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Terry Street, South Lake Union, in the heart of Seattle's Biotech District. July 2011. Photo by Marcie Sillman.

Terry Street, South Lake Union, in the heart of Seattle's Biotech District. July 2011. Photo by Marcie Sillman.


Changing The Sound: The New Dreamers

Marcie Sillman

Seattle, 2011: The city seems light years away from the frontier town Bill Boeing found when he moved here in 1908. Gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers have replaced two–story brick and terra–cotta commercial buildings. Near the south shore of Lake Union, men and women splice genes where people once split logs.

Many traces of old Seattle have been demolished to make way for the global corporations that now call this city home. But at its heart, is 21st century Seattle really so different from what it was 100 years ago? We explore that question in the final installment of our series "Changing the Sound."


I'm Marcie Sillman.

Sound: (bar noise)

It's happy hour at the Brave Horse Tavern in South Lake Union, five o'clock on a Thursday, and the joint is jumping.

Brave Horse doorman: "We've had 171 people come in since five."

Young professionals hoist beer steins and sample freshly baked pretzels. Amazon ID cards dangle from lanyards that hang around many of their necks. The e–tailer's new headquarters are right next door to the tavern. Other Brave Horse patrons are researchers and technicians for nearby biotech companies.

Simonetti: "Initially, when we moved here, four–plus years ago, it was hard to get lunch. You had to get on a bus, whatever."

Marty Simonetti is president of VLST. His company researches new treatments for autoimmune diseases. In the short time VLST has been in South Lake Union, Simonetti has seen a flock of respected restaurateurs relocate to the neighborhood. They're hoping to attract the relatively affluent high tech crowd that spills out of local labs and offices at lunch time.

Simonetti: "Now, within the area there's the Institute for Systems Biology, you have Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the University of Washington School of Medicine down the street, Fred Hutch around the corner, and a number of other companies in this area."

Like mushrooms after a steady rain, new companies seem to spring up overnight in South Lake Union. Even the name, South Lake Union, is new. For years, the area between the northern edge of downtown Seattle and Lake Union was called Cascade. It was home to small factories and blue collar support businesses. And the people who worked for them —

Wagner: "South Lake Union had a lot more houses, but they were simple blue collar workers' houses; they were nice but they were small."

Dick Wagner founded the Center for Wooden Boats more than 40 years ago. The nonprofit rents out rowboats and sailboats from a rustic wooden marina on Lake Union's south shore. From a bench on his dock, Wagner has had a front row seat for the neighborhood's rapid transformation.

Wagner: "Most of the buildings were two, three stories high, masonry, that were once industrial buildings and now had become warehouses."

Dick Wagner first came to Seattle in 1956 for a summer job. He went back East to finish college, then moved here for good in 1957. The New Jersey native says he fell in love with the Northwest landscape and with the spirit of the people he met.

Wagner: "All the people of my age, in their spare time, they were either building a cabin in the mountains, or building an airplane in the backyard, or building a boat. Everybody was a pioneer in those days."

Wagner was drawn to that DIY spirit. More than that, he loved the fact that the people he met welcomed fresh ideas.

Wagner: "I grew up in the New York metropolitan area where everybody loved to argue about anything. They'd argue about politics, they'd argue about religion, and here, everybody said, this is my idea, but what do you think? It shocked me at first."

Simonetti: "I never lived anywhere where people are so cooperative across company lines."

VLST President Marty Simonetti says that's one of the reasons Seattle has attracted so many biotech startups.

Simonetti: "They love to be the first, they love to be new. But most importantly, at the end of the day, they are focused on getting things done. I think that's why you see the successes you see here."

It took more than a can–do spirit to transform the aging, blue–collar Cascade into gleaming high–tech South Lake Union. You can trace part of the change back to former Mayor Greg Nickels. When he took office in 2001, the dot–com boom had just gone bust. When Nickels looked around for something to jumpstart Seattle's sagging economy, he landed on the Cascade's nascent health sciences scene.

Nickels: "I sat down with the CEOs of all the companies that would meet with me, one on one, to see what it was that would allow them to create more jobs."

These CEOs told him they wanted city government to help create the urban version of an industrial park. Greg Nickels agreed the Cascade was the place to make that happen. Microsoft co–founder and entrepreneur Paul Allen had amassed a significant real estate portfolio in the area. The land had been intended for a grand park called the Commons. But voters turned down the idea, twice, in the early 1990s. So, Allen's property sat idle, waiting for the next big thing. The biotech companies said they'd put down roots in the Cascade, if the city could rezone and improve it.

Nickels "That's why we had a streetcar, that's why we invested in a park and a playground nearby, why the Mercer Street transformation is so important. It sends a signal this is an area where there will be public investment and we want to create and focus on jobs."

Fox: "What's troubling to me about this, it highlights the degree to which large interests can shape the character of our city, regardless of the kind of impact on existing neighborhoods."

John Fox is a longtime low–income housing advocate. He directs a group called the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Fox believes what's happening in the Cascade is a modern day version of 1960s urban renewal. He charges it has led to the wholesale demolition of an existing neighborhood to make way for a more affluent community.

Fox: "To me this is a classic example that was predominantly working class, predominantly low income, full of retirees. And then to just view it as a tabula rasa, as if it is an empty slate and there to be remade in their image, that's troubling."

Even if South Lake Union hadn't morphed into a biotech hub, there's no way to know that it would have been preserved for light industry and modest housing. Historian Lorraine McGonaghy argues that, throughout Seattle's modern history, Lake Union and the neighborhoods that surround it have been a kind of cauldron for new ideas and new businesses.

McGonaghy: "Almost everything that's on this lake was innovative when it began. The coal gasification plant, the steam plant where Zymogenetics is — talk about invasion and succession — Lake Union Drydock which opened when the Ship Canal opened. These were innovative, forward–looking enterprises when they began."

McGonaghy says from the time the Denny Party arrived in 1851, Seattle has attracted people with big ambitions.

McGonaghy: "I think there's a self selection about the people who are here. I don't think innovation and creativity are a thing of the past, it's very much a thing of the present."

It's hard to pinpoint a single reason why people like Bill Boeing and Bill Gates thrive here. Could be it's Seattle's live–and–let–live attitude. Or maybe it goes back to the American myth, that heading West will bring new opportunities. Modern day pioneers don't have to make the same arduous journey the Denny Party took 170 160 years ago. But there is something liberating about leaving your old life behind you.

[Ed.: Transcript has been edited and differs from the broadcast version. Years changed from 170 years to 160 years. (09/29/2011)]

Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels says that willingness to reinvent ourselves, to think up new ways of doing things, is part of what makes Seattle the city it has become.

Nickels: "Starbucks may be the most creative business we have, learning to charge three dollars for a fifty–cent cup of coffee. It's a very creative city that really looks to the future."

Whether that future is about selling a cup of coffee, a new rock band, or a cure for cancer.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Music credit: "Come As You Are," Nirvana (Unplugged).

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