The Catbird Seat – by J.M. Eberhart
Looking to Seattle’s past and future from above the iconic public market
From the catbird seat at Pike Place Market, I like to watch the docks.
It’s a reminder that blue collar work still exists in this increasingly central locus of the technology industry. The same reason I peer through the chain link fence along the ship canal path at hulking shapes in dry dock and watch the electric shimmer of the welders, forklifts spinning and wheeling and beeping, and the same reason I stop in the woods, the working forest, and poke around, trying to decipher the markings on the trees. To make sure I don’t forget. Down at the docks towering cranes loom like preposterous metal giraffes over ships the size of small towns, pulling, stacking, and moving metal boxes while 18 wheelers roar along frontage and BNSF engines rumble through the rail yard. Big data and cloud computing may be surging, but industry isn’t dead yet.
For me the catbird seat is the Alaska Trade Building at 1917 1st Avenue, a brick and mortar artifact from the age of loggers, grifters, and hookers. I work in an office there. Situated almost directly above iconic Pike Place Market, the four story historic building lies at the boundary of downtown and Belltown, open to sweeping views of Elliott Bay on one side and dwarfed by more modern skyscrapers on the other. Following our previous location hidden away in the ground floor of an anonymous apartment building near the University of Washington, the Pike Place location has proven almost unfathomably cool. Not only close to dining, cultural attractions and easily accessible by transit, but, as a former coworker put it, “with all this exposed brick and ductwork we’re liable to turn into a trendy tapas restaurant.”
Almost immediately the bosses claimed the window seats, and while senior leadership has expressed dismay at onshore flow in the work environment, during meetings or conferences when those desks sit empty we open the windows and luxuriate in the fresh air, the proximity to Pike Place. The sounds of the market and the smells of the Kells fryer and Cantina de San Patricio swell up the alley and suffuse our floor of the building. The market is a sort of welcome intrusion, chatter and aromas rising in the narrow notch of cobblestoned Post Alley, climbing the fire escape, sliding through the open windows and expanding into the corners of the corrals. I sometimes feel as though the voices and scents wafting from below activate something deep and vestigial within the mind, something from the Old World that has been lost to generations.
The view out of the windows facing Puget Sound mostly hypnotizes with familiar rhythms. State ferries to Kitsap County glide predictably back and forth throughout the day. The water taxi speedily shuttles commuters and tourists between downtown and Seacrest Dock. Bulk carriers anchor in the periphery of the bay. The slowly changing seasons are inscribed upon the maple trees of West Seattle across the water, visible only in aggregate as a mass of green, yellow, or brown as summer gives way to fall gives way to winter. Sometimes a police boat screams through the harbor, and occasionally a fireboat runs a drill, spinning in place, firing great jets of water in furious parabolas, preparing for a massive, maritime conflagration, perhaps on a gigantic container ship of the sort that regularly arrives in the harbor.
On a typical week, the mundanity of gravel barges and passenger ferries is broken a few times by one of these stupefyingly large cargo ships. It is faintly alarming to look out the window and suddenly see a ship that seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of the otherwise expansive Elliott Bay. Tugs escort the mammoth vessel past the office windows and into anchorage. Imagine parallel parking a car, only the car is at sea and itself carrying many thousands of other cars for delivery to dealerships across the region or who knows where. Logos such as Hyundai or China Shipping Line, sometimes just initials MSC or APL or OOCL, emblazon the sides of these metal mountains, stacked high with colorful boxes that will be unloaded, restacked, and scattered to the winds. No fanfare is evident to the general, landlocked public. Simply look up, look out, and you may see one of these goliaths plodding in to the port or out to sea. Or you might see nothing at all.
The windows on the other side of the building reveal something very different. Glass and steel reach for the sky with astonishing speed. Concrete forms, scaffolding, and fleets of construction cranes dominate the overhead view. The luxury tower next to our building was recently finished, with many more on the way. Vacant lots transform overnight into pits, ringed by fences draped in view-obstructing fabric and marked with general contractor logos. One day on my walk from the train station I was startled to realize that, where to the best of my recollection a building had stood just a week earlier, excavators were lifting the last bits of rubble into dump trucks. Across similar sites in the increasingly recognizable life cycle of a redeveloped city block, concrete shear walls inch skyward out of the encircled pits, now filled with a foundation, like the old computer game in which a snake increases in length one pixel at a time. Ironworkers follow, assembling the exoskeleton, and glassworkers hang sheathing that hides the carpentry and mechanical work from sidewalk-bound onlookers like myself.
