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Fremont's gaping question: Can the Center of the Universe hold?

Rents are rising, tech gears are grinding. Can the neighborhood keep its creative juices flowing?
Cyclists in Fremont's annual Solstice Parade.

Cyclists in Fremont's annual Solstice Parade. Photo: Flickr user vincen-t

Seattle's Fremont neighborhood is known as the king of quirk. It's part Burning Man, part old Seattle blue collar canal community, a neighborhood that was into Cosplay before you'd ever heard of it, and also non-Cosplay, if that’s what you can call the nude bicyclists phenomenon. More recently, it's become an emerging high-tech hub.
 
The hub is the rub, however.
 
Fremont emerged in the 1970s as an artistic playground with whimsical sculptures and later Mardi Gras-like events like the annual Solstice Parade. It's got "Waiting for the Interburban," the Fremont Troll, statues of Lenin and of JP Patches and transvestite Gertrude. It birthed the Moisture comedy/performance festival and hosted a Food Truck Rodeo. Community activist Jon Hegeman, the man behind the neighborhood's Sunday Market and outdoor movies, says that the community is a magnet for creativity, and that it's the place where Seattle comes to have fun.
 
The Fremont brand is indelible. But what about the reality?
 
The reality is, Fremont is changing. Some artists have fled to more affordable neighborhoods that have studio and warehouse work space, like Georgetown. As high-tech companies have moved in, the neighborhood has gained energy, but it is also getting more expensive. Creative, quirky Fremont feels itself to be at risk.
 
The Fremont Arts Council, the creative engine at the center of the Center of the Universe, is in transition with an older generation moving on and perhaps the need to shift from an all-volunteer effort to a more professionally run outfit. Linda Hanlon, a creative arts consultant working with the council, has described the organization as being a "hub of eccentric genius" that is at "a tipping point." 
 
Instead of seeing tech companies as a threat, however, the Fremont arts folk want to embrace them as part of the solution. A new group has been formed, the Fremont Creative Advisory Group, that is hoping to bridge arts and tech communities. At a first meeting in late May, the group included folks from the Arts Council, local and tech businesses, King County's 4Culture and the Fremont Chamber of Commerce.
 
There's a lot of logic in the effort. One is that successful tech companies have some resources, obviously. Another is that presumably they employ scads of creative people who were attracted to Fremont for a reason: The employees like an urban creative cauldron, especially one with a high level of tolerance, and an embrace of the weird.
 
Fremont is part of the growing Lake Union Triangle of Tech. The University District is looking to become South Lake Union North. South Lake Union is the Amazon-and-Vulcan-driven dynamic force adjacent to downtown. Fremont holds down the ship canal with companies like Google, Adobe, Tableau and Impinj, and a strong alternative community persona. 
 
The three neighborhoods impact one another and have a lot in common. But each has a distinct flavor. The U District leans academic, SLU feels suburban and corporate. Fremont seems more in tune with the kinds of people tech companies actually employ: artists, role players, free spirits, nerds. The neighborhood serves up the kind of fare that feeds the geeks, both literally and figuratively.
 
And the Fremont arts scene needs new blood. The Fremont Chamber of Commerce has been holding geek meetups, but the new arts advisory group is beginning outreach to see whether the tech companies can be drawn further into the community creative affairs. That's hard to do when these companies are so often in hair-on-fire mode dealing with their own growing businesses, and the pace of change in their industries. Some may not yet be used to local giving — charitable programs often come further down the road in a company's life cycle. But there is some initial progress. Google, for example, is funding a STEAM — STEM plus Arts — kids area at the Gasworks Solstice celebration this year.
 
Of the tech companies, Hegeman says, "They have a stake in the community." The Fremont Arts Council would like to raise $200,000 a year to reinvigorate, expand and professionalize their organization over the next three years. They also would like to get a large work/performance space for the neighborhood. One idea: When Paul Allen is done with the SLU Discovery Center, essentially a real estate sales pavilion at Denny and Westlake that has done its job well, move it to the west end of Gasworks Park and turn it into a new creative studio, perhaps with a large performance space attached.
 
Instead of regarding being a tech hub as a cultural threat, these Fremonters want to embrace the change while also strengthening what might have brought the tech companies there in the first place. Instead of becoming dominated and displaced, they're looking to engage the new Fremont reality and, in the words of Jon Hegeman, invite the techies to come "invent this with us."

