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bloomberg.com called amazon’s under-construction hq complex a ‘geek zone, cursed by dullness’ (sean airhart/nbbj via bloomberg)
A few months back, I gave a presentation to a group of retired teachers about my 2006 book Vanishing Seattle.
At the talk, I mentioned how, at the time the book came out, the city seemed to be losing its most beloved people, places, and things at a rapid rate.
These disappearances have only accelerated since then. (Most recently, the Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill, one of the city’s pioneer “art house” cinemas, which closed forever following this year’s SIFF.)
Everywhere you look, funky old buildings are giving way to enormous new buildings.
And it’s all to be blamed, if you believe some wags, on a company that’s more interested in incessant growth than in such business-world niceties as, you know, actually turning a profit.
Late last year, Jeff Reifman posted an essay on GeekWire.com claiming everything we now know and/or love about Seattle could quickly become lost to what he calls “Amageddon,” the total takeover of the city by Amazon.com’s self-styled “code ninjas.” Reifman warns that, unless Amazon’s corporate culture (or its rampant growth in town) is stemmed, the result could be “an unaffordable, traffic-filled metropolis dominated by white males and devoid of independent culture.”
Reifman claims there are three things Amazon could do (other than crashing in a WaMu-like stock bubble) to become a better corporate citizen. It could “advocate for an appropriate tax system in Seattle and Washington state,” commit to hiring more women and minorities, and support programs to help “lower income, lower skilled Seattleites” stay in the city.
But those moves, as noble (and unlikely) as they are, would not change the trend of Amazon (and many smaller dotcoms) importing waves of hyper-aggressive “brogrammers” from out of state, with no knowledge of or affinity toward Seattle’s heritage, only to replace them after an average of one or two years.
(The NYT recently described Amazon as “a bruising workplace,” where “code ninja” programmers are worked into the ground, maternity and illness are treated as treason to the corporate cause, and a hyper-aggressive atmosphere makes it nearly impossible for women to advance.) (A high-ranking Amazonian wrote a long rebuttal to the NYT piece at GeekWire.)
No, what we need is a training program. A crash course in why this city, this place, is something to be celebrated, cherished, nurtured. To encourage our newer citizens to care about more than just their own narrow cliques and their own material existences.
With enough people taking a more active part toward making things here better, we can still be the city that rose from challenge after challenge.
A city that respects its heritage, in its highest and lowest aspects.
A city that could create great things.
Whose engineers and deal-makers brought about the Jet Age, and later “de-fragmented” the chaotic early home-computer business.
Whose progeny have repeatedly pushed the boundaries of art, music, and performance.
A city that’s constantly remade itself; that moved mountains (well, hills), raised streets, lowered lakes, created islands, and planted parks in the most improbable spots.
A city that pioneered in public power (City Light) and public health care (Group Health).
A city that can both love and laugh at itself, creating great comedians and cartoonists along the way.
A city that comes together, not apart, in moments of sadness (the public rallies after 9/11) and sweet triumph (the first day of gay weddings at City Hall).
A city that always took pride in its buildings and other structures, whether sublime (the Olympic Hotel), playful (the Hat n’ Boots), tasteful (the many Craftsman bungalows), or both spectacular AND populist (the Central Library).
Indeed, the library building is a great example of Seattle at its best. Yes, the building qualifies for that hoary overused expression, “world class.” But it’s also a place that simply works. It invites everyone to relax, read, listen, and learn.
It’s a building that’s more than “world class.” It’s Seattle class.
And it’s what we need more of.
Not just in our buildings and construction projects, but in our people, our attitudes, our ambitions.
More than half a century ago, the Century 21 Exposition depicted a Seattle on the move toward a great tomorrow.
Our real life Century 21 might never have flying cars; but it can still become an age built on wonder, optimism, high art, low kitsch, and shared joys.
Reifman has since gone beyond merely complaining about the Big A.
He and artist Kali Snowden have just started a site called Flee the Jungle.
