We’re on a Train to Northgate, Come on Inside

1 May 2022 by Paul Constant in Places

We transit nerds have been waiting for the Seattle Northgate Link for a decade now and in retrospect, it’s a miracle that the opening of the 4.3-mile light rail extension has been delayed by only a single year. Being obsessed with public transportation in a city like Seattle is not unlike being a meteorologist in Las Vegas: we get our new transit here in great vivacious flood-bursts, biding our time for that one perfect downpour. Suddenly, our hair is soaked and our nostrils are alive with the smell of wet sand. These three new stops on our transit system are to be savored and today King County Metro is offering unlimited free rides to celebrate, over the vociferous opposition of conservative city council members.

A gaggle of us board the first train of the morning at the line’s former northernmost terminus, the University light rail station, and it’s standing room only. Grinning dads clutch the hands of their exhausted children; a baby cries. From there, it’s only a minute or two to the U District station, deep under Brooklyn Avenue in the heart of the University District. Unlike the airy stations to the north and south, this is one of a handful of Seattle’s light rail stops that feels like a proper claustrophobic subway. We rumble underground through another station and finally emerge and ascend into the elevated station at Northgate, an institutional rip on Frank Lloyd Wright that makes a half-hearted attempt at “soaring.” It’s a trip of less than five miles, but we’ve traveled this route dozens of times in our imaginations.

Exiting the station, most of us aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We waited for the moment and suddenly the moment arrived, and just as suddenly it’s over, and we’re back to waiting again. A few excitable riders immediately run up the stairs to the downtown platform, as though they’re thrill seekers at Disney World. Some make their way to the park-and-ride lots, ready to drive home. But most of us decide to wander over to Northgate Mall, so we can at least say we rode the train to something.

Popularly identified as the “first indoor mall in the world,” Northgate has atrophied from generic mall to something emptier, meaner. Fully half of the anchor stores are vacant, and most of the feeder chains that fill out malls across America — your Hot Topics, your Disney Stores — are long gone, too. I’d put it around 65 percent occupied. Where corporations have fled, weird, opportunistic small businesses have taken their place: payday loans, hopelessly tacky 3D-printed jewelry, phone-repair booths, off-brand custom vitamins, an ancient VR arcade temporarily closed by order of the health department for hosting an aggressive strain of pinkeye, a creepy office marked “Plastic Sugrery.” A locksmith occupies a space far too big for his shop. One storefront, marked hopefully with a hand-painted sign reading “RAVI’S,” is completely unidentifiable: a shipping store, a perfumery, a church? Maybe all three?

At least that old reliable cockroach of the food court, Orange Julius, is still around. I order a medium Julius from “Marco” (says his retro nametag) and ask him how business is. Marco sort of waves his hands in the air, puffs his cheeks, and widens his eyes. “The train,” he says, and gestures vaguely beyond the mall. “It’s been a long time coming.” He shrugs. It may not be enough.


Paul Constant has written about books, politics, and film for Newsweek, The Utne Reader, The Progressive, The Seattle Stranger, and alternative weeklies around North America. He currently works for Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based in Seattle.