Charles Johnson Reflects On Seattle

In Seattle, the sky melts steadily between October and March. Kevin Cruff / Corbis

Seattle has many profiles, but for the last 35 years, the side of "The Rainy City" I’ve known best is the one she shows to artists transplanted from elsewhere. It is a remarkably liberal city—often called a "city of neighborhoods," residential and industrial, radiating out from a relatively small downtown area—with a distinguished history of supporting progressive causes. These include such highlights as the Seattle General Strike in 1919 (the first official general strike in United States history); "The Battle of Seattle" in 1999 when as many as 75,000 people converged on the city from around the world to protest the World Trade Organization’s plans for globalization; and, as I write these words, the Occupy Seattle protest—an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City—is ongoing in Westlake Park.

In its cultural texture, Seattle has always struck me as being like a less-expensive version of San Francisco. Like Rome, both cities were built on seven hills, and are well-acquainted with earthquakes. Both once burned to the ground. Both have steep streets, which cause considerable chaos when car-congested Seattle experiences a heavy snow that shuts down schools and makes some hilly neighborhoods treacherous to drive. And both, after early periods of ethnic conflict (in Seattle’s case, the anti-Chinese riots of 1885–86 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II), now feature racially diverse populations. Among these are Native Americans, whites who sprang from old Scandinavian and German stock, Chinese and Japanese, Senegalese and Eritreans, Hindus and Sikhs, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Jews, and blacks whose families moved into the territory in the years between Seattle’s establishment as a settlement in 1853 at the downtown location now known as Pioneer Square (the settlement was named after Chief Sealth of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes) and the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. That boom period turned a timber town into the main transport and supply point for miners in Alaska and the Yukon. According to archeologists, humans have lived here for 4,000 years.

But for any traveler or transplant, the most striking, everyday thing about Seattle is probably its typically West Coast laid-back attitude and frequently cited civility. William Gerberding, a former president of the University of Washington (which was just ranked by the Times of London as the 25th-best university in the world), once called the Northwest "this little civilized corner of the world." Perhaps that fabled civility is the reason so many young, single, iconoclastic, and open-minded people seem to thrive here. Some 57.7 percent of Seattle residents have bachelor’s degrees. It is listed as the country’s most literate city (often tying with Minneapolis for that distinction). The IT industry employs many people in health, medicine, and aerospace. It is one of America’s least religious cities, and strongest for supporting LGBT communities (right behind San Francisco). There are about 100 theatrical production companies here, about two dozen live-theater venues, and an opera house notable for its production of works by Richard Wagner.

Furthermore, there is pregiven poetry in the extravagant beauty right outside our windows: the looming snow cone called Mount Rainer and, west of the city, the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, desert lands, glacial lakes, 3,000 kinds of native plants, and hundreds of islands in Puget Sound. The presence of so many talented, local writers and -musicians—grunge, avant-garde jazz, rap, and indie rock are big here—is enough to make Seattle a magnet for creative types. But in addition to its art galleries and festivals, among them the yearly Bumbershoot and Bite of Seattle events, the city is synonymous with Starbucks coffee, Microsoft, the Space Needle, Boeing aircraft, the Experience Music Project that honors hometown hero Jimi Hendrix and, perhaps more than anything else, rain that has become nearly mythic in the popular imagination.

The truth is that Seattle’s climate is mild with wet winters, and cool, dry summers. The place has a Mediterranean feel. But, yes, starting in October the sky melts steadily until March. Coming to Seattle from the environs of Chicago, I learned to love the rain, the misty, meditative mood it creates and the moist evening air that sets parts of the geography to gleaming and hazes others in an atmosphere that is a perfect trope for the brooding inner climate of the creative imagination.