It’s got short essays reiterating Reifman’s complaints about the company, and about its actions (or lack of same) as a local corporate citizen:
“…Amazon’s run by a wealthy libertarian who’s shown only modest concern for his home community as his company’s growth has dramatically impacted the city—good in some ways, but largely problematically in many…”
And it has dozens of links to other e-commerce sites, in many of the umpteen product and service categories in which Amazon’s now involved.
The thing about “disruptive” companies is that someone else can always come along to disrupt them.
To date, Amazon’s been able to crush (or at least hold its own against) the competition in all these lines on its sheer size and muscle, and on its ability to operate unprofitably thanks to loyal shareholders.
But none of those advantages are necessarily permanent or exclusive.
Is there an endgame to all this?
Of course there is.
As I always say, things that are hot now just don’t keep getting even hotter forever. (Except, perhaps, actual climate-related hotness.)
Financial/accounting exec John Spaid, writing at GeekWire, believes Amazon will eventually have to change itself to become profitable, and that those changes will likely include lotsa layoffs in Seattle.
And when that happens, a lot of locals (merchants, landowners, homeowners, etc.) will get burned.
(Cross-posed with City Living Seattle.)
I know I’ve been taking however many of you are reading this back to memory lane a lot lately. But indulge me a few more times, please, including this time.
This time, it’s back to a weekend day in June 1981.
I went straight from my UW commencement ceremony, still possessing my cap and gown, and went to a planning meeting in a Wallingford rental house.
Also there were Daina Darzin, Maire Masco, and Dennis White.
We were starting a punk rock zine, to overcome what we all thought was The Rocket’s excessive commercialism. (Yeah, I know.)
The result was called Desperate Times.
It lasted for six tabloid issues, before Darzin effectively ended it by returning to New York, where she’d previously lived.
(And yes, like so many New Yorkers, she absolutely KNEW how everyone ought to think and behave. And if they thought or behaved in a non-New Yorkish way, then that thought or behavior automatically sucked.)
I had at least one piece in each of the six issues. The most affecting, albeit in a very indirect way, was in the first issue. I asked readers to write in mentioning the band they hated the most. (A cheap “comment bait” trick, it would now be called.)
It got a response all right.
That response came from one Mark McLaughlin, then a student at Bellevue Christian High School. He wrote that he loved the simple repetitive music of Philip Glass, and hated Mr. Epp and the Calculations. (“Pure grunge. Pure shit.”)
This, I continue to insist, was the first documented use of that six-letter word to describe a Seattle punk band.
And it was the first print mention of Mr. Epp, McLaughlin’s own band (of course).
One night shortly after that, Masco found McLaughlin on the streets downtown, pasting up flyers for a fictional gig by Mr. Epp, which at the time was mostly a fictional band (named after a favorite math teacher). Masco persuaded McLaughlin to stage real gigs.
For the next three nearly three years, Darren “Mor-X” Morray, Jeff “Jo Smitty” Smith, and Mark “Arm” McLaughlin gigged and recorded under the Mr. Epp name.
Arm, of course, went on to Green River and then to Mudhoney, famously performing on top of the Space Needle for Sub Pop’s 25th anniversary in 2013.
Darzin became a scribe for Billboard and other high falutin’ rags.
White and Masco started the short-lived Pravda Records label (not the Chicago firm of the same name).
White now runs another indie music label, “dadastic! sounds.”
Masco took a long hiatus from “creative” endeavors.
But now she’s back with a book collecting every issue of Desperate Times, from full-size high-quality digital scans.
Some thoughts on looking at these pages nearly 3.5 decades later:
The music discussed, well a large part of it anyway, still stands up.
The writing and the graphic design are of their time and of the milieu. That is to say, they’re brash, un-slick, and occasionally immature. But that was part of the whole aesthetic of the period. This was before “desktop publishing.” The text was created on typewriters. The headlines were created with press-type lettering. It was DIY Or Die, and it expresses the emotional states of its content better than anything in Adobe InDesign ever could.
Masco is selling the book online and at a few select local shops.
