That would be Seattle’s Freeway Park. What originally may have seemed a triumphant merger of Modernism and the then nascent Urban Ecology movement has proven itself to be an ideal site for crime that includes murder and rape. In Montreal our version of this was probably the notorious Pine/Park Interchange, the demolition of which has been one of the brightest projects in the city in recent decades.
Topography of Terror
Seattle’s Freeway Park is a garden of earthly delights–for the city’s crazed murderers and inhuman rapists! A sprawling maze of dark corners, towering
by Charles Mudede
On Friday, January 18, 2002, four women walked into the public restrooms in the heart of Freeway Park and found a dead body on the floor. It was 10:15 a.m. The raw energy of the violent murder–the victim, RaeAnn Champaco, was stabbed several times in the chest–had not dissipated; it was still fresh and vivid. The women ran out of the restroom screaming. As they headed toward the north part of the park, they saw, first, a person of interest–a white man who pulled his blue London Fog-style trench coat over his head and fled–and then a red panic button. The police entered the park with tracking dogs, and tried to hunt down the killer. He got away because, as Seattle Police Department spokesperson Officer Fish explained in a press release, the park’s “maze of pathways” hindered their search. The murder in the restroom was not exceptional. Since its completion in 1976, many ghastly crimes have been committed in the terraced park built over I-5. To name but a few: In 1984, Tracy Marie Williams vanished without a trace from Freeway Park (her remains were found four years later along Highway 16 in Tacoma, and identified only this year). In March 1997, a man was stabbed to death on the wooden bench next to the park’s restroom. Just before Christmas of 1998, a woman walking by the park to visit a downtown friend was forced, at gunpoint, into the park and raped. On February 10, 2002, barely three weeks after the restroom murder, a woman walking through the park was pushed into some bushes and raped.
Although violent crimes are committed in other parks around the city, Freeway Park is distinct in the sense that it’s hard to separate its crimes from its design. “The environmental design of the park lends itself to the kind of activity that can’t be and doesn’t want to be detected,” explains Officer Fish. (He should know: Fish patrolled Freeway Park when he was a beat cop.) It’s highly likely that the man who stabbed RaeAnn Champaco to death in Freeway Park knew its convoluted design would afford him the cover he needed for a successful getaway. Champaco was deaf and mute, so she could not scream for help; but even if Champaco could scream, it’s hard to hear anything over the park’s thundering artificial waterfalls and the traffic rushing beneath it.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions–and all the intentions behind Freeway Park’s design were good, but the consequences have been hellish. The man who designed Freeway Park, Lawrence Halprin, is by all accounts a good man. Throughout his distinguished career, Halprin, who is described as a “joyous spirit,” has been motivated by the noblest ideas: to create urban spaces that encourage meditative thought, excite the senses, and celebrate life. “If done right, architecture can promote healing,” he said in the North Bay Bohemian. “[And] a lot of healing can be done in a wonderful environment.”
Halprin is essentially a hippie. During his peak period, the ’60s and early ’70s, he lived in the capital of hippiedom, San Francisco, where he danced on the streets with his expressive wife, Anne Halprin, an established modern dancer. Anne Halprin’s dancing was (and still is) noted for its celebration of the mythical elements of life. The themes that inspire her dance performances correspond with the themes that inspire Halprin’s architecture: “community participation processes,” “spontaneity,” and forming intimate connections with “primal forces.”
Though a nature lover, Lawrence Halprin is not anti-urban. He is not opposed to urban development–not even the construction of huge freeways. In his 1966 book, Freeways–the book that inspired the Seattle Park Commission to hire him as Freeway Park’s designer–Halprin wrote, “In the city new vistas unfold because of elevated freeways: vast panoramic views are disclosed which were never seen before. Some of the greatest new urban experiences are those of driving into a beautiful city.”
Halprin admired Seattle’s I-5, and recognized that, though it had a negative environmental impact (noise pollution, the creation of orphaned spaces beneath its massive bulk, and so on), it organized the city for the motorist. While driving into Seattle on the elevated freeway a motorist can see, in one glorious sweep, the city’s business district, entertainment centers, and residential areas–and lakes, mountains, and woods off in the distance.
