Our entertainment this fine Sunday was to take an urban hike from our home on Capitol Hill to Fremont and back, seeking the answer to the question, does Fremont Suck Now?
Formerly, Fremont was the center of a certain bohemian sensibility in Seattle, home to many’s the thrift emporium. Time was, of a weekend, Vivian and I were oft to be found, a-haint the precints of Fritzi Ritz or the Fremont Antique Mall. But then, the swift-shifting sands of time raised the rents and (literally) moved the buildings around, and cheap-rent-seeking proprietors of crucial goods such as the wax figurine of Vincent Price from The House of Wax exeunt, with speed. Swiftly on their heels we did follow.
And so, on our quest we ventured.
We strolled down the northern shoulder of Capitol Hill near noon. I was wearing black Levi’s and my head was full of work, work, work. By the time we’d reached the bottom of the hill, and were walking around the Portage Bay neighborhood, I sincerely sought a pair of shorts, but none were to be had. Instead, I found a battered, scarred Palm Pilot stylus, which I picked up and kept, brave in the face of spousal mockery.
Just prior to crossing under the I-5 bridge near the University District, we experienced the sublime thrill of watching a confused woman chauffeuring a mini-van of tots drive up and over a traffic island in pursuit of her entry to a wrong way street heading in what I fondly describe as “the fatal direction.”
Against my better, considered judgement, we called out to her and she stopped and turned around, saving her life and that of the kids (Actually, it was just instinct, only later did I realize the entertainment value I’d just passed up).
When at last we came to Stone Way above the Burke-Gilman Trail, we checked in at the Gypsy Trader, a surviving consignment shop, and thankfully found a Hawaiian-themed pair that both fit my mildly-cushioned waist and will be well-matched to evenings in the coffeehouse declaiming angst-ridden poesie from beneath a black beret of finest Basque wool, should it ever come to such a desperate pass.
Rounding down to 34th, we came upon the now-returned to the neighborhood Fritzi Ritz, which offered the usual assortment of fine vintage threads, including some lovely poly-cotton western duds featuring embroidered yokes, a clear bargain but not on my list for the day. Other than reversing the orientation of the shop from it’s lamented locale, it was the same shopping experience.
Leaving the shop we swung up to the former PCC location and were so stunned and distracted by the facades of the new construction, I completely forgot to see, first, if there was a new tenant in the old PCC building, and second, to take pictures of the new construction. I can only say that it was stunning, and I am uncertain if it was a good kind of stunning.
Turning away from the towering blue curiosity of the new building, we ducked in to Dusty Strings, where I endangered my fiduciary health by sampling the sound and feel of several multi-thousand-dollar instruments, notably a brand new Collings mando priced near 4k that played, sounded, and felt like a 150-year old master violin. It was amazing – I could smell the green of the wood, but the sustain was like no other mandolin I have ever played. Once I also demonstrated that a reasonable-quality acoustic guitar might prove a fair substitution for ten years’ satellite television service to my attentive and ever-supportive wife, we returned to the streets, headed for the newer construction.
I have visited Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, and it was a point of pride and celebration among the Angelenos that brought me there. The cartoony quality of the architecture, flashy, gigantic, silly, patently unserious and apolitical, was what drew my smog-breathing pals to the site. I found it rather like a mall grown amuck, disturbing, and sad.
Fremont reproduces the Universal City Walk experience for Seattle; yet, this being Seattle, it’s better than Universal’s Toontown for Grownups. The Sunday Market stretched along the side of the cartoonish new PCC building, as large as I recall the Fremont fair some ten years ago, host to about one hundred itinerant merchants. As the street intersected with the ship canal, I noticed that the Red Hook brewery was also decamped and vacant.
We paused by the ship canal and my dormant shutterbug impulse finally awoke. There are few better things than to linger by the side of the ship canal in Fremont of a summer afternoon, and no amount of absurd, artificial architecture can efface that truth. Aware of our hunger, we then headed for the sunny deck of El Camino, home to the best, if also most expensive, margaritas in Fremont. The deck now features a charming four-point view of eight-story condos newly built, replacing a view of the craft-and-flea market now ensconced between the new buildings.
After eating we walked back home. All together we walked for about 6 hours to and from Fremont.
And can I adjudicate the question? No, I can’t. Fremont’s physical locale and generous surviving older architecture could, in theory, overcome the giant in clown shoes that now occupies the block opposite the venerable Greek restaurant Costas. Sadly, that giant’s killed many of my old friends, such as Barlee’s up the street from Costas, so I hate and fear him, despite his red nose and absurd collar. Over time, if the neighborhood can make room for diners and regular-folks pit-stops like Barlee’s once was, Fremont won’t suck. Fritzi Ritz’s return bodes well. But Seattle has done a terrible job of protecting mixed-income-service economies and I can’t imagine that Fremont is where a new way of dealing with the issues of preserving moderate-income businesses will emerge.
Does Fremont Suck Now? I’ll check back in a year, and let you know.
P. S. Despite desultory forays (consisting of occasional vague glances) to locate a Wallingford-based domicile that once looked like this, I have no idea if I passed Jimfl in the street or not.