Seattle should start the new year by looking back in order to look forward. One hundred and fifty years ago, our sawmill town on Elliott Bay saw events that portended huge changes. In May 1864, a “cargo of brides” called the Mercer Girls arrived as potential mates for the male settlers, so the city could become self-propagating. In October of that year, Western Union—the Comcast of its time—brought the telegraph to Seattle, connecting us with the newly wired world.
Our city is built on immigration and technology, and rapid changes have regularly turned over our collective identity. At different points in our history, we have adopted different monikers, each revealing the contemporary thinking about what Seattle should be. A quick review of these phases and phrases has me wondering what’s next.
1. “New York Alki”
The community founded on Alki Point in 1851 was first named “New York,” an act of hubris that early settler Emily Inez Denny later wrote “no doubt killed the place, exotics do not thrive in the Northwest.” To call a collection of crude, damp cabins “New York” was pretty nervy. It was later changed to Alki, a Chinook word that means “by and by.” The combined names, New York Alki, suggested the city’s ambitions were to become a great city, eventually.
2. “Pittsburgh of the west”
Before we looked to cities such as Vancouver and Singapore as role models, Seattle fancied itself a new Pittsburgh—and we weren’t alone. That 19th-century city’s prosperity from steel and heavy industry also inspired Tacoma, Everett and even Kirkland. The Cascades had timber, coal and iron ore. The Pittsburgh dream pushed Seattle to build railroads and canals, and to develop its port. Yes, we were once a century’s major coal port, and no one opposed it back then.
3. “The Queen City”
This nickname—which lasted from the late 19th century to the mid-20th—suggested an image more regal than the actual grit of the port city. Seattle sought to become a Pacific jewel, a competitor with San Francisco for trans-Pacific commerce, sophistication and coastal dominance. We extolled our ties with the East and the North—as seen in the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. “Queen City” captured Seattle’s sense of itself as a global player.
4. “Jet City”
“The Queen” was finally deposed by the innovations of Boeing, and “Jet City” became our 1950s moniker. We were a town that moved from sea to sky. Boeing developed the first successful commercial passenger jets, and we’ve been an aerospace nexus ever since. Much like the telegraph did, our planes brought the world closer together, and our urban aspirations shifted from being resource-based to centering on technology.
5. “Lesser Seattle”
As “New York” indicated, the city has been shot through with audacity from day one. In the face of such hype, some Seattleites embraced the antidote of “Lesser Seattle,” a movement popularized by newspaper columnist Emmett Watson in the ’60s and ’70s to tamp down overreach. It urged us to remember our humble roots and bungalow neighborhoods, to not believe our own press releases. Lesser Seattle tried to keep the Jet City grounded.
6. “The Emerald City”
This title was birthed in the early ’80s from a contest. It captured some of the old ambitions of the Queen City, but emphasized our connection with the environment and perhaps the idea of Seattle as the capital of an Oz of quirky people. Seattle’s jets were now background noise to a sanitized city of sightseers, cruise ships, Frasier and Starbucks.
7. “The Next City”
It’s safe to say that none of the previous six monikers fit anymore. Some have dubbed Seattle “The Most Progressive City in America.” Others tout us as a “knowledge city,” filled with members of the globe-hopping “creative class,” and an incubator for new ideas and approaches, from biotech to computer games to legal pot. We’re more diverse, we’re filled with newcomers, and we still brim with ambition. In 2014, it’s time for a new hook.