Arizona desert in 1895. A bloodstained bullet hole graces the stomach of this middle-aged man. Sylvia, a gaping-mouthed, mommy mummy from the highlands of Central America, stands nearby. A noisy six-year-old shows more exuberance for the stuffed tarantula sharing the enclosure than he does for either of the sun-dried decedents.
Back on the street, I turn inland and walk toward the city's new football and baseball stadiums. Pioneer Square, Seattle's original downtown, lies a few blocks away.
A century ago, this once vibrant business district began degrading into a blight of cheap bars and flophouses. In the 1960s, the city planned to level buildings for parking lots and a highway, but civic pride interceded. Renovation replaced wrecking balls and Seattle's brick-and-mortar heritage was saved.
Occidental Park, a tree-shaded cobblestone plaza, centers the neighborhood. Around it, brick buildings that once housed merchants and tradesmen now hold restaurants, bars, shops, galleries and bookstores.
On the first Thursday of each month, Pioneer Square hosts an art walk that attracts large crowds. At first, only commercial galleries were to be involved. Now, street vendors show up to sell less-expensive, home-style art.
"The gallery owners are getting pissy about it and saying that they don't want cheap little crafty things in front of their galleries," explains Chris Buening of Gallery 110. "Protesting Seattleites are getting pissy back at the gallery owners. It's an interesting little dilemma."
"Who do you think's going to win?" I ask.
"I think they'll set up something close by so people will be able to do the galleries, then walk a couple of blocks to see crafty, homemade items."
As a gateway to the Orient, the Seattle area is home to a large Asian population, and I had been told not to miss the nearby International District. There, dragons hang from lampposts, streetlights mimic Chinese lanterns and a shady city park bears a Japanese theme. Even so, I'm disappointed. Compared to the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York, the area seems too tame, too modern and too uncrowded. Disappointed, I turn toward city center.
Back near Pioneer Square, I stop at the Smith Tower. When this 42-story structure opened July 4, 1914, it was the fourth-tallest building in the world and the loftiest skyscraper west of Chicago. I take one of the building's original Otis elevators up to the 35th floor observation deck where I must immediately buy a ticket for the ride down.
"What happens if I lose it?" I ask. "Do I stay up here?"
"You have to take the stairs down, sir," the elevator operator replies. "We cannot keep you here, you know."
Carefully securing my descent pass, I go outside where a grilled walkway allows a gull's eye view of Seattle. I have the vantage virtually to myself on this throat-drying, sunny afternoon.
Not wanting to emulate shriveled-up Sylvester, I make a thirst-quenching stop at Collins Pub where four outside tables allow alfresco rehydration. As I sip suds by the sidewalk, it occurs to me that including my morning elevator ride, I have not seen one Seattle man neck-tied in a business suit. It's as if the entire town is practicing casual Friday. Only it's Wednesday.
"Where are the costumes of commerce?" I ask the bartender. "I spent years as a Brooks Brothers-clad banker. I want to see others suffer."
"Oh, they're around," he assures me. "You'd see a lot more if you went up a few blocks."
I continue into the heart of the financial district where concrete-and-glass monoliths tower over wide boulevards. Still, I glimpse nary a male choking under a tie. The homeless man I saw reading the business section is probably an unemployed necktie salesman.
To the north, beyond the high-rise offices, high-end stores and high-rate hostelries, lies the Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World's Fair. Here stands some of the city's more unusual architecture including the filigree-arched Pacific Science Center natural history museum, basketball's squatty Key Arena, which resembles a concrete revival tent, and the new Experience Music Project, a tunes-meets-technology repository built in a curvy, color-reflective meld of sculpture and structure.
The center's most famous architectural monument is the 605-foot-tall Space Needle. This pie plate on stilts has become one of the most identifiable city symbols in the world. I ride a windowed elevator to its observation deck.
Below stretches the city, its studded downtown surrounded by the lush greenery that inspired the Emerald nickname. I linger, watching the sun creep behind the Olympic Mountains. The sky glows orange, then fades to indigo. When city lights and heavenly stars prick the oncoming darkness, I figure it's time to descend and head back.
I walk to the Seattle Center Monorail. In 1962, this mile-long marvel promised to be the transportation system of the 21st century. Like many views of futures past, this one never quite materialized.
Today, the Naugahyde-upholstered conveyance seems so '60ish. I almost expect to see go-go dancers boarding in plastic boots and miniskirts, but instead, it's a uniformed driver who comes onboard. Jolting down an elevated beam at 40 mph, he takes only two minutes and 12 seconds to reach the downtown station.
Back at the Sheraton, I cross the lobby to the Gallery Lounge for a nightcap. Taking a seat in the business-class bar, I look around. There is still no one clad in a suit and tie.