Seattle is booming. Newcomers are swarming to town. A largely male workforce is spending big, driving up rents and real estate prices, but no one wants to complain as the good times roll; after all, the boom is following a bust that temporarily slowed Seattle’s growth plans. The transportation system is expanding—streetcars, bike lanes and new roadways are being built to handle the heavy traffic. Downtown is getting denser. The newly redeveloped waterfront is bustling. Nightlife is flourishing. The city is feeling its oats, certain that it is paving a path to a prosperous, global future.
Klondike gold rushers circa 1898; photo credit: Case V. Draper
Welcome to Seattle, in 1898.
Sounds a lot like the Seattle of 2015.
In ’98, men came here en route to the Alaskan gold rush. Today, they arrive in droves to work at Amazon. Back then, the bearded hordes wore Filson jackets and had visions of gold nuggets dancing in their heads. Today, the bearded hordes wear Filson jackets and mine consumer gold for the dominant online retailer. Both booms have reshaped the city, from its physical layout to its cultural and social life.
In ’98, the Klondike boom helped to remake downtown and Pioneer Square, still rebuilding after the great fire of 1889. The gold rush spurred investment in infrastructure, including a system of dedicated bike trails and lanes throughout the city, newly paved and graded streets, and an expanded rail system. In ’15, Amazon is the cornerstone of the makeover of South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle with its urban campuses and new headquarters, moving downtown, northward and upward. The city is investing in new and better bike lanes, attempting to fix the massive “Mercer Mess,” and the neighborhood has its own streetcar.
In ’98, more fortunes were made in Seattle than in the goldfields. Seattle’s prosperity didn’t come from the gold pan as much as selling gold pans, or fleecing the miners foolish enough to flash their dust in our local saloons. Seattle generated profits coming and going. Miners outfitted themselves here, then, if they were lucky, spent or invested their fortunes locally. George Carmack, for example, whose gold strike in 1896 launched the Klondike Gold Rush and made him a millionaire, built a fine home and was one of the first to buy a new rich man’s toy known as the automobile. He traveled Seattle streets in a steam-powered Locomobile, fitting for a town mad with gold fever.
In ’15, Amazon is hiring at high wages—software engineers can make $100K or more—and real estate and rents are headed upward. Amazon is its own gold rush: a retailer generating colossal revenues from consumer spending. It has created fortunes that have stayed in town; a friend who did well as an early Amazon employee lives in a big, classic home on Queen Anne that he has described as courtesy of “Uncle Jeff.” Instead of horseless carriages, company founder Jeff Bezos is fascinated with today’s edgy technology, such as drones to deliver packages and spaceships to take private citizens into space.
In ’98, Seattle’s “vice district” boomed as gold dust fueled prostitution, gambling and saloon fortunes. Brothels, casinos, dance halls and opium dens flourished. By 1911, Seattle was reported by the Federal Immigration Commission to be “one of the headquarters of the white slave trade” in America. Think of it as Deadwood on steroids. In ’15, according to a recent study, Seattle’s sex industry is undergoing an explosive period of growth with brothels replaced by social media and online sex sites like Backpage. Human trafficking is again a major concern; feeding libidos is a lucrative business.
There’s no evidence that this is due to Amazon men. Still, Seattle is full of socially awkward male techies. Some locals have complained that the Seattle dating scene has not been improved by the influx of the company’s “brogrammers.” Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur, writing in Politico, described the landscape as “feeling the rising tide of well-paid, educated men in boyish jeans, sneakers and T-shirts who would rather talk code than meet cute.” Writer Tricia Romano has documented her disappointment dating Amazon’s “lumbersexuals” who, she says, are young, self-absorbed, work-obsessed and talk “the kind of talk that shuts vaginas down cold.”
The thing about gold rushes is that they are temporary. The Klondike faded, though Alaska continues to yield gold (fish, oil, timber, late-night comedy fodder from Sarah Palin). We know from personal experience that tech bubbles can burst: The dot-com bust of 2000 is fresh in the memory. Some wonder whether or not the still-not-making-a-profit Amazon is the next to pop. Former Microsoft manager Jeff Reifman, a critic of tech morality, wondered in Geekwire about the company’s sustainability, quoting no less an authority than Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, who observed about Amazon, “If you are worth $150 billion, eventually somebody thinks you’re going to make $15 billion pre tax. They make about zero, and there’s a big gap between zero and 15.” We love those high-paying jobs, but how much is built on vapor?
Nothing is entirely reliable these days. Even old Boeing is leaving us, albeit in slow drips. Bubbles and busts might be all we have to hang on to in the modern economy. Each big startup can be a new Klondike. One thing is sure: Gold rushes past and present reshape the city. Even if Amazon fades, its mark is already permanent.