Take cover: Amazon’s big umbrellas renew a stormy old debate about Seattle culture

An Amazon-supplied umbrella is spotted on a sidewalk near the company’s headquarters in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In a steady downpour around Amazon’s downtown Seattle headquarters buildings, the march of the umbrellas is like a well-choreographed dance. Right up until someone gets bonked in the face.

The big orange-and-white rain deflectors protect workers carrying laptops and phones as they move from one high-rise to another, to nearby restaurants and back with food to go. They cover people and dogs as the dogs — there are so many dogs at Amazon — do their business outside.

“The dogs are divas and have to be covered while going to the bathroom,” an Amazon employee said to me while she stood in the rain without an umbrella.

In any other city, the umbrellas would barely be noticed. It’s raining. Of course you pop open an umbrella and walk beneath it to stay dry. How convenient. Thanks, Samuel Fox. But in Seattle, there’s a sizable and prideful segment of the population that believes umbrellas are not for locals, they’re for tourists and transplants. Hardened Pacific Northwesterners wear rain jackets, with hoods, thus keeping their hands free to pat themselves on their drip-drying backs.

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In a 2015 piece on news site Crosscut, longtime newspaper-columnist-turned-Seattle-City-Councilwoman Jean Godden addressed the so-called premature death of Seattle’s soul at the hands of the growing tech giant in our midst. Godden pronounced the city’s soul alive and well, and in doing so referenced umbrellas, of course.

“Amazon hasn’t killed Seattle; hasn’t appropriated its soul,” Godden wrote. “In fact, you could look at it the other way around: Seattle has absorbed Amazon, teaching a new generation how to do Bumbershoot, how to live without umbrellas and how to pronounce ‘geoduck.’ ”

Five years later, Amazon is a lot bigger and hardly living without umbrellas.

Another columnist, Gene Balk of The Seattle Times, waded into the dispute last week, not so much to argue for or against how people in Seattle stay dry in the rain, but to point out in a tweet how annoying the large, golf-style umbrellas are on city sidewalks.

A similar observation was made two years ago by Charles Mudede at The Stranger. “Small umbrellas, which are much more stylish and not obnoxious, just would not do for the employees of a corporation that has its city by the balls,” Mudede wrote at the time.

Jared Axelrod, who works in public policy at Amazon, tweeted his two cents at Balk and others, including me: “Complaining about umbrellas is easily the worst old Seattle vs. new Seattle take.”

Defenders and detractors of Seattle culture jumped into the Twitter storm of replies. If only we had an umbrella to repel all the tears.

The umbrellas, which are big enough to cover at least three people, are available to employees or anyone visiting Amazon HQ, I was told inside the company’s 4-star store at the base of one of its newest towers. The golf size is intended to offer extra coverage, the company said, for anyone with bags or those sharing with a colleague when walking between office buildings or grabbing lunch.

They’re in bins just inside the doors of many Amazon buildings in the Denny Triangle area and South Lake Union. Even The Spheres — a man-made, urban rainforest — offers umbrellas, presumably for the mist outside, not the plant-filled environment inside.

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Standing without one in the rain, I watched the steady stream of people across various city blocks come and go with them. The colors make them easy to spot from a distance as opposed to the traditionally smaller and often times black umbrellas that others carry.

I saw people dodge and weave to avoid an eyeball or ear poke. Passing umbrellas were raised high above other umbrellas, or tilted to one side. They were even used beneath the many sidewalk awnings designed to keep people out of the elements at the base of Amazon buildings.

I watched a dog in a yellow raincoat chase other dogs inside a small enclosure between the company’s Day 1 and Doppler towers. The dog’s human stood by under an umbrella. Only in “Cloud City.”

Two guys in T-shirts walked side by side, each with his own umbrella. “We’re not from Seattle,” they said. No one who works at Amazon is from Seattle, another employee joked.

The old standby about how it rains all the time in Seattle is clearly no match anymore when it comes to dissuading people from moving to the city, especially when lousy weather is up against high-paying tech jobs. It’s raining dollar bills now, amirite?!

An umbrella selfie, reflected in the glass of the Amazon Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I couldn’t resist grabbing an umbrella and experiencing how the other (seemingly drier) half lived. I circled the block beneath one a couple times, dodging others and resisting the urge to collapse it and resume an accessory-free lifestyle. I wasn’t sure if the umbrella made me look like an out-of-towner or an in-towner who happened to work for Amazon. The fact that I was even thinking about it at least meant I’d been in Seattle long enough to know it was a debate, unlike the many people around me.

I was glad to return it. I wanted to blend back into the surroundings in my parka, like a raindrop hitting the wet pavement.

In a 2007 column in Pacific NW Magazine headlined “Pour It On,” longtime Seattle Times reporter and columnist Steve Johnston wrote about growing up in the Northwest, his love for the rain and his distaste for umbrellas.

“If you grow up in the Rain Culture, then you become a Rain Warrior. If you move here, then you get to be a Rain Weenie,” Johnston wrote. “A Rain Warrior doesn’t own an umbrella. If someone gives the Warrior an umbrella, it is kept near the front door to be lent to the Rain Weenie when it starts to drizzle.

“A Rain Warrior will wear a hat and a jacket that is waterproof and has a hood on it,” Johnston added. “But nothing else to signal the Warrior needs any sort of shield to face the deluge.”

I faced the deluge at Amazon that is its umbrella culture. And perhaps, to those who saw me standing in a downpour, clinging to my old Seattle habits, I’m all wet in more ways than one.

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

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