Seattle: A boom town risen from the ashes

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Seattle : Home to international industrial giants Boeing and Microsoft, as also to Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, the boom town of Seattle is preparing to celebrate the anniversary of a great fire that burnt it down completely 118 years ago.

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Thursday June 6, 1889 may have been a catastrophic day for its 20,000 residents when a fire started by an overturned glue pot in a carpentry shop that hot afternoon destroyed almost the entire business district, all railway terminals, and most of the wharves. But today it’s a day of celebration.

For it helped them build a picturesque Seattle from the ashes of a dirty town that was left washed with back flowing sewage twice a day during high tide. And they built it from top down rather than bottom up as conventional wisdom would have it to keep the town in business even as it was coming up.

Soon the population doubled making Seattle the largest city in Washington state as what was Front became the First Avenue by raising the street level by 8-10 feet (2.5-3 metres) and pushing back the water front by putting seven walls between the town and the sea and filling it with loads and loads of earth.

The anniversary of the great fire falls in June, but it’s again that keen business sense that has made the city fathers decide on celebrating it a couple of months later at the height of the tourist season.

The highlight of course then as now would be an underground tour of a few surviving storefronts and sidewalks entombed under what’s today Pioneer Square district starting from a restored 1890s saloon straight out of a western movie.

Seattle has seen its ups and downs since to emerge as a metropolitan region with 3.5 million people and 1.7 million jobs with aerospace being a key industry. Healthcare, biotechnology and information technology sectors too hold a strong position.

Employing close to 70,000 people in the area, the world’s leading space company Boeing also holds the distinction of having what’s recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest building in the world by volume – its factory at Everett about 50 km north of Seattle.

The 35-metre tall building over a 1,067m by 492m shop floor has four 91m by 25m and two 107m by 25 m hangar doors, about the size of an American football field. Officials claim 2,142 average-size homes (185 sq metres) could fit inside. So would 75 National Football League fields or 911 basketball courts. A 3.7 km warren of pedestrian tunnels runs underneath.

Boeing also boasts of having the largest digital graphic (mural) on the south side of the factory building as recognised by the Guinness Book of Records with an area of 9,290 sq metres.

It’s here that Boeing is building for Indian air carriers 138 planes including 37 Dreamliner 787s, Boeing’s all new green plane in 12 years. Air India has reserved 27 of them in a $11.1 billion order for 68 planes, Boeing ‘s single biggest order to date. Jet Airways has asked for ten Dreamliners in its order of 40 planes inclusive of ten booked by Sahara. Another 30 go to SpiceJet.

Boeing is now eyeing a major share of 856 planes worth $72.6 billion that Indian carriers would buy in the next 20 years, according to its projections.

The information technology sector is equally big in the region with about 6,000 companies, employing 68,000 people, accounting for $10 billion in annual wages and generating $25 billion in annual revenues. Over 33,000 of about 72,000 Microsoft employees worldwide are based in the greater Seattle area.

It’s also home to leading-edge companies in a number of other sectors. About 400 companies in the environmental industry employ 16,000 people in fields such as alternative energy and environmental engineering.

The arts as an economic sector ranks 5th among American cities. It includes a growing film and video industry as well as a music industry that in 2004 generated labour income of $266 million, total sales of $1.3 billion and 10,700 jobs in 3,000 music-related businesses.

Not to forget, Seattle is also the centre of a thriving gourmet coffee industry home as it is to Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee house chain with more than 13,000 retail locations worldwide and $7.786 billion revenue in 2006.

Now eyeing India, Starbucks named after a character in the novel Moby Dick, was opening a new store every workday in the 1990s, a pace that continued into the 2000s. While domestic growth has slowed down a bit since, it continues to expand in foreign markets with almost one third of Starbucks’ stores located abroad.

The first Starbucks was opened in Seattle in 1971 by three partners: English teacher Jerry Baldwin, history teacher Zev Siegel and writer Gordon Bowker. Located in the 100-year-old Pike Place Market built on the edge of a steep hill overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront, it still offers the weary traveller a warm cuppa in an ambience of quaint old world charm.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])