Should Seattle reopen old Aurora Ave. pedestrian tunnel where ‘mashers and thugs’ once lurked?

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The political action group Let’s Move Seattle wants voters to approve spending nearly $1 billion in taxes to pay for a long list of transportation projects. The money would expand metro bus service, pave pockmarked streets and reinforce the city’s creaky, traffic-laden drawbridges before the next big earthquake takes them out.

But as I scanned the vote yes on Proposition 1 campaign flyer, it was a bit of minutia tacked at the bottom of the long laundry list of projects that caught my eye: “Study reopening the N 79th St Pedestrian Tunnel under Aurora Ave.”

How did I miss that there was a walking tunnel under busy Aurora Avenue not too far from the neighborhood I have lived in for more than a decade?

The old pedestrian tunnel survives as one of those little oddities hiding in plain sight in Seattle. If you deliberately look, it’s easy to spot near the Dollar Store at the intersection of North 79th Street and Aurora Avenue. Steel railing frame the tops of the stairwell sealed off by rusty steel plates littered with a flotsam of discarded coffee cups and an empty vodka bottle. There is even a “Stairway Closed” sign dangling at one entrance. 

The pedestrian tunnel dates back to the 1920s, another time when Seattle was bursting at the seams and civic and business leaders were lobbying voters to approve more road projects. Around that same time, the multi-lane Aurora Avenue “speedway” was built through Woodland Park. Soon after, motorists were driving on the new Aurora Bridge erected across the Ship Canal to ease congestion on the city’s network of drawbridges on the north end.

Then as today neighborhood groups also were concerned about school children crossing busy streets. Back in the 1920s, a group of parents and teachers promoting a series of “safety tunnels” near schools.

The first tunnel was open by 1929 at North 79th Street, allowing neighborhood kids to cross under Aurora and walk to nearby Bagley School. With heavy support from parents and teachers, the city considered adding more tunnels.

But the city balked in the face of heavy pushback from residents worried about higher taxes and pubic safety. A Seattle Daily Times article from June 1929 captures the tone of the opposition from an attorney hired by residents to fight the tunnel projects. The attorney told the City Council that similar tunnels in Portland “have become hangouts for mashers and thugs,” requiring increased police presence. Another article a day later raised concerns that the tunnels would be “lurking places for sluggers and mashers.” The word “mashers” was a reference to men who made unwanted sexual advance to women in public places.

There also were veiled references to muggings, prostitutes and their johns, as well as people urinating in the tunnel.

The 79th Street underpass remained open through World War II. But not without problems. In the spring of 1946, parents and teachers at Bagley School complained of “unsanitary” conditions and questionable people loitering nearby. They demanded more police supervision of the tunnel. A few months later, according to the Times archives, the city painted the tunnel a brilliant, aluminum-chrome color, added more lights and installed gates that were to be unlocked only during school hours. The city handed over the keys to the locks and delegated responsibility of opening and closing the gates to the school staff. Sometime afterward, the problematic underpass was shut down and sealed off.

For decades the safety tunnel was mostly forgotten. But now the group behind Proposition 1 says an unspecified amount of a proposed $930 million property tax levy should be spent to study reopening the North 79th Street tunnel to make it safer for kids walking to school.

The backers of Proposition 1 include heavyweights like e-commerce giant Amazon and super developers Paul Allen and Greg Smith. They are the folks who have brought Seattle the shiny new condo buildings and corporate office towers that have transformed large swaths of the city. They have benefitted greatly from the growth. And so too has Seattle, which has a booming economy and an unemployment rate hovering around 3 percent.

Seattle also is a city groaning under the pressures of growth, and you can see the strain on the faces of motorists locked in traffic jams. So it makes sense to invest in roads, bridges and better bus service.

But Proposition 1 is not primarily about “safer streets” or “safe routes to school.” It’s about easing the commute of the growing herds of workers who are coming to town as more corporations move or expand their offices here. Studying reopening an obscure tunnel shuttered more than a half-century ago seems like a hasty attempt to pad a list to make it more palatable to voters.

If we want to make it safer for children walking to and from school, lets add more neighborhood sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses over busy roads instead of tacking on projects unlikely to see the light of day. That goes for daylighting the ancient Aurora Avenue “safety tunnel,” long ago banished as a public nuisance because it of lurking thugs, sluggers and mashers.