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Seattle: From Grunge to Green

In the two decades since grunge shook the music world, Seattle is more artistic, green, and delicious than ever.

  • Crab cakes at Flying Fish restaurant, Seattle, image
    Photo caption
    Crab cake with lemongrass aioli soars on the menu at Flying Fish.
  • Eagle sculpture in Olympic Sculpture Park by Alexander Calder, Seattle, image
    Photo caption
    Alexander Calder's Eagle landed in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park.
  • Kurt Cobain, Seattle music legend, image
    Photo caption
    Before he died in 1994, Seattle's Kurt Cobain defined a new genre of rock.
  • Seattle Central Library, image
    Photo caption
    The Seattle Central Library, built in 2004, was designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus.
  • Seattle skyline with Mt. Rainier, image
    Photo caption
    A classic skyline features both Seattle's legendary Space Needle and snow-capped Mt. Rainier.

The night of April 17, 1991, a less-than-sellout crowd gathered to hear three rock bands at Seattle’s OK Hotel, a scruffy venue beneath the roaring traffic of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The night’s headlining band, a rising local star called Nirvana, played a few covers—the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” was one. But when guitarist Kurt Cobain launched into the band’s slashing, driving new song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the room ignited.

Released in September 1991 as the opening track and lead single of Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, the song and its video marked a sea change in popular music, propelling Nevermind to sales of 10 million and fueling international interest in Seattle. “One hundred years from now the song will still be a touchstone of popular music,” said Jacob McMurray, who curated the exhibition Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, running at Seattle’s Experience Music Project until April 2013.

Whether you’re familiar with the song or not, whether its furious chorus—“I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us”—thrills you or makes you cover your ears, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a cultural milepost, a benchmark for all that came later. Three years after that historic night, Cobain would die by suicide; Nirvana would subsequently disband; and grunge would be absorbed into the profusion of alt-rock now filling iPods and airwaves. And Seattle, with its postindustrial businesses, thriving arts and music scene, and timeless views of water and snowcapped mountains, would emerge as one of the country’s most dynamic cities and compelling destinations.

"Over the past 20 years, the city has grown up and we’re not so grungy anymore,” Peter Steinbrueck told me over chowder at Matt’s, a restaurant overlooking Pike Place Market. On the sidewalk below, a busker played guitar and sang early Bob Dylan as crowds streamed past the market’s gorgeous array of fresh fish, produce, and flowers.

Steinbrueck, an architect, urban planner, and former member of the Seattle City Council, has deep roots here. As a kid he rode the monorail on its inaugural trip at the 1962 World’s Fair; his architect father, Victor, created the conceptual design for the Space Needle; and father and son each spearheaded successful battles two decades apart to preserve the market, a working urban treasure with 10 million visitors each year.

In the years since “Teen Spirit,” the downtown population has surged, neighborhoods have been revitalized, and Seattle, with 612,000 residents, has become one of the country’s greenest—and most cosmopolitan—cities. “With the phenomenal success of locally based, international businesses like Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft, and with the Gates Foundation headquarters attracting talent from around the world,” Steinbrueck said, “Seattle is increasingly a global city.”

Light-rail now links downtown with Sea-Tac airport 13 miles away, and a building boom in cultural facilities has produced an opera house, a symphony hall, and the Seattle Central Library, a 2004 building by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus that embodies the city’s ascendancy. The exhilarating composition swathed in glass and the steel equivalent of fishnet stockings is a quietly bustling hub in a city known as one of the most literate in the nation. It also exudes eco-conscious Northwest populism with outdoor plantings watered by rainfall stored in a 40,000-gallon underground tank.

The nearby Seattle Art Museum (SAM) houses everything from Pacific Northwest artifacts such as a 200-year-old Tlingit screen to Cai Guo-Qiang’s jaw-dropping Inopportune: Stage One, a series of white Mercury and Ford cars suspended in midtumble from the ceiling. SAM moved downtown in 1991 and expanded in 2007, the same year it inaugurated the free Olympic Sculpture Park—nine acres of reclaimed industrial waterfront in Belltown, just north of downtown, where world-class outdoor sculptures by Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, and others stand before stunning vistas of Puget Sound and, on clear days, the Olympic Mountains.

The flamboyant building designed by architect Frank Gehry for the Experience Music Project is a sculpture in itself, now housing science-fiction galleries along with rock music memorabilia, such as a wild orange-and-pink “butterfly” stage costume worn in 1970 by Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix.

Another intriguing icon sits in Volunteer Park, one of the 430 parks that together cover about 11 percent of Seattle, a green city quite literally. Isamu Noguchi’s monumental sculpture Black Sun—a nine-foot ring of chiseled granite—not onlyn serves as a popular frame for snapshots of the Space Needle in the distance, it’s also thought to have inspired the 1994 hit song “Black Hole Sun” by the grunge band Soundgarden.

There’s currently a sizzle to Seattle restaurants that didn’t exist in decades past when “fine dining” for many Seattleites still meant a chef with a French accent. “For food, 1991 was a transition time,” said chef, cookbook author, and Northwest cuisine pioneer Tom Douglas, who opened his first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, in 1989. “We were still discovering our regional roots, taking a look in our own backyard. Now the bar keeps getting raised in terms of sustainable, local sources.”

In revitalized neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and the former Scandinavian enclave of Ballard, the food scene is hopping with restaurants that reflect their chefs’ personalities and tap the region’s bounty. I had a magical dinner one night in the most unlikely neighborhood, Georgetown, an industrial zone near the southern city limit. At the Corson Building, a 1910 house-restaurant surrounded by an iron fence entwined with wisteria, candlelight flickered on dishes like plump, briny oysters with pork croquettes and aioli, and an Anjou pear clafouti. Out the window, the nose of a Union Pacific locomotive slowly edged by.

Another night, joining a boisterous crowd at Flying Fish in the South Lake Union district, I savored seared scallops, black rice, and green curry. Thanks to redevelopment sponsored by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, South Lake Union has shaken off a major case of the postindustrial blues with a new streetcar line, as well as shops, restaurants, and housing. Amazon is moving an estimated 5,000 employees there, and Tom Douglas is opening a slew of eateries—Serious Pie Westlake (a pizzeria), Cuoco(hand-rolled pasta), Brave Horse Tavern (a bar with pretzel bar), and Ting Momo (Tibetan)—along with Dahlia Workshop (biscuits and other breakfast and lunch items). Last September, Lake Union Park opened as a 12-acre, waterfront green space that is already home to the Center for Wooden Boats and is set to welcome more cultural attractions in the coming months.

To hear some music, I headed to a laid-back venue called Neumos in the emerging Pike/Pine Corridor of Capitol Hill. Onstage, a glam-goth-Americana band called Broken Nobles got the crowd jumping, inciting one excited listener to hoist the rhythm guitarist in his arms. The crowd, many dressed in jeans and flannel shirts, roared approval.

I also spent an afternoon strolling past other music venues, including the Showbox at the Market, where everyone from Duke Ellington to Lady Gaga has played; the Moore, where Pearl Jam’s Even Flow video was shot during a live concert in 1992; and the Crocodile, which opened in 1991 and has hosted virtually every “Seattle sound” band of note, including Nirvana.

Today, fans still venture out to Lake Washington (a 15-minute drive from downtown) to see the mansion at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East where Cobain died in 1994. Two benches in an adjacent park have become a lowkey memorial where fans write messages to him: australia misses you still, and i learned to play the guitar because of you.

One said simply, thank you for the music.

Photography by David H. Collier (4); Seattle Central Library by Lara Swimmer

This article was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.