Halprin did not want to negate the 10-lane I-5 with trees and shrubs, but to absorb and integrate the freeway into the park. “The trick is to perceive [I-5] as part of the cityscape and tame it rather than complain about it,” he stated in Sutherland Lyall’s Designing the New Landscape.
Halprin tamed the park not by converting its urban environment into a natural environment, but by blending the two into a new landscape, a new nature. In Freeway Park, exposed slabs of concrete grow out of the ground like trees; some areas have walls of concrete, others walls of rhododendron. There are concrete canyons and waterfalls that roar with the rushing traffic. It’s as if all the extra concrete from the construction of I-5 had, after years of abandonment, mutated with the pines, cotoneasters, and Boston ivy to form a futuristic forest.
The Art of Crime Prevention
“It’s a triumph as a garden,” Mike Evans says over the phone, “but a disaster from a crime-prevention point of view.”
Evans was a law enforcement officer at the University of Washington for 22 years. Crime prevention in environmental design (involving the statistical analysis of lighting problems, design problems, and sightlines) is one of his areas of expertise. Currently he owns a consulting company that offers its clients security surveys, in-depth reports on present and future security needs, and, most importantly, designs for public places that discourage crime.
Evans is also the president of the Freeway Park Neighborhood Group, and until recently he was the safety and security manager for the upscale retirement home Horizon House, which rises above the eastern side of Freeway Park.
“When I started working at the Horizon House,” says Evans, “the first thing that I saw was that the residents there were afraid of walking through the park, as were most people in the neighborhood.” One walk through Freeway Park convinced him that it was the park’s design that inspired fear and facilitated crime. “And so my goal was to modify the park,” he continues, “to make it more pleasant and safe.”
Evans, who has put 10 years of his life into reforming Freeway Park, offers me a personal tour. “I think showing you the problems directly would give you a good sense of what’s really going on,” he explains. I accept his offer.
The next day we meet in front of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. It is 10:15 a.m. on a Friday, the very time and weekday Champaco was murdered some months before. Prickly purple flowers are in bloom, speckled robins fly through the massive, fairy-tale trees, and the blended smell of roses and gas fumes is everywhere. A crop of blue and silver corporate towers rises over the thick evergreens and the emerald glass of the Convention Center. But Evans isn’t interested in the towers or flowers or trees. Instead, he begins discussing Freeway Park’s criminal shortcomings.
“See those lights over there,” he says, pointing at lights positioned just west of us. “They are 20 feet high. The park’s designer originally had 100-foot-high lights.” The problem with lights that high, according to Evans, was that they towered over trees, casting more shadows. Halprin’s original lights created darkness! “The design architect”–Evans never mentions Halprin by name–“was probably thinking, ‘It looks great this way!'”
Evans leads me into the dead heart of the park.
“Now this is a total disaster,” he says, indicating the brutal blocks of concrete that form the public restrooms. “I mean, it’s all wrong. More than one person can enter it at a time; absolutely no attempt was made to regulate the use of these restrooms.” He steps back and regards the restrooms with horror. “These restrooms are a menace.”
Evans is proud of one part of the park–a small patch of sunny grass.
“This part of the park was once covered with huge trees,” Evans says. “You couldn’t see anything! We removed about a dozen trees from this area.” He points at a camera hidden inside a dark plastic bubble. “We talked to the Convention Center about placing that camera over there, and finally they did. It is a 360-degree pan-tilt-and-zoom camera. It watches the restroom. The only problem with it is it only runs when you press the panic button. If that camera had been running when the woman was murdered, we would have had an image of the suspect.”
We walk up and down some of the zigzagging ramps on the east side of the park, near the Jensonia Hotel. Just two months before, on July 5, 2002, a man standing at the bottom of these ramps tried to shoot a Jensonia resident who was standing at his front door on eighth street. The police searched the park for the shooter but, as in the case of Champaco’s murder, failed to locate him in the maze.
