Friday, August 20, 2004

Farewell to Fremont

Twenty years ago, the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont was a hillside community of old clapboard houses anchored by a commercial crossroads of cafes, vintage junk stores, and artisans' shops. The inhabitants were aging hippies, youthful artists, and everyone in between. I used to go there to hang out for hours over big breakfasts (late in the morning), cheap teriyaki (late at night), and gooey pastries and coffee (all afternoon).

Flash forward. A behemoth natural foods boutique supermarket now stands at the heart of the Fremont universe, next to a condo/office building encircled with gleaming metal trim that resembles high-end barbed wire. A famous software company inhabits a sprawling complex across the street. Many of the people on the street sport the company's security badges. Vintage is gone; reproduction vintage abounds.

If you are in the low-ceilinged, crowded underground parking garage beneath the natural foods shrine (where I was at noon today) you might get the sense that something is wrong in Fremont. Take a deep breath. The air smells of rotting produce and garbage--organic, I'm sure, but decidely unpleasant. Watch out for the pricey sports cars and immense SUVs circling the garage in a hunt for spaces. They are driven by attractive young women wearing up-to-the millisecond fashion or graying, middle-aged ex-hippies wearing expensive dress casual. Everyone is wearing an expression of impatience and disgust as they wait for you to scurry across the road—or don't wait, and zoom right at you. This is not a friendly place.

I'm here for my first lunch with a group of area professionals who gather once a month at a restaurant in the middle of Fremont. I walk in to a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled quasi-Asian bistro. The noise level there is comparable to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The waitress points out the professional group, crammed together at four tables without a seat to spare. This is not a place I want to be. I walk out and head back to the parking garage, where I patiently extricate myself from the cramped spot, waiting while the driver of the SUV in front of me indulges herself in a meditative trance in the middle of the exit lane. Then I work my way, block by block, out of Fremont, each intersection gridlocked by a truck or a van trying to get into a parking space or around another commercial vehicle. Perhaps a Bostonian could feel at home here.

Eventually, I'm on Leary Way, headed back home to Ballard. I park on Ballard Avenue, go into Burk's Cafe, order a gumbo with tasso and an iced coffee, and sit in the cool restaurant watching people stroll by on the quiet cobblestone street outside. A Beau Jocque zydeco CD plays in the background. I recognize several of the people lunching in the courtyard. One of the kids from my drumming class comes in and we chat about what they covered in the Tuesday class I missed. The restaurant packs up my leftovers for me, and I head back to the car.

On the way home, I stop at Limback Lumber to pick up a piece of plywood I'll be using to winterize Betaille's outdoor cat shelter. The salesman recognizes me; he goes back and cuts the plywood to the exact size I need. I recognize two of the five contractors who come in while I'm there.

Like a few other older businesses on Leary Way, Stone Way, and Elliot Avenue, Limback maintains a large reader board atop their building. On my way out, I look up and check out the latest.

"Ballard's a-changing," it says. "But we aren't."


[FOLLOW-UP NOTE: In summer 2006 Limback took down their reader board, leaving me to wonder if change had caught up with them at last. Fortunately, it was just temporary while the building was re-roofed. -- MT]

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