A story of Seattle's underground, around the old downtown of Pioneer Square. Written in 2000.
Seattle's history is a story of conflagratory destruction and socioeconomic rebirth; a story of a city rising above ashes and tideflats, and leaving behind forgotten subterranean interstitices.
The great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed 25 square blocks of the old wooden downtown around pioneer square, a downtown built on mud that had continually suffered near-flooding from high tides and rainfall. (The story goes that flush toilets were being installed in the 1880s, and every time there was a particularly high tide, the water level would rise so much that the toilets would back up and overflow).
After the fire, the city fathers mandated that new construction must be in brick, not wood. But more importantly, they decided to solve the problem of sewerage for downtown. In order to make sure that the new construction was above the level of the tideflats, they raised all the streets one story above the old ground level, with eight-foot retaining walls on each side of the roads and landfill between. It was an impressive project and it must have looked quite crazy. (Although they weren’t the only city to do it—Chicago actually did something very similar, raising its streets and buildings slightly to accommodate a new sewer system in the late 19th century.) The new higher streets meant that sewers could slope down to the level of the ocean water, which meant no more fountaining toilets. But it also meant that all the old ground-level entrances of the buildings were now one story below street level.
Another gold rush-- towards the Yukon, in 1897-- brought money and excitement to the rebuilt frontier town. The city and companies downtown built sidewalks from the new street level to what had been second-floor windows. Old ground floors became basements, and the old sidewalks became tunnels.
Throughout the Pioneer Square area, you can see grids of little glass squares inset into the sidewalks. These were the skylights into the lower-level sidewalks, which become a physical avatar of the sub-pression of skid-row pestilence in Victorian-era gold-rush urbanization: rats and opium dealers, cheap whiskey and cheaper hookers, golddiggers gone broke in darksome vaults, diseases and empty bottles of booze. Somewhere along the road between prospecting and pestilence, in 1907, there was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague, which is of course carried by the fleas on the lithe and lean Rattus Rattus. The underground was officially closed by the city and only the desperate and downtrodden remained.
Bill Spiedal, a historian and salesman of Seattle fact and fiction, led the first public tour of the underground in 1965. This was connected with the effort to declare the Pioneer Square area an Historic District, which was a good thing to do, if you will grant that banal and tawdry tourism is a better than banal and destructive modernism. I think it is.
For the past years, the underground has been a forgotten sub-basement and a rubbish-heap for earthquake debris. The tour is awfully insipid, but it’s easier than sneaking in.
Bill Spiedel's Underground Tour, (206) 682-4646
I took the Bill Spiedel’s tour of the underground and vowed to come back to the underground later. There’s more to it than what they show you, of course. And what they show you, just because they show it to you, is boring.
I’d heard a rumor that the transient and homeless population of Seattle had taken to the underground, which makes a lot of sense in a cold and rainy climate. I decided to find some transient denizen of the underground and beg or bribe them to show me some way in.
They had a free keg of beer at the Green Tortoise hostel that evening, so I didn’t leave to roam the streets until late at night. I had a pint of whisky in my pocket but I left my camera behind. It’s a little more friable than I am. And breaking and entering while drunk, or climbing through intoxicated ratholes, is no time to be carrying something friable.
On Post Avenue I stopped in at a basement bar. It was carved halfway under the sidewalk, near a blanked-out skylight grid. I had a beer and asked the bartender about the underground. “Are a lot of places built out under the sidewalk, into the old spaces, like this bar is?”
He told me he didn’t know, and looked at me with that look that urban people give to strangers who seem overly friendly and conversational-like. The woman next to me overheard us, though. “You want to know about the underground tour?” She said. “They give a tour of it. It’s up there somewhere.” She pointed vaguely toward Pioneer Square. “I know,” I said, “but they don’t show very much of it. I was curious about the rest. Is most of it already built up, like it is here? Or can you still run around down there?”
“Whoah,” she said, with kind of a glazed look in her eyes. Actually the glazed look was probably already there, she was pretty drunk. “wow…that’d be pretty cool... all those tunnels underground... Can you get into them?”
“That’s what I'm trying to find out.”
“Whoah,” she said again. She told me some long story, about how she’d explored some abandoned bunker out on Vashon Island, and how cool it was. I finished my beer and left.
I found Dave on some street corner a bit south of Pioneer Square, a nondescript bum with his backpack and his dog, asking for spare change. I gave him a dollar and made my bid. “Hey man, what’s you’re name? I’m Steve.”
“Hey, I heard that there’s some places here where there are tunnels under the sidewalk. You know of any way to get into ‘em without going down with the tour?”