Masco’s been living in Tacoma in recent years, with a guy who knows a thing or two about graphic design, and who’s not shy about sharing what he knows.
I’ve written several times in the past about Art Chantry. How he played a critical role in creating my book Loser (itself coming back later this year). How he did most of the grunt work in bringing “punk rock graphics” and poster art beyond the deliberately “amateur” style seen in Desperate Times and toward something that was “professional” but NOT corporate. He took his obsessive research into design schticks high and lowbrow, industrial and “artistic,” and created a whole new visual vocabulary.
In recent years, Chantry’s been spreading his vast knowledge and sharp opinions about the design profession (actually, he thinks of it as more of a “trade”) on his Facebook feed.
Now he’s collected some 50 of these essays in the book Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design.
The format of self-contained short essays, on different but related topics, works well with the disparate roots of Chantry’s visual aesthetic and career philosophy.
He finds inspiration in everything from monster-movie magazines to industrial-supply catalogs, from trade magazines to Broadway show posters, from hot-rod customizers to girlie magazines.
Unlike the late Andy Warhol (to whom he dedicates a praise-filled chapter), Chantry appreciates commercial design without feeling the need to dress it up in “fine art” trappings.
Indeed, Chantry openly and repeatedly scoffs at such trappings.
He upends the “official” history of graphic design, which treats it as a top-down profession dominated by Manhattan designers and ad agencies.
Instead, he sees it as a bottom-up, working-stiffs’ trade, originating with sign painters, printers, and other craftspeople. It’s a living tradition, re-created and adapted everywhere. It’s something that’s both populist and commercial at once. It expresses social and individual values, even as it overtly tries to sell stuff (products, politicians, religions, etc).
And, just as American pop/rock music absorbed and mutated everything that came before it, Chantry’s personal aesthetic absorbed and mutated everything he’d learned to love in the various arts of visual/verbal persuasion.
You won’t find any images of Chantry’s own works in Art Chantry Speaks. For that, look up Some People Can’t Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry, written in 2001 by Julie Lasky. There, you’ll see his famous posters for bands, film screenings, and condom-awareness campaigns; his cover art for The Rocket; and his many record covers and band/label logos.
But, just as there are now drinking-age people who weren’t alive when Nirvana last performed, many of the various production techniques Chantry’s essays discuss have become lost to time, from the lead-cast “hot type” of letterpress to the photo-strip “cold type” of manual pasteup pages.
And much printed ephemera itself (magazines, newspapers, cheap paperbacks, recorded music on physical media, etc.) has declined or disappeared in the digital age.
But Chantry’s observations are still important in our current era, when even web page design is considered an obsolete line of work.
Typography, illustration, color theory, and layout are all part of the visual vocabulary of our world. There are reasons why all these arts developed the way they did.
And, just as many young adults have discovered the great music of the 1980s and ’90s Chantry’s idiosyncratic views about these can teach timeless principles about how things look (or ought to look).
an early amazon home page, via onemonthrails.com
One month ago, I asked you to turn back your mental clocks to the summer of 1995.
It was a time when Seattle still had a men’s pro basketball team and two daily newspapers. It was a time when Seattle bands still ruled the recorded-music sales charts (and a time when people still bought recorded music).
And, as I’d mentioned last month, it was a time when the whole World Wide Web thang was new and full of possibilities. Wired magazine’s pundits (a homogenous gang of “Grateful Dead fiscal conservatives”) lauded the dawn of a new golden age for media, the arts, medicine, and business opportunities unfettered by either governments or by the physical laws of planet Earth.
Amid all this hype, many “dot com” startups began.
Many of those ventures burned out in one to five years, having run out of money before they could turn a cool domain name into a viable business model.
There are (or were) websites devoted to chronicling the demises of other websites. Many of those obituary sites are also now defunct.
One of those first-generation dot-coms, however, has continued to live, and to expand in all directions like a wild Northwest blackberry bush.
And it’s done this without turning a real profit for most of its 20 years in existence.
