Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Dirt on the Underground

[The subsidized apartment building I live in is called The Union Hotel. It's run by DESC, Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center. All the residents have been homeless. I write a column for the monthly building newsletter. The column is called Out of My Mind. I'm posting them here, properly dated, because I can. -- wes]

Forty years ago I heard there was a writer guy who wanted high school kids to help excavate something called the Seattle Underground – except that in those days nobody capitalized it.

The writer was Bill Speidel, a Times columnist and Seattle history buff. He wrote about Doc Maynard, famous Seattle founder and drunk. Some people blame Maynard for the weird streets in the Pioneer Square area, which supposedly got that way because he was drunk when he planned them. Actually his plan was neat and simple. It was his sober neighbors north of Yesler who created the mess. Doc Maynard was a drunk, but he had lucid moments.

Anyway, I volunteered to help. A bunch of us volunteers all reported to Speidel’s Pioneer Square office one day and crammed inside for a chat with the author.

Ever notice how offices in Pioneer Square all have bare brick walls inside? That was Speidel’s idea -- to create a look of history. In the 1890s the walls were covered with wood or with plaster and wallpaper. He didn’t care. He was after the LOOK of history.

In those days Pioneer Square was a pit. A lot of it was boarded up. Nobody lived here but homeless people. There were no art galleries, no fancy restaurants. There was no nightlife. By dressing the area up to LOOK historic and showing it off, and by making the Underground famous, Speidel saved the district from the wrecking ball. And he was the first to make a mint off tourists from it.

After our chat we all went down into the Underground as it was then: dark tunnel after dark tunnel of dusty dry dirt. We shoveled dirt into wheelbarrows for hours. We got no hard hats and no dust masks. Our lungs must have filled with the stuff.

I told my Father about all this after the second day. He hit the ceiling. “This guy’s getting you to do this and you get no protection AND he doesn’t pay you? He should have to pay minimum wage! At least, if he’s not going to pay you, he should take care that you don’t get sick or injured! I suppose he didn’t insure himself for liability either, did he?”

My Dad, like Maynard, was kind of a drunk and he could be a real pain, but now and then he had his lucid moments.