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?
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Cyclists in Fremont's annual Solstice Parade.

Rents are rising, tech gears are grinding. Can the neighborhood keep its creative juices flowing?

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."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.