What’s amazing about The Fremont Tour is that when tour guide Mark Ukelson gets a tourist to dress up in a mad-scientist getup and light the Rocket, everyone plays along. What’s even more amazing is that passers-by stop and play along too.
But that’s just the way Fremont is. The tour is just one way to explore Seattle’s funkiest neighborhood – including the famous rocket-shaped sculpture – but it’s a great way to get yourself into a playful mood before hitting the rest of what the Center of the Universe has to offer.
“A Fremonster is someone who’s playful and who appreciates public art,” declares Ukelson. Not wanting to argue with a guy who’s dressed in a yellow T-shirt and leggings, blue shorts and a rocket-shaped helmet, the dozen or so tourists who’ve lined up in Solstice Plaza to take Ukelson’s Fremont Tour nod their heads earnestly.
For more than a year now, Ukelson has been leading the 90-minute tours about the quirky public art that turned Fremont from warehouse blight to vegan-alternative-yuppie magnet in just three decades. He covers most of the art visible from the street, from “Waiting for the Interurban” to the Fremont Troll, giving a detailed backstory but – and this is key – turning every stop into a playful performance that draws in not just participants but innocent passers-by.
After visiting the J.P. Patches statue, newly adorned with commemorative flowers for the recently passed clown’s alter ego, Chris Wedes, Ukelson begins the fun at “Waiting for the Interurban,” that line of gray-metal people endlessly waiting for a trolley that never comes. He explains how sculptor Richard Beyer chose his own work despite being on the selection committee himself, how he stashed wine bottles inside the hollow metal figures, how the dog has a human face and who it resembles. (Don’t know? Take the tour.) He also explains the local habit of “art attacks” – decorating the sculpture with anything from scarves in winter to “happy birthday” placards.
Then he really gets going. Roping in Sandy Hagan, a good-natured participant from Minnesota, he dresses him in a gray wig and Groucho Marx nose, hands him a yellow rubber chicken, sticks him in front of the sculptures bearing a sign saying “Welcome to Fremont, Center of the Universe,” and proceeds to hail folks stuck at the traffic signals. One bicyclist plays along, reading the sign aloud with a grin before moving off.
“I think it’s fun,” says Hagan, whose daughter booked him on the tour thinking it would be a wacky thing to do.
And it is. Ukelson – a Fremonster himself awhile back and still a member of the Fremont Arts Council – pauses in between each piece of art to chat with shoppers – “Hey, we’re on a Fremont walking tour, wanna play?” – and shows both passion and considerable knowledge about public art. At The Rocket, a ballistic missile relic from the 1960s now mounted on the side of a building, he persuades a New York participant to don a white lab coat and goggles, and about a dozen passers-by stop to count down before the “launch” (a strategically-placed fire extinguisher, which goes off rather convincingly).
At Lenin’s statue, he explains communism and its opponents – like the artist, who depicted the leader leaving a trail of guns and fire – in a way that the tour’s kids could relate to. He points out Kurt Cobain’s first recording site and the in-ground bronze works by Anita Fish that symbolize local trades.
Finally, he ends up at the Fremont Troll, the concrete monster famous for holding up the Aurora Bridge. Explaining both the way it changed the neighborhood from dump to destination and the way folks use it now (Trolloween, wedding ceremonies, Shakespeare shows), he persuades a Spanish tourist to put on a gorilla mask and pose for photos. Just before winding up at the flowing water channel sculpture next to the library, Ukelson also points out the Troll’s neighbors: three metal goats set into someone’s front yard.
It’s all good fun, and Ukelson’s so gently enthusiastic, it’s hard not to come away with a feeling that if there were more art like this, the world would be a happier place.
If you’re in Fremont to eat burgers and fries, you’re in the wrong place. The epicenter of all things alternative, Fremont is the place to go for hemp milk lattes, vegan breakfasts and organic salads. There are plenty of eating options for any meal of the day, but a few stand out for originality.