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 6:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Fremont hasn't been the funky corner of Seattle since the late 1980s, Knute. It was a short period that they've been feeding on ever since, like Haight-Ashbury feeding from the corpse of the Summer of Love. It went from being an organic moment in history to a carefully cultivated marketing scheme, no more authentic but every bit as appealing as Fauxvaria in Leavenworth.

talisker

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Skip -- Can't believe you did a story on Fremont without interviewing Suzie Burke! What were you thinking? Seriously, Suzie has done more to revitalize the neighborhood over the past few decades than anyone. She just celebrated her 70th birthday with a big party at History House, which is one of the city's cultural gems. She is also a generous philanthropist, helping support many of the area's non-profits and arts organizations. And she's a founder of Fremont Rotary, the "fun club" that does so much good work in the community. Oh, she's also a staunch Republican and was chair of the Washington News Council's board for the past several years. Is that too diverse for you, Mossback? ;-)

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

He also didn't interview me, the resident commie neighborhood activist. But his observations are largely accurate, although as talisker points out, a couple decades late. "Fremont is changing" lol. Suzie and others helped set the plate for the first tech boom in the 1990s during the 1980s zoning fight. I suspect most low income artists have long since abandoned Fremont for far Ballard or Georgetown.

Fremont is a great example of "successful" gentrification.

louploup

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

It looked pretty bland to start with but the development of the Burke property north of the Canal is very well done. I guess we have Suzie to thank for that. I think the Bumgartner successor firm did most or all of the buildings and they create a nice sub-neighborhood that is considerably more sophisticated than what Paul Allen did at SLU (although that's not all bad either).

kieth

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 6:09 p.m. Inappropriate

One of the smartest things Ms. Burke ever did was to shift development responsibility to experienced developers and architects. Earlier projects on her (and family's) land—i.e., the Burke Bldg—are pretty awful. Later projects are much better, but not universally so. (I find the west end of the PCC bldg to be particularly bad, with an ugly loading dock that big trucks can't use and the promised-during-design-review corner entry at 34th trashed by the developer (at PCC's request?). And we (neighborhood) did have to fight with Quadrant to get improvements to the QLUC's layout.

louploup

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

YES, Suzi deserves a big shout out here, she's been Fremont's silent partner in crime all along. I remember her response after tracking her down in Turkey somewhere when we wanted to place to put the new Lenin Statue on her property: " Hell Yeah" —without the slightest hesitation. She has always recognized her role in facilitating creativity and promoting Fremont's special character. The tech community is here because of her vision for a prosperous future. Same with the markets, cinema, and so much more. Suzi is our communities secret ingredient! Will Fremont become a victim of its own success? This is what our fund raising campaign all about. The creative community must evolve to survive, which means welcoming our new neighbors into playground, sharing the vision, and inviting them to help author a more compelling future!

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

YES, Suzi deserves a big shout out here, she's been Fremont's silent partner in crime all along. I remember her response after tracking her down in Turkey somewhere when we wanted to place to put the new Lenin Statue on her property: " Hell Yeah" —without the slightest hesitation. She has always recognized her role in facilitating creativity and promoting Fremont's special character. The tech community is here because of her vision for a prosperous future. Same with the markets, cinema, and so much more. Suzi is our communities secret ingredient! Will Fremont become a victim of its own success? This is what our fund raising campaign all about. The creative community must evolve to survive, which means welcoming our new neighbors into playground, sharing the vision, and inviting them to help author a more compelling future!

Posted Fri, Jun 13, 12:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Fremont lost its allure in the mid 70's. It's been living off, a legacy of that bye-gone time, when things like Etch-A-Sketch art contests were held on weekends in cloud of illegal smoke and the winners had to buy a round in the tavern.

That's the trouble with most enjoyable places, they start out as community group of loose souls, with no real aim, other than to live and enjoy life. Now look at it. It sucked the life out and there's just a shell left. Granted people feel good painting the shell, but it pales when compared to the original.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Jun 13, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Certainly one person can make a difference in a community, and Suzie broke the mold. However, Fremont has certainly also become a little more sterile looking around those tech campuses. Inside of the campuses, it looks a lot different, but the public cannot see or access most of it.

It would be more valuable for Fremont not to become too dependant upon tech's largesse, as that is not a subsitute for civic committment in general. It also makes it vulnerable to the funds being directed for the benefit of the giver more than the receiver.

Marksp

Posted Fri, Jun 13, 5:14 p.m. Inappropriate

In the mid-60s, Fremont was more aproi haunt for winos, in the early 70s, for speed freaks and heroin addicts who'd been run out of the U District. For a good while it was better known for its bars, than for anything particularly cultural.

Do we want artists, writers, and musicians to stay, not just in Fremont, but in Seattle? If so, perhaps we should be looking at ways to further incentivize it, such as increasing tax-credits in return for providing affordable housing (including live-in studios). Some already exist in the Fremont and surrounding areas, but not enough to staunch the creative out-migrations.

Posted Sun, Jun 22, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Talisker: what s/he said. I left Fremont in 1989, apparently in the nick of time. I never go back, can't park. Why would I anyway?

JackNH

Posted Sun, Jun 22, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Talisker: what s/he said. I left Fremont in 1989, apparently in the nick of time. I never go back, can't park. Why would I anyway?

JackNH

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