For reasons other than rain, it was gloomy when I made the 15-hour drive from BYU up to east of Seattle where my family had been living for more than a year.
In 1970, my dad was just finishing the liquidation of Philips Petroleum holdings as the company prepared to abandon the west coast following an antitrust ruling.
Adding to its gloom, Phillips also detected it was under investigation for illegal campaign contributions to 65 congressional candidates and two two Presidents.
Even more depressing, Seattle, less than eight years after opening its futuristic World’s Fair, was in deep in recession with Boeing alone shedding what would be nearly 60,000 jobs.
Nearly 1-in-5 residents were unemployed.
In April 1971, two realtors rented a roadside billboard alongside Sea-Tac Airport for $160 and tried to lighten the mood with a now famous message reading, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE – Turn out the lights.”
Amusing now, it wasn’t at all funny to the tens of thousands unemployed and tens of thousands more relying on their paychecks, along with thousands of reliant businesses.
As surly Seattleites scoffed at plans underway for his cross-state hometown to host a World’s Fair of its own, Danny O’Keefe was laying down an ode to Seattle, a decidedly downbeat version of his soon-to-be hit Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues.
…Find the sunshine, leave the rain…got my pills to ease the pain, can’t find a thing to ease the rain…
Everybody’s Leaving Town.”
It would be seven years before Microsoft, with just 13 employees, would relocate across Lake Washington in Bellevue.
Even the notoriety brought that fall by the mysterious disappearance of D.B. Cooper after hijacking a Northwest Orient Airlines flight bound for Seattle didn’t relieve its blues.
But hidden under that fog of doom and gloom, Seattle was also rediscovering its authenticity, the precursor to cool.
A year after that infamous billboard, three Bay area teachers (history, writing and English) would open the first Starbucks.
They adapted roasting techniques they had learned working in the late 1960s summers from artisanal pioneer Alfred Peet, in the historic building across from the 1930s mission-revival Mormon chapel in the “Ghetto Gourmet” neighborhood of Berkeley.
The first Starbucks was actually on Western Avenue about 400 feet northwest of Pike Place Market, which had been doing business since 1907, before moving directly across the street from the historic market, the site now celebrated as the original Starbucks.
The year after it opened, Mr. Coffee, the first automatic drip home coffee maker was introduced and ten years later drip coffee maker salesman, Howard Schultz lobbied Starbuck’s owners for a marketing job.
Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987, and more importantly, its roasting formula and its authenticity. Now a proven genius at marketing a brand, Schultz grasped that “it is authenticity that makes them last.”
Even 20,000 stores later, Starbucks zealously guards its “authenticity” going back to its roots including that historic store across the street from Pike Place Market, where lines of pilgrims run for blocks.
While they also took in the Space Needle on their first visit, it is Pike Place Market still perched on a steep bluff above Puget Sound these 100+ years, that my grandsons insist we revisit during frequent returns for family holidays.
During the 1920s, due to parking issues, city leaders flirted with relocating the Market but didn’t after protests. In 1963, the year after the World’s Fair, the City considered the idea of tearing it down for a hotel/apartment/office building and hockey arena.
Again, Seattle residents rose up in defense, but this time they also pushed for a protective historic preservation zone. By 1970, all of the Pike Place Market historic buildings were undergoing restoration, using original plans, blueprints and building materials.
Traveling to or through Seattle during the first half of my now concluded four-decade career in community-destination marketing, I stayed occasionally with friends living on Magnolia and Queen Ann hills.
As do the handful of other hills hemming Seattle’s downtown, not only does each feature an organic neighborhood district but views of the skyline evoke the caution in Wallace Stegner’s essay Sense of Place that:
“the West has been raided more often than settled… raiders moved on when they got what they came for…”
He laments that some communities changed so fast that memories could not “cling to them.” He further cautions that they lose their character when they lose their memory.
Twenty-eight hundred miles southeast, Durham, North Carolina, where I live, is still “raided” from time to time. Monuments to “franchised architecture” earn nicknames such as the “green weenie.”
Penn’s esteemed Emeritus Professor of Urbanism and architect, Witold Rybczynski (Vee-told Rib-chin-ski) terms these placeless monuments a failure to see that architecture “is a social art, rather than a personal one…”
He continues that architecture is “…meant to be a reflection” of a locality “and its values rather than a medium of individualized expression…”
Admitting that “it’s exciting to bring high-powered architects in from outside. It flatters a city’s sense of self-importance…”
“But in the long run,” Dr. Rybczynski concludes, “it’s wiser to nurture local talent: instead of starchitects, localtects.”
So often, high-rise building architects dismiss that design should reflect a community’s distinct values and sense of place. Like many of Seattle’s, some strive to be generic.
Unlike Pike Place or Magnolia or Queen Ann, they aren’t what makes that city cool.
As Rybczynski notes in his recent book How Architecture Works, new buildings should seek coherence with place not personality cult. It’s a must read for community officials signing off on plans for new buildings.
Change is inevitable to communities but as Stegner warns in his essay, too often “it means stereotype.” Sense of place endures where communities manage change in a way that preserves character.
Preserving community character as a strategy for growth while pursuing continuous improvement is “absolutely consistent” according to Harvard’s Dr. Michael Porter, “in fact, they’re mutually reinforcing.”
In the words of sense of place land use expert Edward T. McMahon:
“We sometimes forget that every building has a site, every site has a neighborhood, and every neighborhood is part of a community.”
To often officials worry about preservation of a few facades at street level only to surrender the skyline to incongruity. Straddling, such as this is called, is a sure fire formula for sense of place mediocrity.
As Microsoft’s first dozen employees settled across the lake from Seattle, across the state I had just earned a “degree” in organizational differentiation, helping business leaders spin off an independent community-destination marketing startup.
But it didn’t sink in that community differentiation from competitors was pivotal until I was nine months into another startup in Anchorage, Alaska.
Coincidentally, that was one of the places my parents had turned down in 1970 when my dad’s Seattle assignment was complete.
Phillips that year had signed onto a consortium to build the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which was completed in 1977, the year before my arrival.
Likewise, my parents rejected reassignment to Norway, where in 1969 Phillips had discovered a huge North Sea oil field.
Instead they elected to return to our family’s Rocky Mountains roots.
While dispensing a briefcase of “airplane” reading on an early 1979 flight back home to Anchorage, I came across a paper on strategy and differentiation by Dr. Porter, a Harvard business professor my age.
I was still doing some “this equals that” to apply the paper to my work with communities when my plane stopped in Juneau and disembarking, my seatmate Jack Musiel (Muse-elle,) asked to borrow it.
At a meeting a year later, Jack, a friend who was then head of Westours (Holland America,) returned the favor when he handed me Professor Porter’s newly published book expanding on the topic - Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.
In the mid-1980s, I did Jack a little “menting” in return during a stint when he ran the DMO for Miami Beach. Fearing revitalization might never come, officials planned to surrender its identity to the “greater.”
I quickly forwarded a copy of Stegner’s then just-published essay on Sense of Place as a means to illustrate what could be lost in the mix. Ironically, revitalization undetected was already taking effect.
Jack, who passed away in 2001, and I enjoyed ticking off “Porter quotes” such as those below like they were on cue cards. I wish I had paid even closer attention:
“Strategy…is about deliberately choosing to be different.”
“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
“A strategy delineates a territory in which a company [or community] seeks to be unique.”
“The ability to change constantly and effectively is made easier by high level continuity.”
“…strategy must have continuity. It can’t be constantly reinvented.”