The results are transformative. Amazon’s Doppler and Day One skyscrapers soar over the blurred boundary between downtown and South Lake Union and a line of Ubers four deep snarls 6th Avenue under the testicular bio-spheres: a sleepy neighborhood of warehouses, vacant lots, and historic laundries abutting downtown transformed into a temple for the ruthless efficiency of ecommerce. Bearded tech bros adorned with messenger bags and AWS shirts navigate temporary sidewalks amid ripped up pavement and cement trucks, swarming the public realm beneath glass and steel pillars that often disappear into thick, low-lying marine clouds. Young professionals spill out of new and crush loaded rapid transit buses like water cresting a weir.
Jeff Bezos once quipped, “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” I wonder if the same could be said for Seattle.
In this new knowledge economy of web apps and cloud computing – where visionary tech companies disrupt each other’s disruptions, gleefully tearing down the institutions of 20th century human existence to be replaced with palm-sized computers, server farms, and artificial intelligence – the continued existence of longshoremen, sea captains or shipbuilders seems almost quaint. Hasn’t Bezos created autonomous ships or ironworking drones? Won’t the sea captain of the future look more like a Nest thermostat than a grizzled, salty sea dog? If we’ve learned anything from The Flintstones and The Jetsons, it’s that there were no white collar jobs in the past, and there are no blue collar jobs in the future.
But I don’t know. I stand at the window, watching. A ship hailing from the Marshall Islands is moored at the grain terminal; the Harbor Island slips sit empty. A state ferry loads cars at Colman dock. A bulk carrier sits motionless across the bay. The water taxi sprints to West Seattle while jet planes fly low overhead on final approach to Sea-Tac or Boeing Field. Below in the market, vendors set up in stalls sell produce, fish, trinkets. Sausages and cheese and spices. Honey, preserves, art prints, bouquets. The happy hour crowd orders cocktails and appetizers; the hard luck crowd smokes weed at Steinbrueck Park. The selfies never stop outside the original Starbucks.
On my worst days I think that downtown is for tourists, lawyers, and homeless. On my best days I think that downtown will save us all.
One afternoon we were smoked out by a fire next door in the upper floors of the Butterworth Building, an old and long abandoned mortuary rumored to be haunted. Fire engines arrived in a flurry of sirens and the authorities closed the entire block. Smoke billowed out of the windows. One engine raised a ladder to the roof, and fire fighters in full suits carrying oxygen tanks and axes charged in the front door. Hoses sprung taught and energized and it seemed like water was rushing everywhere. An onlooker from the market below captured a terrifying image of a fireball shooting out of the window next to the one I had been sitting behind. A crowd formed on the sidewalk and was shooed to the corner of the block. Eventually the smoke died down. The fire was extinguished. I was shaking with adrenaline and went home early, rather than wait to see if our building would be cleared for reentry.
The next day the market was once again bustling, noisy, aromatic. The line out of the ever-popular Biscuit Bitch spilled onto the sidewalk, like it always does, next to our building. Tour groups milled about Steinbrueck Park and business travelers snapped quick cell phone photos of the market sign. Right on schedule at 3 o’clock a standing wave of traffic formed on the viaduct, and, far below, the BNSF tracks screeched and howled and shook with engines and boxcars and tanks of crude. The state ferries dutifully sailed back and forth, churning away from Pioneer Square and streaking towards the towering, rugged majesty of the Olympic Peninsula, disappearing out of sight around corners into sleepy inlets and harbors before reappearing and returning. Cranes plucked containers off cargo ships at the seaport, and a few bulk carriers sat motionless, anchored out of the shipping lanes. Maybe the weather cleared and Mount Rainier commandeered the skyline above the stadiums, or maybe the ever present and frustrating marine layer refused to yield. Behind us, Amazon kept up its relentless march, and tireless programming savants with company issued backpacks continued writing the computer code that scaffolds the modern economy.
Hip professionals tasted samples at the wine bar downstairs. Crowds of commuters amassed a few blocks away, waiting for buses entombed in gridlock. Young women with yoga mats hurried along the sidewalks. Awkward young men bought flowers for their dates.
Another ship entered the bay.