A History of Business

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

bill VirginLike many American cities, Seattle was built for the purpose
of making money.

Oh sure, we may prattle on about our gorgeous setting and
being in touch with our natural surroundings and all the other clichés of
tourism promotion.

But let’s not kid ourselves—the business of Seattle, and its
reason for existence, was always business.

From the first moments European and American settlers landed
on the shores of Puget Sound and sized up the opportunities, there were fish to
be caught, trees to be cut and milled, railroads to be built, Klondike-bound
miners to be supplied, planes to be assembled, software programs to be written,
cups of coffee to be brewed—always something that some sharp-eyed person could
capitalize on.

Not that making money’s necessarily a bad motivation. This
pursuit of economic activity worked well in providing middle-class lives to
many and upper-class fortunes to a few. OK, so it wasn’t such a hot deal for
the Native Americans who got shoved out of the way. But these days, even
they’ve figured an angle by which to separate people from their money—the
casino.

Yet the reminders of our business and industrial heritage
are relatively invisible, even when, in the physical sense like office towers
or airplane assembly buildings, they’re anything but. Heck, most of us work in
that world and never give much thought about how it, and we, got here.

Which is why a series of brochures tracing the industrial,
agricultural and maritime heritage of this region provides such a valuable
service in cataloging some of the physical evidence and remnants of that
history, as well as a potential do-it-yourself bit of local tourism for those
at all curious about it.

The brochures are the work of the Destination Heritage
project of 4Culture, King County’s agency dedicated to the arts and historic
preservation. These visitors’ guides can be picked up from racks of regional
tourism information, or ordered through or downloaded from a website
(www.destinationheritage.org).

The industrial guide includes museums, neighborhoods,
trails, parks—what is Gas Works Park but an industrial site, one of the few you
can wander through?—train stations, bridges and trestles, all of which
“represent the spirit of innovation that has shaped the region’s economy and
landscape for over 150 years,” the brochure states.

The agriculture brochure includes markets (Pike Place, most
notably), farms and gardens, wineries, a hop shed from back when hops were a
big local commodity, even the grain elevators along Elliott Bay. The maritime
brochure covers lighthouses, the Seattle central waterfront, Fisherman’s
Terminal and the Ballard locks, making the assertion that “Puget Sound history
is maritime history.”

Indeed it is, but it’s also industrial and agricultural
history, and it’s also the legacy of office work, if anyone ever gets around to
putting up monuments to the heritage of the cubicle dweller. It matters that
all of these examples are what our history is.

The brochures and their suggested tours aren’t only an
opportunity to drag your kids away from the video games and have them learn
something, although that might not be such a difficult task; boats and trains
and planes and farms are just plain cool in the eyes of kids. The more removed
we are from our business, transportation and agricultural roots, the less we
understand how the food we eat and the products we use got to us in the shape
they’re in, and the less we understand about policy debates that affect those
sectors.

Increasingly, we have fewer opportunities to see that side
of our world. Industrial tours and real-life glimpses into the inner workings
of business and industry are rare enough these days beyond, say, the Boeing
tour, the Microsoft visitor center and the viewing platforms to watch Port of
Seattle activity. With businesses growing more nervous about industrial
espionage, terrorism, vandalism and liability, those glimpses will become even
rarer.

The danger is that understanding how the world works will
become rarer, too. The industrial, ag and maritime heritage of this region
isn’t just our past, it’s our present and likely our future as well. As we
confront the difficult questions of how we’ll make a buck tomorrow, it wouldn’t
hurt to know how it was done yesterday.

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