Fremont's corporate takeover: Biker bars give way to big banks

Once we were old and funky: A Fremont institution's closing stirs nostalgia. Not so long ago, it was the "big business" interloper.
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Would you hang a birthday balloon on this man?

Once we were old and funky: A Fremont institution's closing stirs nostalgia. Not so long ago, it was the "big business" interloper.

It’s been four months since Costas Opa closed, but it’s still weird to see blank windows at the cast stone-trimmed corner of Fremont Ave. and North 34th Street, across the street from the Fremont Bridge. Costas was, as the blog and newspaper obits duly noted, an “institution”; about the closest the thing the Center of the Universe still had to an original anchor, aside from its bridge and Carnegie library and a few Fre-lard marine businesses.

And yet when Costa Antonopolous, who already had a popular U-District eatery, arrived 33 years ago to fix up that decrepit corner and give the neighborhood its first respectable restaurant, some neighbors saw him as an interloper. “Watch out, big business is moving in,” a nervous artist with an inexpensive studio in Fremont told me, with a straight face. Those were the days, at least in this center of the universe, when “big business” could mean a family-owned Greek restaurant. Isolation and the echoes of the Boeing bust a decade earlier still insulated Seattle from the wider world, nowhere more so than in Fremont.

The neighborhood had been on a slow skid since the Aurora Ave. high bridge stole its low-bridge trade in the 1930s and its lifeline, the Interurban streetcar, rattled off to the scrap heap. In the 1960s and 70s it came to be compared to Haight Ashbury, minus the Summer of Love — stoned and seedy, a collector beach for drug-damage cases and other human flotsam.

Including the more predatorial sort: The Gypsy Jokers, a then-mighty motorcycle gang that supposedly came north after getting pushed out of the Bay Area by the Hell’s Angels, occupied a house just across Aurora on Ashworth Avenue. The Jokers had their own (illegal) bar there, but the hawgs were still packed thick outside the Fremont Tavern, which occupied the corner across from what would become Costas, and the kinder and gentler Buckaroo, up the ave in so-called Upper Fremont.

One day a photographer I was working with and I sat at the sunny front table of the Fremont Tavern sipping Rainiers. The rest of the joint was full of bikers. She lifted her camera to snap my picture. Heads turned, and a brawny guy with a sleeveless sweatshirt, thick moustache and mullet charged up from the back; others stood up and glowered. "Put that camera away!" he snarled. “If my probation officer finds out I’m here, I’m screwed!”

Already, however, another culture was ascendant in Fremont. A contingent that, like bikers, is attracted to places other people don’t pay much attention to or charge much rent for: those inexorable urban pioneers and pre-gentrifiers, the artists. Whither they go, hip restaurants, condos and aspiringly hip stockbrokers, lawyers, and other loft converters soon follow. It’s a process I’ve watched and studiously failed to capitalize on from SoHo in New York, where my friends from high school tried to get me to move in the 1970s, to Santa Fe, where I actually did move, to Fremont, which charmed me when I arrived at the decade's end.

Fremont was well on its way to becoming an arts mecca when I landed across the Ship Canal in 1979. It had its own very active arts council, where I hung out in my early months here. Even then, staffer Bob Campbell would answer the phone, “Hello, Fremont, Center of the Universe.” (As far as the Seattle Times knew, that motto was only adopted in 1994.)  

It had its own art cause célèbre and art feud — though one of the figures around whom they revolved wasn't an artist and the other was anathema to the art establishment. Armen Stepanian, a carpenter-turned-community organizer and walking piece of performance art, was elected the fifth honorary Mayor of Fremont around 1973.  

He proceeded to take the post seriously, co-founding the Fremont Food Bank, Fremont Fair (complete with Solstice Parade) and Fremont Public Association, which grew into a social-services powerhouse and launched the career of Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp. He more or less founded curbside recycling — as a private business, in Fremont. The City of Seattle followed his example, bought him out, and bequeathed the strategy to the whole wide world.

Stepanian thought that Fremont should have a signature statue, cast out of scrap aluminum cans to express its essential ethos: “Fremont, the district that recycles itself,” he liked to say, little dreaming how prophetic that would prove. The community put up some money, the city was supposed to put up more and a mostly self-taught sculptor named Rich Beyer, with a studio/foundry right there in Fremont, won the commission. Or, as Stepanian claimed, scammed it.

Rich Beyer was a higher order of chainsaw artist, who gave his roughhewn figures permanency and gravitas by casting them in aluminum. But he dismissed the idea of melting scrap cans into sculpture. Stepanian denounced him for that betrayal. Beyer took revenge by putting Stepanian’s bearded mug on the pug in the figure group that resulted: "Waiting for the Interurban." Stepanian promptly shaved his beard to distance himself from this creepy homage.

The civic art mandarins grumbled about the process and the product, but eventually paid Beyer. They paid even more for a pergola to dignify (or as one said, “finish”) his creation. But they got what was, for many years, Seattle’s most popular piece of public art; at once a brooding evocation of oldtime drudgery and a blank screen for whatever exuberant message anyone chooses to hang on it.

"Waiting for the Interurban" may still be Seattle’s favorite, but it’s no longer Fremont’s signature sculpture. That honor is shared by two larger works, one a goofy caricature of an imaginary monster, the other a grandiose tribute to an actual monster. The Fremont Troll and Lenin statue both embody elements of the Beyer/Stepanian-era Fremont sensibility: The Troll is even more a do-it-yourself caper than the interurban, and Lenin was recycled, from a scrapyard in Slovakia. Mad whimsy turned to passion brought both of them to Fremont. But neither captures the history of the community in the way that Beyer’s chunky figures do.

"Waiting for the Interurban" has however lost much of the presence it had when it stood solitary and proud against the Ship Canal and bridges. Now it — and what’s left of Fremont’s pre-1990 “downtown” — are dwarfed by the Weyerhaeuser/Quadrant’s mammoth waterfront office complex, which has brought Adobe, Google and Getty Images to a district where only junkies, bikers, and artists dared to tread.

Once, Fremonsters fretted at the thought of a bank in their neighborhood. Now, Chase Bank's frosty blue decor will replace Costas' wood, weavings and profuse plants. Key Bank and Union Bank are already across the street.

Other landmarks and living icons have vanished entirely. The Fremont Tavern closed. The joint that originally replaced it, the Red Door Alehouse, had rows of microbrew taps instead of motorbikes. Then even it moved a block west when it, and the adjacent century-old building, came down and a shiny, taller retail/restaurant/apartment complex went up. The former Fremont Tavern is now Peet’s Coffee, where it’s a safe bet no one is hiding out from his probation officer. The Buckaroo lost its lease and closed in  September 2010, after 72 years of pulling schooners and pints. Richard Beyer died almost exactly one year ago in New York, a city that also fancies itself the center of the universe. Armen Stepanian grew his beard back, it turned white and he retired to Ocean Shores.

Now the only comparably outsized character left in Fremont is Suzie Burke, the brassy land baroness who brought Quadrant (and with it Adobe and Google) onto the site of her family’s old lumber mill. She, more than anyone, is to be thanked for the neighborhood's flash and hum today. The hordes of well-paid tech workers laboring on her property and the less-affluent hipsters who come to Fremont just to be in Fremont, support an endless succession of bars and restaurants.

All of them are more fashionable than the ferny souvlaki and avgolemono joint that started the change. Costas, the first bridge to Fremont’s future, became a last link to its past. And now, even that link has been cut.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.