I got to head over to the US for work recently for two weeks, on in Seattle and one in San Francisco. First time I'd been over there and I found it funny how similar it is to Australia, yet different in subtle ways.
Flew into LA before making the connection to Seattle - about 14 hours I think. I was amazed at the size of the city, as we descended the carpet of lights stretched as far as the eye could see. There's nothing like that in Sydney.
Caught up with friends first thing after checking into our Seattle hotel. We just bumped into them randomly on the street, Seattle's downtown area is not huge and they'd heard which hotel I was staying in. Went and tried my first American beer and also tried authentic poutine (fries, cheese and gravy) Canada style. Seattle is close to the Canadian border in the North West corner of the states.
Like I mentioned above, there were lots of subtle differences between the States and Australia that alluded to the different heritage of the countries. Some things I found interesting:
- The whole tip economy thing. Apparently it has roots in English colonialism; it originally started with rich English people who came over and showed off their wealth by giving money to people who did a good job - not only waiters but anyone in a service position. The Americans tried to copy the English Lords to show they were just as high class, and then it stuck around to the present day. Pretty funny (albeit sad) that tipping started because of the 18th century equivalent of buying fake brand name clothes, to look 'upper class.'
- An interesting side effect of the tip culture meant that absolutely everywhere we went was happy to split the bill, not something that's normal in Australian restaurants.
- Uber is Uberiquitous - in my home suburb in Sydney it usually takes 10-15 minutes for the closest Uber to arrive. The norm was 2-3 minutes in Seattle. You'd look at the map and it was like every second car on the road was for hire.
- The street and road system is great - there's no wonder America is a country of cars, with 809 cars per 1000 people. The roads in one direction are numeric, First Ave, Second Ave, etc. It's actually really handy for navigation, and the grid-like layout of Seattle's streets mean that streets stretch the length of the city. Third Ave on one side of the city is exactly the same street as Third Ave on the other.
- Australia has much lower access to wood and forests than America, and while we are a big producer of iron, we tend to ship it overseas to be processed into steel rather than make it here ourselves. This has a side effect of making a lot of our large structures involve concrete and stone in significant amounts. This really became noticeable to me when I compared the architecture in America - almost all of their suburban houses were big, colonial, wooden things, rather than brick and aluminium, concrete and stone in Australia (pic below). They can throw up huge buildings in absolutely no time because they just stack on a bunch of steel columns, a floor, and repeat. There's a picture below showing one of these in progress- it's much faster and cheaper than what we do in Aus and has enabled far faster growth.
Seattle from up high
Seattle from down low - really low.
As part of our week there I went with my coworkers to an "underground" tour of Seattle. Underground is in quotes there because it's not really an underground tour per sé, it's a tour through what used to be the ground floor of the city.
They had a lot of issues with flooding, sewerage etc, and then when half the city burned down (thanks to, as I said above, everything being made out of wood) they rebuilt it one level higher than before. It took them time to do this though, so by the time it was done all the shops had entrances still on the ground floor. What they ended up doing was paving over the sidewalks, creating two levels of sidewalk; one subterranean, one above-ground. In a city that has rain more days than not, you can imagine it would be quite handy to go from shop to shop entirely under street level.
They used the underground streets for a time but eventually they filled with rubbish and crap and became home to rats, causing an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The bottom floor of the city was officially condemned, the staircases blocked and sealed off and the rats left to die. It was about 50 years ago that they un-condemned it and allowed tours to start going through. Below is a gallery of photos showing some old shopfronts, inside a tavern, and through various underground streets.
A few other random notes about Seattle
Weed is legal, a friend of mine who lives there took me to see the dispensaries. It's crazy how professional they are, with consultants who can tell you exactly what to do - depending, of course, on whether you want to get a head high buzz that lifts you through the roof and into a creative trance, or get your face melted off and become one with nature and/or your couch. Their words, not mine. Below is a photo of some kind of chocolate treat that for $34 that I can only guess must be pretty damn strong.
Only tangentially related to Seattle, as Amazon's in Seattle and this is about the CEO of Amazon, but how crazy is this animation.
They have a salmon staircase in Seattle - I thought this would be something less interesting, but it's exactly what it says on the tin, a staircase made for salmon to climb up. The river there is part of the annual migration path of huge amounts of salmon. When they dammed it off, the salmon could no longer get upstream to spawn and started dying. To fix this, they built a literal set of waterfalls for the salmon to jump up past the dam. This is one of my favourite examples of 'man remaking environment to help animals'. Some others are the crab bridges on Christmas Island in Australia or the bio-corridor bridges going over some highways, pics below.
It is of course worth remembering that we only had to do this because we fucked up the habitats in the first place.
Starbucks headquarters is also in Seattle - thought the huge mermaid at the top of the building was worth sharing.
As well as the Amazon headquarters of course - below is a picture of biodomes under construction, next to their eventual concept.
Seattle was great and reminded me in a lot of ways as a city with Melbourne's laid back feel but Sydney's business centre and opportunities (with Amazon being there). I can't wait to move over there within the next year or so.