Amazon.com Inc. has a lot of very patient investors. That, and its famous aggressive approach to everything it does (under such internal slogans as “Get Big Fast” and “It’s Always Day One”) turned it into one of the nation’s top 10 “technology” companies.
My readers here in Seattle don’t have to be told what Amazon has done for and/or to the city.
It’s brought thousands of swaggering “Code Ninja” programmer doodz into town (often for just one or two years), who’ve reshaped the local nightlife and bar industries while threatening the longstanding civic image of “Seattle Nice.”
It’s helped to accelerate the hyper-inflation of housing prices and the replacement of so many cool low-rise buildings.
It’s reshaped the Cascade (er, “South Lake Union”) neighborhood with its office buildings, and is doing the same to Belltown.
It’s made what was already one of America’s biggest book-buying burgs into a top center of gravity for book distribution and even publishing.
In the larger world, it’s become both loved and hated, often for the same things.
Along with most tech-centric companies, it’s been chided for its low hiring of non-white and non-male employees.
It’s become a symbol of economic inequality, paying many programmers six-figure salaries while being far less generous to its warehouse staffs.
Along with previous 500-lb. gorillas of bookselling (B. Dalton, Borders, etc.), it’s feared and despised by much of the old NYC publishing elite. Like those companies did before it, Amazon has been accused of setting its terms and expecting publishers to fall into line.
With the Kindle, it finally turned e-book reader devices into a real business. It helped to generate an explosion in online self-publishing, facilitating tens of thousands of author-entrepreneurs (who get nervous every time Amazon changes its terms).
Kindle, and the privacy it affords to its users, also helped turn “women’s erotica” into a major commercial genre.
In just about every other category of e-commerce, it’s instilled fear into competitors who don’t have the luxury of doing business for years without profits.
I shouldn’t describe Amazon as completely without profit.
It’s earning healthy margins on Amazon Web Services (AWS), its computing-services division, providing Internet “cloud” servers for other companies, including Netflix (a rival to Amazon’s own streaming-video venture), Spotify, and Instagram.
AWS’s web-page serving business is so big, and some of its clients are themselves so big, that up to one-third of U.S. Internet traffic at certain times of the day comes from AWS-hosted sites.
Another part of what AWS does is a modern, broadband-enabled version of what Boeing’s Computer Services division or Ross Perot’s old EDS company did—crunch numbers and process data for organizations that need stuff done by big computers, but don’t need to own their own big computers to get them done.
That business is almost certainly here to stay.
As for all the other big and little parts of this huge outfit, it all depends.
It can continue to “Get Big Fast” in new venture after new venture, as long as its shareholders (who include a lot of its own top employees, past and present) remain patient.
If they don’t, or if a raider like Carl Ichan muscles into the scene, Amazon might one day have to sell or drop some of its costlier or newer lines of business, raise prices and “Prime” membership fees, pause some of its ginormous office-building plans, hold back on some new projects, and shed some of its 20,000 staff in the Seattle area (out of some 165,000 worldwide).
And if that happens, you could see a local recession comparable to the 1970 Boeing Bust.
You might claim you’d like to see Amazon’s influence on Seattle wane. But a crash would hurt a lot of people.
this year's space needle fireworks were sponsored by t-mobile and heavily emphasized the color 't-mobile magenta.'
As promised previously, MISCmedia is back for two-ought-one-five with a new commitment to try and make sense (or at least document the nonsense) of Life in the Demitasse Size City.
To start things off, and for the 29th consecutive year (really!), we proudly present the MISCmedia In/Out List, the most trusted (and only accurate) list of its kind in this and all other known media relay systems.
As always, this list operates under the premise that the future is not necessarily linear. It compiles what will become torrid and tepid in the coming year, not necessarily what’s torrid and tepid now. If you believe everything hot now will just keep getting hotter, I’ve got some RadioShack stock to sell you.
As Sears’ Seattle store dies (see this blog’s previous entry), another company here in town has led a revival of shopping from home, with a “catalog” running to millions of auto-customized web pages.
