SEATTLE — You will know them by their bright blue badges.
The Amazonians descend each morning on a once-shabby neighborhood called South Lake Union before they disappear into nondescript buildings bearing names such as “Ruby” and “Invictus” and “Houdini North.”
They are mostly young, mostly male, and often wearing dress shirts and jeans. Sometimes, they carry bananas.
Cities all over the country are vying for the chance to welcome this insular tribe — to turn their shovel-ready 100-acre lots into Amazon’s second headquarters and welcome some 50,000 new well-paid employees in the years to come. But this port city about the same size as Boston is where Amazon went from humble online bookstore to global empire. Dubbed America’s largest company town, only Seattle knows what it’s like to live in Amazon’s jungle.
Amazonians pack public transit and swarm the streets around the company’s headquarters. After work, they pile into restaurants tucked into nearly every corner of the company campus or descend upon a nearby Whole Foods store — another thing Amazon now owns.
And when they misbehave, the locals call them Amholes. How they might mesh with the similarly monikered Massachusetts variety remains to be seen.
Amazon’s macroeconomic and cultural effects on Seattle are complex and wide-ranging and the subject of much justifiable hand-wringing locally. But spend 24 hours in Amazonia — half as long as it takes to get new ink for your printer delivered to your doorstep — and you’ll begin to get a sense of how completely the company has consumed this city.
Amazon’s urban setting, which until fairly recently was contained within the neighborhood south of Lake Union and north of Denny Way, is notable for upending the suburban tech campus model of Microsoft in the eastern suburbs here. Young people — the kinds of Web developers and engineers Amazon eagerly hires by the thousands — are increasingly eager to live and work in the city, rather than to be subjected to endless car commutes.
But while Amazon’s campus resembles a city, with mixed-use developments and streetcars whizzing by, it’s oddly sterile. Imagine Assembly Row if, instead of a vaguely futuristic outlet mall, it was eerily silent and tens of thousands of people worked there. Businesses that cater to the clientele have cropped up all over — boutique gyms, a phalanx of food trucks, bike share startups where you just ditch the bike wherever you happen to be.
There is almost no jaywalking here, and one sure way to get an Amazonian to look up from a cellphone is to step out into the street before the walk signal flashes. At the banana stand — an Amazon-funded wooden cart where a “banista” hands out free bananas to passersby — people dutifully accept their fruit and shuffle along. (The shape of the fruit mirrors the yellow swoop in the company’s logo.)
The company does not otherwise make a show of its familiar logo, opting instead for the subtle, strange names on its various buildings. Unless you peer into the window of one of the buildings, it’s possible to walk through the area without knowing exactly what strange urban wilderness you’ve entered. Small signs on the various courtyards and cut-throughs note that you’re on “private property, available for public use.” The signs do not mention Amazon.
South of Denny Way, where Amazon is undertaking its latest expansion, the company’s presence is considerably more obvious. There is, of course, the biosphere: three giant, connected orbs full of vegetation plopped right in the center of several major buildings in various stages of construction.
For employees, it will be a retreat of sorts. Upon its completion, Amazonians will be able to socialize in something not so unlike an actual jungle. Compared with Amazon’s fairly stark aesthetic in South Lake Union, it is a welcome departure.
By virtue of being the home of one of the world’s most innovative companies, Seattle also gets first crack at some pretty cool stuff. Amazon locker facilities, where customers can pick up items they’ve ordered from the website — sometimes within hours — are plentiful here. And Amazon’s Go store, open only to employees in the beta testing program for now, will allow customers to walk in, grab things off the shelves, and walk out — their purchases digitally recorded and paid for automatically via their Amazon accounts (the company has not said whether bananas will be free there, too).
After work, the Amazonians pack into such restaurants as Brave Horse Tavern — gourmet pub food, an impressive craft beer list, dart boards — one of chef Tom Douglas’s many places in and around Amazon’s various buildings. They throw darts and play table shuffleboard and talk passionately about the kind of work drama only your co-workers could possibly care about.
Some say the influx of mostly male Amazonians — the company doesn’t release its diversity data, but just look around — turned the online dating pool into a “tech bro” cesspool. A nearby neighborhood called Capitol Hill, once the beloved epicenter of Seattle’s vibrant gay community, is now a comparatively homogenous hive of new apartment buildings and coffee shops. Even walking through thearea can be a challenge, as the constant construction closes several sidewalks on any given day.
A few years ago, the local artist John Cristicello began an occasionally profane, often hilarious street art campaign that held a mirror up to the changing neighborhood. One of the more straightforward (and publishable) posters simply says: “WE CAME HERE TO GET AWAY FROM YOU.”
But there is no escape, and resistance has largely proven futile. Whatever this place once was, it’s part of the jungle now.