He looked at me blankly. “There’s a tour that’ll take you down there.”
“I know, I took the tour. But it doesn’t show much of it. I’m a photographer, I want to find a way to go down and take some pictures outside of the tour.”
He looked at me blankly, like he wasn’t sure if i was crazy or not.
“Look, guy,” I said, “someone told me that a lot of people went down there to, you know, get out of the rain and all that. You know anything about that? You know, a dry place to sleep or whatever? I just want to take some pictures.”
He shook his head slowly, suspiciously. “I dunno about that,” he said.
Shit. I’m sounding like a crazy person, I thought. “You wanna drink?” I asked him, proffering the bottle. He took it and took a swig. “I don’t want to bug you or anything. I’m from New York, though, not around here. Where do people sleep around here when they don’t have any money?”
He brightened up and took another swig. “Oh, I'm not from around here either. I’m from Michigan. But you know, there’re a few places. There’s Freeway park, right? But the cops hassle you there. We did a big thing, once, with this tent city sort of thing in Volunteer park, to publicize....”
He told me about the adventures of homeless activism in Seattle, of SHARE-- Seattle Housing And Resource Effort-- and the tent city they’d been running on Beacon Hill. I listened raptly, distracted from my quest despite myself. “Did you know there are about seven thousand homeless people in Seattle?” he said.
“Man, that’s a lot” I told him. “gimme the whisky.” He passed it over and I had took a burning gulp. “Look,” I said, “with so many people looking for a place out of the rain and cold, I'm sure some of ‘em have gotten underground, right? Look, I'd be willing to give someone five or ten bucks just to show me an entrance, you know? I'm not a cop or anything.”
“Look, man, there’s nothing around here,” he told me. “I got some friends though who have this place down south a bit, by the water, there’s this old warehouse that you can get in through the wall, it’d be some good pictures, right?”
“Yeah? how far away is it?”
“like, a couple miles. it’s a long ways.”
Shit. No way did I want to walk a couple miles, drunk and tired in this sullen gray night. I’d just gotten into town that morning after a twenty-two hour bus ride, and I was leaving the next day.
“Look, Dave, I'm gonna try to find this shit that I think is around here,” I told him. “If I don’t, maybe I'll find you again and you can introduce me to your friends.”
We had another couple drinks and I gave him a couple bucks and went on, staggering. I climbed into a construction site and looked at where they were digging out the sidewalk for the foundation: nothing. I pulled at the grates of storm drains and kicked manhole covers. Nothing. Not even a hint that there might ever have been another level to this city.
I listened to another bum with his guitar, singing the blues impressively well. I gave him a cigarette and asked him my questions. He didn’t know nuthin’. I found another guy and we talked it over. “No,” he said definitively. “There’s no places around here underground.” I pointed him to the evidence of the skylights inset in the sidewalk, but he was unconvinced. “If there was someplace down there, I'd know about it,” he told me angrily. I didn’t mention the tour that I'd taken, that had proved there was at least something down there. Such certitude should not be undermined.
“But, man, I got some weed to sell,” he told me.
“That’s ok, I don’t want to buy any.”
“It’s good weed.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Man, it’s really fantastic stuff...”
“Don’t want it.”
“I’ll give it to you real cheap.”
“I don’t want to carry any with me, see?”
He paused, but only temporarily. With the look of a man who knows that he holds a king and all four aces up his sleeve, looked around slyly and pulled a baggie from his pocket. “Here, smell this.”
It was so green and good-smelling, my resolution dissolved. “I really don’t want much,” I said, “but I'll give you a couple bucks for a joint.”
He rolled one and I gave him a few bucks and we sat there somewhere on 1st Avenue and smoked it. We were in a niche underneath a construction awning with the century-old buildings looming around. Across the street, balding baby boomers and their fattening wives came out of a bar as it closed for the night.
Shit. I had failed. I hadn’t found any way in. Maybe there wasn’t any more to this section of the city than what was above ground. No subterranean secrets lurking beyond the ken of normal men. I said goodbye to my new friend-- his name was Ronny or Donny or something-- and headed back.
And there, underneath my feet as I headed back, was a grating, locked down into the sidewalk next to Columbia Street. A flash of color caught my eye. I bent down to look-- there, on the concrete wall of this vault, ten feet down, was a huge spray-painted tag. I rattled the grating against lock that held it down, and then, like some drunken mouse scurrying for its hole, I searched the whole block for some other way down, but no luck. The painter must have come through a storm-drain mainline from somewhere else. Someone was underground, often enough to paint, and they’d come through the pipe from a few blocks away...
I staggered back to the hostel, happy. There IS something down there.