Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You can tell a lot about a city by how it lives at night

When the night is up and the lights are down in the downtown core of any city in the world, its true self shows. Seattle. On a very windy Tuesday night in January. The district between Belltown, and Pike Place Market.

It's well past closing time for the ecclectic retailers - from the Steinway & Sons piano shop, to City Kitchens, to the Columbia Store, to Nordstrom. Funky pubs and eateries are winding down. And there's a good sized crowd hunkered down inside Uptown Espresso, intent on the laptop, smartphone or iPad screen before them, sipping the beverage that helped make the Emerald City famous. This cafe looks to be the living room for the apartment homes in the building next door, just one of a collection of residential buildings from 4-story mid-rises, to reclaimed historic tenements, to concrete and glass modern hi-rises, scraping the sky at 20+ stories.

This city is vibrant and alive, not in a NYC kind of way, but more like a San Francisco or a Vancouver. Walking alone I feel totally at ease. I marvel at the diversity of architecture, lit up by the street lights and the reflection of the signage in the city's core. There's an energy here that says, "we're good with it". It's evident in the design of the experience, and names of one of a kind places like Serious Pie - a pizza spot. You shouldn't need to read the menu to figure it out. Even in the rain, and tonight's fierce wind, Seattle just is. There's a quiet confidence, coupled with a wit and intellect all its own.

A crowd of homeless people gathers to sit on the ledge of the stand-alone Starbucks on 4th and Pine. During the hour I'm out walking, the crowd grows in size. One man among them has dressed his pit bull companion in a torn down vest to provide warmth from the biting wind. They all know each other, and share their own community. Inside the Starbucks, there's a young man dressed in a track suit talking with a man in a business suit. He looks to be applying for a job, or given the young man's height, possibly talking with a college basketball recruiter. Hope is written all over his face.

There are many more like me strolling the streets, mostly young couples, or groups of young people. Some clearly getting off work, or coming up out of the subway to connect on a city bus line. Some appear to be heading home from an evening class at a local college. Like the young man in Starbucks, there's a pulse and an energy here that smells of optimism. Even the mannequins in the window at Nordstrom flash forward in their bold colors, almost daring us to challenge their position that the upcoming Spring season will be better and happier than the last. I'm going with it. And I'm taking a little piece of Seattle's fresh confidence with me.