Standing beneath the Eighth Avenue overpass that cuts across the park, Evans tells me about a small tunnel that used to be here. “You were forced to walk along the wall, take a 90-degree turn into a narrow tunnel, and you didn’t know what was ahead of you,” Evans says. “There were armed robberies here. So we raised the money, and [turned the narrow tunnel into a wide-open archway].”
Evans then plunges into some bushes just opposite the arch. I follow him. We enter a world within a world: a creepy place penetrated by sinister pins of sunlight. There is a low concrete ledge that forms a sort of balcony, beneath which is University Street, whose traffic flows furiously onto I-5. Also visible from this point is another, lower balcony with four tall concrete walls and a small entrance just behind it. Evans calls it a room. “The park has a lot of these little concrete rooms,” he explains, “which are dangerous. So are the narrow pathways that take strange directions, that allow someone to hide ahead of you.”
Soon we are standing on the corner of Sixth and Seneca, looking into the park. “There used to be obstructions everywhere,” Evans sighs.
“Until we flattened some of the concrete blocks and removed some trees, you couldn’t see any of this,” he says of the waterfall, which he believes is dangerous and too accessible. “Now if I had $100,000, I could make the final changes to this park that would make it friendly and safe. And if it’s safe, more people will use the park. And if there are more people, then that is the best kind of security you can have.”
I ask Evans what an ideal park would look like. Without hesitation, he says, “Westlake Park.” To Freeway Park’s designer, the ideal park was a series of enclosed and obscured public spaces in which individuals could discover their most intimate selves; Mike Evans’ ideal park is one that is totally open, with no hidden corners, no cover, no opportunities for intimate self-discovery or random encounters.
Or random murders.
Women in Black
“The park is scary,” explains a member of Women in Black, an organization that holds vigils for homeless people who suffer violent deaths. RaeAnn Champaco, the deaf murder victim, lived on and off at the nearby YWCA on Fifth Avenue.
“It’s especially scary to women because it’s so mazelike,” the member of Women in Black continues. For personal reasons, she has asked me not to quote her by name. (We’ll call her Ms. Black.) “But it’s also easy to hide there if you’re just looking for a place to sleep and feel comfortable in. But the privacy you get comes at a cost because it’s easy to get attacked.”
It’s not an easy park to find, as Women in Black would discover when they planned a “cleansing” ceremony for Champaco.
“When we were doing the outreach for the Freeway Park cleansing for RaeAnn,” Ms. Black explains, “people didn’t know where to find us. You can [only] see a little bit of the park as you’re walking down the Seneca Street side. You don’t see it at all if you go down the Convention Center side. We had to draw maps.”
The vigil for Champaco was held near the restroom where she was murdered. It was a somber affair: Dressed in black, the mourning women proceeded from the southwest entrance at Sixth and Seneca to the scene of the crime, where they burned incense, sage, and candles, read poems and a manifesto, and prayed.
This was not the first time Women in Black had held a vigil for a Freeway Park victim. Early last year, they entered the Public Safety Building on Third Avenue and performed a ritual for Timothy Lee Dewitt, who was not killed by a man but by the park itself: At 10:30 p.m. on January 22, 2001, he fell from a low ledge into I-5’s oncoming traffic and was killed instantly.
In April 2001, another man fell down the steps that zigzag to Hubbell Place and died from his injuries. Several men have fallen down the waterfalls. One waterfall victim “broke all of the bones in his body,” according to a homeless man who panhandles by the park’s southeastern entrance. “He was a friend of mine,” the man continues. “His name is Kevin, and he was in the hospital for almost a year after that.”
When Freeway Park was being built, city planners asked the designer to place signs by the waterfalls that warned visitors against climbing them. Halprin refused. “[The] plainly visible danger is a much better protection against people taking silly risks,” he wrote in Designing the New Landscape. It seems to me, however, that instead of signs warning citizens to stay off of Freeway Park’s waterfalls, perhaps the city should post signs at the very entrances of Freeway Park. Entering this park at all is risky business.