by Dara Wagner
As cities and towns become increasingly homogenized by endless expanses of the same architecture, shopping malls, and block after endless block of condos, how does one even begin to show visitors the unique flavor of their hometown? If you live in Seattle it’s no problem – simply head to Fremont, Center of the Universe where all things are possible.
I fell in love with Fremont the first time I visited Seattle back in the 1990’s. I loved the funky, totally out-there vibe, the mom n’ pop storefronts and one-of-a-kind flavor in this little pocket of fun. So when my daughter, Sira Wagner, came to visit, I knew exactly where to go in search of authentic, undiluted Seattle.
Our first stop was the iconic Fremont troll, located on N. 36th Street at Troll Avenue N. This colossus has been lurking under the north end of the George Washington Memorial Bridge since the 1990’s, allegedly snacking on children and vehicles since its installation. Many visitors stop here to take a selfie without ever knowing that right down the hill is the gem known as Fremont.
Next Sira and I strolled into Fremont and were promptly transported into an alternate reality. While the rest of the country slowly morphs into Stepford-like identical copies of itself, Fremont is still its own, defiantly unique self.
First of all, there’s a giant statue of Lenin in the square. Seriously – a hulkingly massive statue of Lenin! His hand is currently bloody, but I once saw him wearing bunny ears and a cotton tail. Another time he was draped in a huge, hand knit winter scarf.
Then there’s the looming Saturn perched on a rooftop, a rocket taking off from the side of a building, a gargantuan set of cutlery soaring into the sky and dinosaurs. Really? Yes, really. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Even the architecture is over the top. The Epicenter Apartments feature Mark Steven’s sixty-five foot tall stainless steel art installation ‘Monsruang’.
Quirky art with a flavor all its own is everywhere in Fremont. Down the block from Lenin, Three Planets hang over the street…
… while little aliens attempt to camouflage themselves in a broken glass mural.
In Fremont even shopping has a flavor all its own with stores as unique as Fremont itself. Most are privately owned, reflecting the pride and personal vision of the proprietors. Burnt Sugar was one of my daughter’s favorites…
… with an interior décor so delicious it made us feel joyful just to step inside.
Fremont Vintage Mall was a hoot for both of us, filled with Mid-Century items from poodle skirts and wiggle dresses to aqua kitchenware and Danish teak furnishings. I pulled out several articles of clothing similar to what I’d worn in high school just to see Sira’s eyes roll in disbelief. Yep, Mom wore giant platforms and seersucker bellbottoms in red, white and blue. Yep!
My personal favorites are the “old-time” shops. Jive Time Records is packed with rows and rows of records – actual vinyl records – in crates, just like the record stores of my youth.
Ophelia’s Books is an adorably narrow shop, stacked 3 stories tall and crammed floor to ceiling with eclectic used books. An intimate reading nook perches high above the main floor while a beautiful spiral staircase spins down into a lower level packed with titles both familiar and wildly obscure.
Dusty Strings Music Store offers stringed instrument instruction as well as crafting hammered dulcimers and providing harp repairs. A haven for these nearly lost arts, Dusty Strings is a little known Seattle treasure.
The foundation of Fremont’s authenticity is its people, passionate individualists determined to keep the Center of the Universe free from mediocrity. To learn more about the Fremont Philosophy of Life (yes, that’s a real thing), visit the proprietor of The Uncommon Cottage. She’ll tell you all about it and have you rolling with laughter long before you’ve heard it all. When Sira and I finally left this little shop, our jaws and cheeks where aching from laughing so hard and long.
There are lots of other fab experiences to be had in Fremont, from the Theo Chocolate factory to Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique. You could look it all up and make a list… but do it the Fremont way – just show up and be surprised.
WHEN YOU GO: Print out one of the many Fremont Walking Tour maps available online or, if you’re feeling adventurous, just visit the Troll then walk downhill into the neighborhood. It’s lots of fun to just wander this small, self-contained neighborhood, allowing yourself to be surprised and delighted by what you find.
PARKING: Similar to any Seattle neighborhood outside of downtown, with a variety of both street and paid lot parking.
ACCESSIBILITY: The central neighborhood is relatively flat but it’s a bit uphill from there to the Troll.ALSO SEE: Gas Works Park is less than a mile away. Referred to in the Seattle Times as “…easily the strangest park in Seattle and may rank among the strangest in the world.” Gas Works Park includes remnants of the old gas works plant as rusting hulks, restored art installations and the basis for play structures. A kite flying hill, sundial and waterfront access are also on site.