Seattle Writing Prompts: The Alaskan Way Viaduct

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It never should have been built. Think about Vancouver, who denied the highway madness of mid-century America. Think about the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, where a group of residents banded together to fight a highway bisecting their neighborhood. Then think about Seattle where, in a fit of veiled hatred towards beauty and all things natural (e.g. the large body of water at our feet), we built this 50 foot wall of concrete to block us from having to see it.

But, look, times were different then. My parents (with sisters and me in tow) moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham in 1982. When they bought their house up there, they found that houses on the side of the street without a view went for more money than ones with a view. Why? Nobody wanted to look at the working bay. It was industrial. It was polluted. Same in Seattle — so why not just build a modernist brutalist ribbon to partition the clean streets of downtown from the horrible ennui of a polluted, working Elliott Bay?

And times were different in that it was post war, and the most modern idea of great living was grouping all of these places people wanted to go into superbundles and people could drive to them, because everybody was buying cars like they were raffle tickets to Hamilton. Take your private world with you wherever you go! Cars were everywhere, and no "normal" family wanted to live in the city any more. It was the start of white flight, suburban dreams, and the inhuman drive towards putting culture out to pasture, for the possibility of a square of manicured grass with a habitat box plopped in the middle. Surrounded by pipe-smoking, lawn-mowing, casserole-baking, PTA-attending white people just like themselves.

This was a problem for cities: people who lived there, shopped there, ate there, worked there, and paid taxes there, were suddenly only working there, and they took their tax money with them to the burbs. So, let's build a highway to bring them all back, so that they can drive into town in comfort, and repatriate that money that had escaped. Except, of course, the highways went both ways, so people would just go home with whatever money they didn't spend on Frangos and fresh salmon.

There are people who love the Viaduct. Someone wanted to turn it into a park, like the Highline in New York, which is stupid because the Highline isn't in imminent risk of falling down when breathed on wrong. The Viaduct has been, in effect, condemned, for years, and is far beyond its functional life. And underneath, the dim, cluttered, depressing basement of downtown, is like a cyberpunk novel stripped of interesting technology. All sorts of things shrink there for lack of sunlight, from people just trying to get by, to people just trying to get one over.

But recently, an amazing thing happened: the most expensive, and largest bore, drilling machine in the world actually broke through the retaining wall of its exit pit, in a dust-throwing storm of earth crunching. Four billion (and counting) dollars later, we have an underground replacement for the aging stacked highway (which opened four years earlier than the Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland, that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, killing forty-two people), and in a few years the dismantling of our stacked utopian fifties vision of he world will be stripped from our twenty-first century streets.

I say good riddance, and I just hope we get rid of it before another earthquake strikes here. Very few of the politicians who campaigned so hard for that project to happen are around to take the heat for its overruns, and the inevitable lawsuits that we, the taxpayers who voted against it, will be stuck dealing with.

But of the Viaduct there is one thing I will miss: it is the greatest egalitarian people-owned view in Seattle. If you have a car that moves, you can take it in. If you don't, hop on a bus that travels part of it. Because when it's gone, the ability to look out over Elliott Bay on a beautiful day — the Olympics appearing as close as Bainbridge, the sparkle on the water dancing, orca breaching alongside ferries, barges, cruise and container ships — that view will only be available to the highest bidder, and the bids are going up sharper than the profit line in a New Yorker boardroom cartoon.

All we'll be left with are stories.

Today's prompts
  1. It was the one road in Seattle you could open the throttle, if there was a cop ahead, you'd spot them. It was 3am. There were four cars, hopped up with engines growling. When the flag went down, they hit 99 just north of the Aurora bridge. First to make it to West Seattle was gonna win, and the Viaduct was where they really put the hammer down.

  2. It was all fenced off, where they were building the old highway. He knew, in the morning, a big concrete pour was starting. He pulled, heaving the bulky form in the bag, and cut the fencing. All he had to do was dump this stiff down the hole, and tomorrow, it would be gone forever.

  3. As meet-cutes go, this one was weird. They owned identical cars. Maybe that wouldn't be notable in Seattle if they were Subaru Outbacks but perfectly maintained 1960s Mercedes-Benz 230sl convertibles? An accident was blocking northbound, and the first time they pulled up next to each other, they caught eyes and laughed. The second time they yelled, back and forth, the white car driver initiating. The third time, the driver of the red car sent a paper airplane flying across, landing on the passenger seat of the white car. On it, a phone number.

  4. All he wanted to do was walk it. From the on-ramp to the off-ramp. Just walk it like a person walks any road. The cops saw it different, thought he was a suicide. But come on, man. Would a suicidal person be wearing a yellow safety vest? All he wanted to do was walk and take in the view. And now, he was gonna have to make his way through a bunch of cops to do even that simple thing.

  5. The shaking felt like a flat tire, at first. She had just entered the southbound lanes where they go under the north, but when she saw a telephone pole, next to the highway, swaying, she knew it was something more. She felt movement too strong, too intense. Too wrong. Traffic slowed around her and she laid on the horn. Move, you idiots, move! She looked in the rear view, at her son, sleeping in his car seat, oblivious. There was no way she was gonna let a damn highway win. She pressed the gas around, she had just enough room to get around that Tesla. She laid on the horn and went for it.