(A version of this was published on the website Hard Crackers.)
Located on the corner of 128th St and Aurora Avenue are a Vietnamese noodle house, a Chick-fil’A, a used car lot, and a construction supply company that doubles as a used car lot, the latter presumably meeting the needs of contractors searching for vinyl flooring adhesive and a ’97 Camry. Highway 99 connects Canada to Mexico and is called Aurora Avenue as it slices through this portion of North Seattle. It’s seven lane wide here and as noisy as it is dirty. Sidewalks are limited. The speed limit was recently reduced to 30mph because so many pedestrians have been hit.
The most common sights you’ll see on this stretch of Aurora are fast food joints, fleabag motels, automobile dealerships and sex workers — judging by volume alone, the latter’s business opportunities have not been negatively impacted by the pandemic. The very presence of these women invites rampant presumption: watching them it’s only natural that you have a thousand questions. But even though so much of their bodies is literally on display, it’s unclear how much of them you’ll ever truly see.
This is not the view of Seattle most visitors will ever enjoy. Tour buses will pass through Pioneer Square and idle outside the Market; travelers will take selfies beside the Amazon spheres and watch the sunset from Alki Beach. But there’s plenty to be learned about the complexities and juxtapositions of life in this City by taking a short walk down these streets.
Locked in a cage behind the Vietnamese noodle house is an eight-foot tall “Buff n’Shine Polisher,” a relic of a former car wash that may or may not be an integral part of the noodle making process. The used car dealership on the northeast corner advertises, “Bring Your W2 — Drive Out Today” and “NO CREDITO: NO PROBLEMA,” the latter one of the rare phrases that sound worse in Spanish than English. The dealership extends east down 128th, a scatter of wrecked cars, detached bumpers and 40 gallon barrels leaking unexplainable goop.
On the south side of the street an alley is crammed with abandoned garage doors. Next to this is a Comcast Service Station: fenced in with barbed wire it feels more like the set of a prison escape movie than a nexus of communications. Across from Comcast a single story office building is painted an ugly mint green; its windows are covered in bars and you could wait all day but still not see anyone come or go. East of this a huge, fenced-in parking lot contains a series of unmarked trailers and several City owned vehicles. Past that an abandoned bank is topped with a spike of cell phone towers. Recently the Fire Department began practicing rescue operations from its upper stories.
Further along, 128th is lined on both sides by a series of City maintenance facilities: gravel lots full of construction equipment, unused police cruisers, a gasoline refilling station, workers in fluorescent vests. On the south side of the street a homeless man has set up camp among the rhododendrons. A pair of tattered black hightops stick out from a blue sleeping bag that itself sticks out from a tent, all of it overflowing into a jumbled pile of shopping carts. Strewn nearby are a rolling desk chair, garbage bags full of clothes, a gigantic blue exercise ball and a six foot floor lamp.
Past this an unused parking lot sits chained off and empty. The sidewalks soon run out and your progress is bisected by a double cul-de-sac, as if the road, exhausted after only these few blocks, needed to stop and stretch its arms. Two blocks north is the local high school. Two blocks south the City’s two remaining mobile home parks are actively slumping into the ground. A scrubby hollow breaks up your view. In the winters it floods, and its thick, brambled woods serve as a passing home for coyotes and people.
Continuing east a row of single story houses are bracketed by faded white picket fences, their dumpy line broken only by a gigantic brick Tudor. On the right the Haller Lake Community Center stands empty and unused. Across from the Center a For Sale sign hangs. From the street you can see gigantic cedars and a small white house; what can’t be seen is the house’s asking price, which is $2.6-million dollars.
East of this rows of houses telescope down easements toward the lake. Mailboxes are stacked like office cubicles in small blocks along the side of the street. Cherry blossoms burst. A ten foot tall plastic spider climbs the side of a house. Signs support Black Lives Matter and insist, in multiple languages, that all neighbors are welcome here.
At Meridian a tuft of raspberries stretch out their prickly arms in greeting. To the north 130th is a noisy blur: a main thoroughfare for semis and ambulances that doubles as a nighttime racetrack for motorcycles. To the right is one of Haller Lake’s two public access points, though you have to look hard to determine that. One of the houses lining this cul-de-sac has a full sized private basketball court. The lake here is dirty, muck-stained and covered in lily pads, like a video game you might hop a character across. Signs warn against feeding waterfowl and threaten a $500 fine to anyone found in possession of grass carp.
Continuing east along 128th people walk dogs and avoid eye contact. Signs in yards praise graduates of a nearby private middle school whose annual tuition is just shy of $40,000. A house on your right has a mechanical gate that is too high to see over. At Corliss Avenue another For Sale sign lists a property at $1.6 million. Further east the sidewalk disappears again and becomes a rocky path.
128th St ends at 1st Ave E, which is where you find Northacres Park. There are kids toys and basketball courts, BBQ pits and some short trails that lead you to a narrow dog park. Children practice softball on the nearby field while couples picnic on the grass. On the far east side of the park Interstate 5 buzzes behind a wall of concrete and blackberries.
The parking lot here is shaped like a teardrop. At all times there are anywhere between 8-14 automobiles permanently parked: mostly SUV’s and minivans, plus a few rusted campers. A group of seven small white dogs yip from inside the front seat of a derelict RV. A Jeep sits on blocks, its insides stuffed so full the doors barely shut. The surrounding woods are filled with tents, shoes, empty Doritos bags, a Seahawks towel.
The parking lot smells of stale urine, wet cigarette butts, catalytic converters and unwashed humans. Eviction notices and vacancy signs have been posted in the eyes of everyone you’ll encounter here. It would be as easy as it would be misguided to blame this scene upon the pandemic. Besides, you’re far too intelligent an observer to think that vaccines can cure what you’re looking at.
These weren’t the sights the tour guides would have suggested, but in only a mile you’ve seen so much more of this City than you could have from atop the Space Needle.