Opinion | Seattle makes itself at home

We were in Seattle last week for delightful family reasons.

COFFEE NIRVANA: Seattle adores the bean, but has little love for Trump.

COFFEE NIRVANA: Seattle adores the bean, but has little love for Trump.

Seattle is a smallish city of around 700,000 people in a larger agglomeration of over three million. It is in the north-west corner of the USA and, like all cities on the edge of the Pacific, it flirts delightfully with its coastline, its coastal lakes, and with surrounding forests, snow-capped mountains and productive valleys.

Our hosts live in a house by the water, the deep mystic Puget Sound, at Ballard, a remnant Nordic town where locals once plied a trade in fish and timber. Ballard is gentrifying, its cubic timber houses re-loved and playfully restored, and its downtown revitalising around weekend produce markets, craft breweries, good food and friendly cafes.

Ballard is family territory and its children were enjoying the end of their long summer holiday. They hit balls, kicked balls, threw balls and ate good hamburgers from the Red Mill Totem House on 54th Street, and sold trinkets and lemonade from a footpath stall.

And they probably complained to their parents they had nothing to do, but they seemed to like their patch.

Good weather – in spite of Seattle, famously, averaging more rainy days than any other US city – saw us walking Ballard streets. Gardens are filled with sunflowers, dahlias, roses, black-eyed susans and pink and white whirling butterflies, which spill across local footpaths, and you duck beneath apple, pear and fig trees, and side-step planter boxes filled with plump tomatoes.

This place isn’t posh, but it’s content and self-confident. However, people here are disturbed by a wider politics of confrontation across their nation. A common sight is signs banged in among the flowers in front yards saying things like “Hate has no home here”. The intensity of anti-Trump feeling in this Democrat-voting city is obvious.

To be sure, Seattle does well out of the world. It is blessed by its natural surrounds, it is prosperous enough to maintain the cosiness and wholesome traditions of suburban America, and it isn’t threatened by the future. Rather, the city is a world leader in the invention and take-up of new technology.

Post-war Seattle filled the world’s skies with Boeing aircraft. Then Seattle’s Microsoft filled offices and school rooms across the globe with the software – word processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoints – that made desk-top and laptop computers essential to business and education. Seattle’s Starbucks rolled-out coffee shops through the world’s cities, at least to those places not yet converted by Italian migrants. And now Seattle’s Amazon is changing the way we live at home.

“Alexa, what’s the time?” we asked the electronic cylinder – called Amazon Echo – perched in the kitchen. “Alexa, play Nirvana,” and she did almost instantly.

Alexa can tell jokes, advise on the weather, adjust your air conditioning, lights and TV, tell you when the roast is done, make phone calls, and amuse your children with stories and nursery rhymes.

Meanwhile, Amazon organises your shopping. Morning and night, the door bell rings as the next parcel arrives on the stoop, another successful online purchase.

There are more than 200,000 workers in Seattle’s King County designing IT products. Amazon employs 40,000 of these. They are changing US lives from the inside out, just across the Pacific. Very soon Alexa will be in our kitchens and our door bells will be ringing.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.