by Chetanya Robinson
(This article first appeared in Real Change News and has been republished with permission)
Visitors to the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in West Seattle have to navigate poor sidewalks and a treacherous stretch of West Marginal Way that lacks a crosswalk and pedestrian signal.
“People go up and down West Marginal Way at 60 miles an hour — it’s like a freeway,” said Jolene Haas, director of the Longhouse.
Visiting the Longhouse might become safer next year. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will build a temporary pedestrian crossing by the Longhouse in summer 2021, followed by a permanent one a year later. The department will also build a new sidewalk — meeting Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements — and fill a gap in the biking trail there.
“I was delighted,” Haas said of the new improvements, which the Duwamish have long requested. “We just never thought this was going to happen in a million years.”
The Longhouse, which was constructed in 2009 from Western red cedar with traditional Salish architecture, is the centerpiece of the Duwamish tribe’s efforts to survive culturally and economically. It includes cultural objects, a space for performances and a kitchen for preparing traditional foods. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it hosted regular events, educational programs for children and walking tours of the history, geology and biology of the Duwamish river. Limited tours are still available.
The Longhouse stands across the street from an archeological village site and the Duwamish river. “We’re so happy to be here, to be close to the river and close to one of our sacred sites,” Haas said. “There isn’t any other place we’d want to be. But we just feel like the city should help us create equal access and safe access to getting here.”
The hazardous traffic along West Marginal Way has created financial barriers for the Duwamish. “People don’t want to rent our facility or come here for a workshop, because the access to get here is so difficult,” Haas said. “Then how are we supposed to survive in this economy and in this city?”
In March, the city closed the West Seattle bridge after an inspection found alarming cracks. As traffic was diverted toward other bridges, it increased along West Marginal Way. SDOT lowered the speed limit on the road to 30 miles per hour in May and installed radar feedback signs in September to control speeding.
Ironically, the bridge closure probably ensured the crosswalk and other projects were funded and installed more quickly.
The Longhouse pedestrian safety improvements — the sidewalk, crosswalk and bike lane — already had $1.25 million in funding for planning and design from the 2020 budget. With the closure of the bridge, it became important to quickly mitigate the impacts of detouring traffic along West Marginal Way, said Dawn Schellenberg, spokesperson for SDOT, in an email.
“It’s sort of a glass-half-full outcome of the bridge closure,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle. “This year, we leveraged the fact that we have this crisis with the bridge closure to get the city to fully fund the project.”
Herbold has supported the Duwamish tribe’s efforts to get a crosswalk built for years, starting when she worked as a staffer for Councilmember Nick Licata. She lives nearby and has frequently visited. “You go to a meeting at the Longhouse and have to cross that crazy road,” she said.
It’s taken so long to build the crosswalk and implement other improvements, Herbold said, because of the City Council’s lack of “prioritization around the need.”
According to Schellenberg of SDOT: “Unfortunately, up until recently, a lack of funding for these improvements in that location did not make it feasible for us to provide them.”
That didn’t stop the Duwamish from advocating for the improvements, including recently seeking funding through SDOT’s Your Voice, Your Choice participatory budgeting process for street improvements. The tribe’s proposal received wide community support in West Seattle.
SDOT has narrowed traffic into one lane on either side of the Longhouse and installed paint and posts. But at first, the city said there wasn’t enough funding for the crosswalk, and the industrial location was a challenge, Haas said.
“It wasn’t going anywhere, so we basically held everyone’s feet to the fire,” she said.
After the bridge closure, Haas feared the Longhouse safety program would get pushed aside, and she joined the West Seattle Bridge Task Force to keep the project alive.
In the end, the project was fully funded through SDOT’s Reconnect West Seattle, which is intended to mitigate the impacts of detour traffic in Duwamish Valley neighborhoods.
SDOT will build a temporary pedestrian crossing signal by the Longhouse in summer 2021, followed by a permanent one the next year. The permanent crossing will take a year because it requires reconstructing the BNSF rail crossing at that location, and the company needs “a long lead time” to review designs, according to SDOT.
In spring 2021, SDOT will install a new asphalt sidewalk on the west side of West Marginal Way where there’s now an overgrown path.
SDOT will also build out 0.4 miles of biking trailway to create a full path for cyclists getting to the Longhouse. The department is considering design options for the southbound curb lane, which extends from the existing Duwamish Trail Crossing signal to the Longhouse, and will have discussions with the public and stakeholders about options.
Haas is happy the pedestrian safety projects will soon become reality. Next, she hopes King County Metro will create a bus stop near the Longhouse; the closest one is about a mile away. “That would just be, to us, a dream come true,” she said.
“With the billions of dollars that’s being dumped into the city by all the tourists that come here, they can’t get on a bus and get here,” Haas said. “So we’re sort of being left out in the cold, we feel.”
The Longhouse receives an estimated 10,000 visitors per year on average, and Haas wants to make it easier for more people to visit.
“There’s no other place in the city of Seattle that represents the first people of Seattle but this longhouse, and tells our story,” Haas said in reference to Duwamish representation. “I just feel like people should have access to get here.”
A bigger dream in sight
An even bigger dream for the Duwamish is the possibility that the new Joe Biden presidential administration will grant them federal recognition.
In 1855, tribal leaders in western Washington, including Duwamish and Suquamish leader (and Seattle’s namesake) Chief Si’ahl, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott. In signing the treaty, the Duwamish gave up their homeland of most of King County in return for a reservation and fishing and hunting rights. Several Washington tribes were granted land and federal recognition as sovereign tribal nations, but not the Duwamish.
Federal recognition would allow the tribe to create their own laws, be exempt from taxes, and receive services from the federal government, like healthcare and subsidized housing.
The tribe has pursued federal recognition since 1977, which it almost received in the last days of Bill Clinton’s administration, but then President George W. Bush swiftly took it away because of a technicality based on stricter criteria from 1978, which have since been updated twice.
Haas believes there’s a greater chance it could happen under a Democratic administration, and the tribe is preparing to petition the Biden administration. That said, the tribe had high hopes for recognition under President Barack Obama, and it never happened.
“We always have hope,” Haas said. “It’s never going to be over for us until we are granted our rights under the treaty that the tribe signed.”
Chetanya Robinson is a South King County-based reporter.
The featured image is attributed to the Seattle Department of Transportations Flickr account under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.