Happy warrior fights to tame Aurora Avenue
Armed with cheerfulness, 85-year-old Richard Dyksterhuis got the city to build some sidewalks in the neglected but densely populated area of North Seattle, but he’s far from declaring victory.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
“Welcome to Seattle!”
Richard Dyksterhuis is leading Seattle officials along the edge of Aurora Avenue North. Here, there are few sidewalks, and it offends him.
On the Seattle side, he inveighs against a sign still spinning next to an empty storefront, and the iron fence of an impound yard.
“Do you have a junk drawer at home? This is a junk street,” Dyksterhuis says. A car coasts toward the group, on a shoulder that looks like a right-turn lane, then veers away.
His goal is to pacify the rambunctious commercial strip and leave a legacy of double-wide sidewalks from North 125th Street to North 145th Street. Sidewalks would be a foot-in-the-door toward an urbanist dream, to replace what he calls Gasoline Alley with a grand entry. Native trees would be planted, a large welcome sign installed.
“It should be a center for wellness, where we could set up research and development for the people,” he says. And 24-story housing could be built, providing views of the Olympic and Cascade mountains.
Dyksterhuis, 85, is a dreamer. There is little or no money right now to rebuild this stretch of Aurora, but his persistence has paid off before.
In June, the city will complete a $12 million array of sidewalks, grade-separated bike lanes, drainage swales and tree plantings on nearby Linden Avenue North.
Dyksterhuis, helped by fellow Bitter Lake-Broadview neighborhood advocates Will Murray, David Johnson and Gloria Butts, deserves much of the credit for the project, says Mayor Mike McGinn, who took what Dyksterhuis calls the “Lindy Hop” walking tour back in 2005.
“You couldn’t even walk a block or two without it being harrowing, as a pedestrian,” says McGinn. “You’d find yourself wedged between the parked cars and the moving cars, along with dodging potholes.”
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen says he’s received well over 100 letters and emails from Dyksterhuis.
“At least twice I’ve walked Aurora with him, maybe three times, both sides. And Linden at least a half-dozen times, to review the progress,” says Rasmussen. “His style is the ideal style. Push, and do it in a fun and optimistic way, and don’t stop. That works.”
Seattle annexed its northern three miles from North 85th to North 145th streets in the 1950s from unincorporated King County, and is still playing catch-up. If outlying parts of Rainier Valley, South Park and West Seattle are counted, nearly one-third of all Seattle streets remain without sidewalks.
The first few blocks of sidewalk on Linden were built during Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration. The City Council promised in 2008 to rebuild the whole street, and McGinn made funding a priority in his 2009 campaign for mayor.
Dyksterhuis moved to North Seattle in 1955 and eventually worked as principal at West Seattle High, academic coordinator at Garfield High, then as a desegregation planner. In 1975, Garfield humanities teacher Cleta Hughes was teaching Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and needed a voice. Dyksterhuis filled in. Later they became a couple and bought a condo on Linden and a home near Hood Canal.
As Hughes began to lose mobility, and sometimes needed an electric scooter, they stayed primarily at the Linden condo.
Dyksterhuis noticed seniors struggling to cross the street and walking on gravel, from the high-rise Four Freedoms House to the post office.
“Guys would honk at them. I’d see people speeding in trucks, 40 to 45 miles an hour.” The answer, he thought, was to separate walkers, bicycles and traffic.
In a 2010 documentary “A Different Path,” by Monteith McCollum, Dyksterhuis is filmed pushing a cart through a rainy parking lot and leading seniors carrying picket signs on Linden:
“An Alice in Wonderland world, you know, I’m looking for the white rabbit to help get out of this damn hole, and get me back to the real world, with sidewalks, and neighbors who smile at you, who know you by name and like you,” Dyksterhuis says. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
A gleeful activist, he designed “Lindy Hop”-labeled ball caps, which he still gives away. He chats with the construction flaggers. He writes about how “OhRoarAh” is unfit for the couple’s poodle, Pippa.
“She’ll walk anywhere with me, except Aurora,” he says. “Big bouncing trucks, digging equipment, no problem. But if you walk on Aurora, she cringes.”
Already, the almost-done sidewalk route on the northern mile of Linden is trod by residents of 2,200 apartments and condos there, and hundreds more nearby.
“Isn’t it grand. Isn’t it lovely?” Dyksterhuis says, pointing to linden-leaf imprints in the concrete. Across the road, children in red wagons are towed back to day care.
Barbara Madden, pushing her walker for morning exercise, said the new sidewalks help her get to Al-Anon meetings instead of catching a bus on Aurora. “That’s 42 blocks straight, where I don’t have to worry about traffic,” she said.
Seattle staffers say the connection to Aurora will improve somewhat this fall with the conversion of Metro Transit bus route 358 to the RapidRide E Line. The transit project includes $6 million in federal aid for access to bus stops, such as west-east sidewalks from Linden to Aurora.
But the hectic Aurora strip still has admirers. Entrepreneurs without riches can open a restaurant, repair automobiles or sell marijuana, with drive-up access serving distant customers. Years ago, author Jonathan Raban wrote: “On Aurora one can see the region’s face, without makeup, caught in an unguarded and unselfconscious mood. What you see on Aurora is what people here are really like.”
A makeover with sidewalks might cost $100 million, from North 115th Street to the city limits, due to drainage and street rebuilds, says Eugene Wasserman, president of the Broadview Community Council, who also is paid to assist the Aurora Merchants Association.
“Not many people are walking on Aurora. Most people drive up here,” says Wasserman, who does support sidewalks to Aurora. Greenwood Avenue North, lined with apartments, is more deserving of sidewalks and limited street money, he says.
Wasserman says he respects Dyksterhuis as relentless and effective, “dedicated to what he does. I don’t think he listens to other people.”
Dyksterhuis replies that the city spent more than $100 million just to rebuild six blocks of Mercer Street, so why not a grand entry at Aurora?
If anybody can sustain momentum, he can, said mayoral candidate Kate Martin, on the Aurora tour.
“He brought some humor in it to keep it going. Most people advocate for six months and they’ll burn out,” she said. “He’s been at this for seven years. He’ll get Aurora, too, if he doesn’t die first.”
Rasmussen said he sees the place as a walkable “senior-friendly neighborhood,” an idea that overlaps somewhat with Dyksterhuis’ “wellness center” dream.
All his walking keeps Dyksterhuis energetic and in need of a cause.
“I’ll stay with this as long as I possibly can,” he says, “and if I have to use Cleta’s electric scooter, I will.”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom