Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: Fremont

Plastic bags are scarce in Seattle since the anti-plastic bag ordinance was passed a couple of years ago. So when I dropped my old Birkenstocks off with Dave the Cobbler in Fremont to be resoled, I made sure to stuff their plastic carrying bag into my pocket for some later use. Dave the Cobbler is renowned for salvage repairs on hopeless footwear. All that was salvageable on my Birks were the straps. but still, repair was cheaper than buying a new pair.

A trip to Fremont with Birkenstocks seemed like time travel, back to the neighborhood’s heyday as the counter culture capitol of Seattle, before the techno crowd discovered it.

Fremont was founded in the late 1880s at the mouth of a stream entering Lake Union and named by its founders LH Griffith and E Blewett after their hometown in Nebraska. Its economy was based on lumber and shingle mills and an iron foundry on the lake shore. Along with many other small towns around Seattle, it became a part of the city in 1891. It grew as the railroad and streetcar lines expanded north and then drifted into decline when passenger transit faded out in the 1930s and 1940s.

By the 1960s it was had become home to artists, bohemians, and other questionable types who valued the cheap rents and inspiring ambiance. The happy-go-lucky residents proclaimed Fremont the center of the universe and over beer and other mental modifiers founded the Artists Republic of Fremont. Life drifted along punctuated by annual solstice parades and more spontaneous festivals until the early 2000s. Suddenly Seattle’s tech companies discovered the cheap land prices along the Ship Canal, and the rebuilding of the neighborhood exploded, mowing down old buildings and replacing them with big box apartments and offices.

I’d parked up under the Fremont Bridge, and as I headed downhill toward the intersection that marks downtown Fremont, I noted the usual collection of tourists posing under the Troll’s glaring hubcap eye or next to his hand clutching a VW bug with the California license plate. Installed in 1990, the Troll is a popular piece of street art, but not all art installations in Fremont have been appreciated, and some are still opposed by one or more subsets of the community.

“Waiting for the Interurban,”created in 1979, was one piece not unanimously appreciated. Armen Stepanian, the Seattle pioneer in municipal recycling and unofficial mayor of Fremont, objected to artist Richard Beyer’s collection of cast aluminum waiting passengers memorializing the old streetcar line that ran through Fremont from Seattle to Everett. Complements of anonymous clothiers, the statues are often dressed up—wool scarves and Santa hats in the winter, Hawaiian shirts and plastic leis in the summer. The alert passerby will notice a dog lurking among the waiting passengers. A closer look will reveal that that the dog’s face is human—a portrait of Armen, the artist’s opinion of his opposition cast in aluminum. In 2008 another sculpture, “Late for the Interurban,” was added down the street with a statue of 1970s Seattle TV clowns JP Patches and his pal Gertrude.

When my nephew came to visit, he particularly want to see the statue of Lenin. To his shock it wasn’t a statue of John, but of Vladimir—a controversial hippie installation. Controversy still rages around the heroic Communist statue, by Slavic artist Emil Venkov. The statue was created in1988 just in time for the collapse of Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was pulled down in 1989. An admirer of the artist found it lying in the mud and brought it back to his home in Issaquah. When the admirer died, his widow loaned Lenin to Fremont, where he continues to invite controversy and confusion.

Not far from the sign that marks the Center of the Universe, with its arrows pointing to, among others, the Interurban (1 blk), the Louvre (9,757 km), and the Milky Way (69 lt yrs), is a rocket ready to blast off from the corner of a one-story building. At one time you could drop a quarter in a slot and get a pleasing burst of smoke from it. The 1950s cold war fuselage was once attached to AJ’s Army Navy Surplus store in Belltown and acquired by Fremont enthusiasts in 1991 to be the landmark of the Artists Republic of Fremont. The rocket bears Fremont’s motto, “De Libertas Quirkas,” which they say, means “Freedom to be Peculiar.”

But gone are those days. Gone is the Fremont Tavern, smoky hangout for bikers. Now Fremont is all boutique shops—stylish bicycle gear, home furnishings, greeting cards, and tchotchkes. I decided to sooth my bruised nostalgia at the Fremont Coffee Company, a coffee shop located in a remodeled house where I could ponder the nature of change— the way of all things—over a latte at a table in what looked like a former bedroom. After coffee, on the way back to my car, I decided to detour into Ophelia’s Books, a used bookstore that looked like the last hippie holdout in the neighborhood, with a bookstore cat as well as a couple of bookstore rabbits, a well-tattooed and -pierced customer, and a friendly, knowledgeable owner.

By the time I was ready to end my time travel into Fremont’s past, it had started to rain. Being a Seattlite, I hadn’t brought along an umbrella, so I stuffed my armload of books into the plastic bag I’d saved, pulled up my coathood, and trudged up 35th to where I thought I’d parked. Oh, no, the car was gone, and there next to the empty parking spot was a disabled parking sign. Could I have missed it while parking? Totally believable (shades of past pot-enhanced trips to Fremont flashed briefly through my mind) but maybe I’d parked elsewhere? I splashed through the puddles back along 35th clicking my key fob at any likely white car. By now I wasn’t convinced I’d even recognize my white Camry.

As I crossed back over Troll Avenue, for the third time, I glanced up at the Troll and remembered watching the tourists clamber around on it as I left my car. I realized I’d been closer to them than I was at the moment, and it dawned on me that the car was on 36th not 35th. Sadly I had to blame my memory glitch on age not pot, but I’ll have to say by the time I’d sloshed up the hill to the car, soaking wet but with dry books, I was more than glad I’d stashed that plastic bag in my pocket.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016