But Amazon’s original business, and its most controversial presence, remains in books.
As George Packer recently noted in the New Yorker, Amazon has disrupted, and often infuriated, the champions of traditional publishing, also known as “Book Culture.”
Some of these folks gathered in Seattle in late February/early March for the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
AWP’s main public event was a giant book fair on the convention’s final day, featuring hundreds of publishers big and small, for- and non-profit. It’s the one time a year, in a different city each year, when poetry is a business!
And Amazon was there, as a convention co-sponsor and as a vendor, with a book fair table advertising its self-publishing services.
One of the small literary publishers at the fair had a raffle for one of Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader devices. They promoted the raffle with a punching-bag toy, festooned with a photo of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ face.
More recently, Mayor Murray sent a formal proposal to UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” program, to become an officially, internationally recognized “City of Literature.”
The city’s formal application included a long original essay by Blueprints of the Afterlife novelist Ryan Boudinot.
The essay lists programs (to be supported partly by local public and private funding) Seattle would implement should it get the UNESCO nod. One of these programs would involve the city buying Hugo House’s building on Capitol Hill as a permanent “literary arts center” (that would also continue to house Hugo House’s programs).
Boudinot’s essay also gushes, in adoring detail, about Seattle and the Northwest’s cultural heritage(s) and its contributions in literature and publishing (especially Fantagraphics’ graphic novels) as well as in music and the visual arts.
And nowhere in the essay’s 7,000-plus words are the words “Amazon” or “Bezos” ever mentioned.
A long-delayed batch of randomosity (the first in more than a month) begins with the discovery of the newest local “mainstream microbrew.” Underachiever Lager appears to have begun as a promo vehicle for Tacoma designer-casual-wear company Imperial Motion, but is now being rolled out as its own thang in select local bars.
pelican bay foundation via capitolhillseattle.com
First, another “sorry folks” for not getting something up to the site lately. I know some of you enjoy these li’l linx, even when I don’t have a major essay about something.
For now, back to Randomosity:
Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos apparently summoned his inner Charles Foster Kane and decided, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
For a mere quarter billion (less than some of his fellow one-percenters spend on bigass yachts), Bezos has instantly become a news media powerhouse (of the “old media” persuasion).
Basically that’s all we know at this point.
Some people are suggesting that Bezos might use the WaPo as a bully pulpit for his own national legislative agenda (which may or may not include fewer minimum-wage hikes, sales-tax breaks on online/interstate commerce, and restrictions on book publishers and other suppliers from setting enforced retail prices on products).
Other people are suggesting a Bezos-subsidized WaPo could revive bigtime journalism by relieving it from the need to earn a Wall St.-acceptable profit level.
Still others wonder how someone based in this Washington can effectively lead an institution based in that Washington. Don’t just dismiss these as the typical remarks of Northeast provincialists.
As we’ve mentioned, the WaPo‘s business model has traditionally been that of a local paper whose locality happened to be the nation’s capital. Unlike the NY Times, it had little direct presence beyond the Northeast during the pre-online years, aside from its wire service and its syndicated columnists.
Under Bezos, the WaPo could become a national business; not just a DC/Maryland/Virginia business with national influence. Its website, and future related online products, could become not just greater attractors of “clicks” but greater forums for the big issues of the day.
But where would that leave the local DC news? (Remember, the WaPo originally “broke” the story of the Watergate break-in as a local crime story.)
The less-glamorous, formerly more-profitable half of the WaPo institution needs its own reassurances from the Bezos camp.
PS: The Washington Post Co. will remain under the Graham family, under a new name to be announced later. That company will still include the formerly Microsoft-owned Slate.com, as well as TV stations and the Kaplan educational-publishing outfit.
…The success of the avant-garde marks its failure. This is not news. We’ve been domesticated, no matter how fantastic and provocative we might be, into just one niche culture among many. We’re fun, and good, and even progressive, but all the rest of it is fantasy.
tacoma news tribune