The Flying Apron (3510 Fremont Ave. N.) serves up only vegan and gluten-free fare. The kale-sesame salad is super fresh, the brown rice pasta lasagna is intensely tomato-ish, the banana bread meltingly moist. It has a wide range of flatbread meals, salads and bakery goods, plus coffee, in a we-take-ourselves-seriously brown leather décor.
Pie (3515 Fremont Ave. N.) does, well, pies. Standards in the U.K. and Australia, savory personal-sized pies are hard to find here, so Pie is well worth the visit. The mac-and-cheese is a portable kid meal, the broccoli-cheddar is creamy, and meat-based varieties include English meat, triple pig, chicken and bacon/cheddar/egg. They also do chunky fruit-filled ones such as mango peach and key lime, and serve locally brewed beers, including Fremont Brewing.
For more dessert, Bluebird Ice Cream (3515 Fremont Ave. N., next to Pie) is locally made and delicious, and Royal Grinders (3526 Fremont Place N., behind the Lenin statue) does homemade gelato in funky flavors, including sparkling basil-pineapple.
Silence Heart Nest (3508 Fremont Place N.) is one of the few diners around with all-vegetarian breakfast food.
And don’t miss a tour at Theo Chocolate (3400 Phinney Ave. N.), home to the first U.S. factory that roasted and made its own fair-trade, organic chocolate. The tour is interesting, but the tastings are even better; you can then shop for your faves at the store.
As with eateries, there are just too many shops in Fremont to list, so make sure you go with plenty of time and a full wallet. Among the hit-list for goods you won’t find anywhere else:
Fremont Sunday Street Market (North 34th and Evanston Streets, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays) is a treasure trove of everything from vintage typewriters to hand-made jewelry frames to organic hemp clothes.
Mishu (465 N. 36th St.) does Harajuku-inspired fashion, combining army jackets with Marie Antoinette skirts and lacy arm-warmers.
Hub and Bespoke (513 N. 36th St.) caters to cyclists with refined retro taste: Think 1920s caps, belts made of inner tubes, and fancy panniers.
Bitters and Co. (513 N. 36th St., Suite A) has made all the upmarket design mags with its driftwood-meets-eco-chic house décor.
Dream (3427 Fremont Place N.) does tribal print clothing and tie-your-own-design Sseko sandals; Bliss (3501 Fremont Ave. N.) has Euro-shirts and leather bags; while Burnt Sugar (601 N. 35th St.) stocks pretty French paper goods and cowboy boots.
Find vintage stuff at Vintage Mall (3419 Fremont Place N.), books at Ophelia’s (3504 Fremont Ave. N.), and old LPs at Jive Time Records (3506 Fremont Ave. N.).
Get a dose of sunshine at The Indoor Sun Shoppe (160 N. Canal St.), which stocks sun lamps and lush indoor plants – great for a winter visit.
Still have energy? The walkable option from Fremont center is the Fremont Canal Park, a quiet walking/cycling track lining the north side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal from Phinney Avenue to Third Avenue Northwest.
For a bit more physical exertion, head to Gasworks Park (2101 N. Northlake Way) where the old gasworks pipes, repainted in preschool colors, make a great adventure for all ages. Try your parkour skills on the firemen’s poles over the sandpit. The conical hilltop is a kite flier’s paradise.
get to know FREMONT
THE FREMONT TOUR
When: 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30 (other times by group request, see website). Tour lasts 90 minutes, rain or shine.
Where: Tours depart Solstice Plaza, 711 N. 34th St., Seattle
Cost: $20 advance or $25 day-of for adults; $16 seniors and students; free for 10 and younger
Information: 800-838-3006 #1, thefremonttour.com
THEO CHOCOLATE TOURS
When: 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 12:30 p.m. 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. daily
Where: Theo Chocolate, 3400 Phinney Ave. N, Seattle
Cost: $6 per person, ages 7 and older only; reservations necessary
Information: 206-632-5100, firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts