Seattle's real underground tour

An artist explores the city's sewers and tells us about the "aging beast" the lives beneath our feet, and the men and women who keep it alive, and keep us safe.

Crosscut archive image.

Stokley Towles.

An artist explores the city's sewers and tells us about the "aging beast" the lives beneath our feet, and the men and women who keep it alive, and keep us safe.

We're gathered in a gleaming downtown office tower. The topic: dead gerbils and bloody toilet paper.

People talk about how the city's police officers and firefighters face danger every day. But what about the public workers who wade in sewage to keep the city flowing? How about the men and women who say prayers before they go down the manholes into the sewer system with their shirt cuffs wrapped in duct tape so the hobo spiders and cockroaches won't crawl up their sleeves?

Artist Stokley Towles has made a specialty of telling stories of the public sector's "invisible worlds," the life "backstage or behind the curtain" of a big city. He's documented the people and process of handling the city's garbage, the work of law enforcement, and county librarians who find books returned filled with beach sand and bookmarks made of condoms or raw bacon. His work is funded by grants.

One-percent for art has been criticized, but a Stokely Towles performance is less permanent but maybe more immediately educational than sculptures at a sewage treatment plant. Using pictures, props, and interviews, Towles tells a story of how things work, and the people who run them. His new work, which he previewed for the Seattle Public Utilities staff last week in advance of a series of free public performances, is called "Stormwater: Life in the Gutter." His creation is his own; the work isn't vetted by any pr dept. It's funded by 4Culture and the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs (combined funding: $25,000).

Towles reminds me of an archaeologist or anthropologist. Archaeologists rarely get more excited than when excavating cave dung or an old privy: human waste tells us a lot about our ancestors, what they ate, what they threw away. In short, they are gold mines of data. Anthropologists often work in the field and study people in their native habitats. Towles gets to know the workers who worry about sewers and stormwater, what makes them tick, and what makes the system flow.

Flow, he says, it what it is all about. Moving fluids from your kitchen or bathroom to the treatment plant, or Puget Sound. Guiding rainwater that scours filthy streets so that it doesn't flood your neighborhood. He describes the city's drainage and wastewater system as an "aging beast," with parts over a century old. The system, he says, is a living thing that pulses with our activities, the weather, the rain. It doesn't always work (as a tragic flood in Madison Valley reminded us). It's a beast that must be cared for and maintained, and that's what SPU workers are hired to do.

Towles helps you imagine what they are up against. That hideous, hairy clog that blocks your shower drain? Imagine one of those created by a city, not a family, clogging a drain in a massive holding tank 30 feet under ground in West Seattle. Someone has to go down there, wade through human waste that is waist-high. The drain is jammed with rocks, dead animals (gerbils, goldfish), tennis balls, all the junk people flush down toilets, and it all must be removed. One worker named John gets through it by imagining he's someplace happier: "I'm working in a candy factory," he says. "Denial" is not just a river in Egypt but a coping strategy for sewer workers. These are jobs that come with a high gag factor and pragmatic advice. Tip of the day: If you're down in the bowels of the city and feel nauseated, go ahead and throw up. Preferably in the sewage channel.

It's not all about sewage, however. It's about coming up with better ways of dealing with runoff. Restoring old creeks, like Thornton Creek in North Seattle, is not only so that the salmon can come back, but because the curves of a meandering creek bed slow runoff so more is absorbed back into the ground and filtered instead of running into the Sound tainted with higher concentrations of the grit and ooze of oil, gas, cigarette butts, and pet poop. Concrete grids make cities efficient in some ways, but running creeks into concrete flumes hurts the environment: sometimes, a healthy city, from the standpoint of flow, meanders a bit, even if such ideas ran against the grain of R. H. Thomson, the relentless city engineer who built us a sewer and water system that wasn't made of hollowed logs. Going with the flow can have real benefits.

Towles has a great sense of humor, a knack for explanation, the Bill Nye of public works. We learn that the workers who unclog the pipes communicate by radio and have handles so they can be identified. Towles was hanging out with them in a place most Seattleites don't even know about, the Bayview sewer tunnel through Beacon Hill, built in the 1890s. He told us about "Hollywood," and "Rabbit," and "Chainsaw." Towles got his own nickname from his initials, S.T., which is why he was dubbed "Street." 

"Street" leads us through the city's underbelly, and finds a kind of nobility there. Our right to be free of what we flush is defended by those who serve in the dark. Imagine, he says, if they weren't there and every home or street had sewage and run-off backing up. Like a city without cops, it would be chaos: angst, disease, dysfunction, filth. Think of the Northwest equivalent of medieval, miasmal London. "They are defending civilization as we know it!" he declares, which seems absurd on the one hand. Is the sewer worker or the man with the snake from Roto-Rooter really an American hero? But, it also seems right: Anyone who has had to deal with a sewage back-up in the basement can relate to the thin line between modernity and savagery. We can survive a broken Wall Street, but not a failed plumbing system.

Part of the lesson is to remember that you are what you flush. To maintain the fiction that everything flushed simply disappears requires a vast infrastructure. Unlike humans throughout history, we can make our poop vanish, but that doesn't mean it actually goes away. Ideally it winds up there in a more sanitary state than when it left. One value of recycling garbage, for example, is that it raises awareness of our mess and prevents us from being too divorced from it or its consequences. Do you gag while composting rotting cantaloupe rinds? It's good for you, a civic lesson that life leaves a rather repulsive trail that needs to be dealt with, or transformed.

Towles tells us how one SPU employee reminds himself that he is personally part of the cycle. It isn't just other people's waste he's dealing with. After using the toilet, he looks before flushing: "See you in the field" he says, then sends his business on its way.

If you go: Stormwater: Life in the Gutter is scheduled for a number of upcoming public performances. The schedule is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.