The Francises reflect on Fremont's past

My resolution for 2008 (one I expect to actually achieve) is to meet more Fremonsters, specifically people who live in Fremont. In my first column this year, I'd like to introduce two people I've met so far.

Recently, Pete and Elva Francis met me for coffee at what was once Young's Grocery, now Lighthouse Roasters coffee shop. They informed me about Chuck Leathart's drugstore, located at one time at North 43rd Street and Fremont Avenue North.

Elva reminisced about the co-op preschool in the basement of the former St. Paul's Lutheran Church (now Fremont Abbey Arts Center), where her sons Tom and Daniel went once upon a time.

We chatted about Fremont of the 1960s and '70s, when the Francises lived in their early years of marriage at 43rd and Dayton Avenue North. In 1973, they purchased another house up north, all the way in Phinney Ridge, although they remained tied to Fremont in other ways.

Legislative work

Pete worked as a lawyer with a practice at Green Lake. In 1969, he accepted an appointment to the House of Representatives as replacement for Wes Uhlman, who had become mayor of Seattle. In 1970, Pete was elected to the state Senate and served until 1978.

Meanwhile, Elva worked as a preschool teacher, assisted Pete in the Legislature and eventually served as chief deputy to the King County Council.

Now retired, "a lot of our friends are in Arizona," Elva explained, "but we really like our neighborhood, our house. [Pete] likes to walk, and we can walk almost anywhere."

Both grew up in rural areas, but "it makes life better to have everything nearby," Pete said. "Seattle always has so much going on," he explained, "there is always something."

As the former Legislator from Fremont, Pete observed, "To me, everything around here is significant."

We met near the home of Vincent Nordahl, a constituent who once presented Pete with legislation to sponsor. Pete introduced the bill to put curb ramps on all sidewalk corners throughout the state. According to Pete, the fortuitous attention of an assistant in the governor's office, Ralph Munro, gave the bill the support it needed to become law.

Elva recalled going from doorbell to doorbell around the neighborhood. Fremont, at that time, had a lot of flophouses. She was grateful to the young men in their office who didn't mind canvassing whomever answered those doors in whatever state they appeared.

When someone discovered a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book" in Fremont with Pete's handout inside, some flak came his way, but Pete remains grateful the voter kept his information at all.

Norm Rice's Fremont legacy

As public servants, the couple had "absolutely no money," according to Elva, but she urged Pete to "buy Fremont" - although they never could. The business district, at that time, consisted of rundown buildings with boarded-up windows sold for bargain prices. Elva saw potential, and she regrets not being able to act on her hunch.

Looking back, Elva has fond thoughts of Fremont's past. "I was young then," she admitted.

"Fremont is probably better now that it was then," Pete said, while Elva declared, "It is a lot better."

"It was very rundown," Pete explained. New buildings may cut out views, he observed, but they are better than the boarded-up buildings that once characterized the neighborhood. He noted that you couldn't park in Fremont then, and you can't park here now. Not that it stops him. "The last few times, we walked there," he said.

In the residential sectors of the neighborhoods, Pete said, "I think we are seeing the legacy of Norm Rice."

With the Growth Management Act and urban-village designations, residential neighborhoods have accepted density. Townhouses pepper their neighborhood, and Elva spoke positively about such new construction.

"I don't believe in keeping things old and falling down," she said, then quickly agreed with Pete's opinion. "You've got to have a mix of new and old."

New buildings provide parking and density, they observed, but old buildings accommodate businesses, like bookstores, that can't pay high rents.

"The more people there are, the more restaurants, services...," Pete said, but he knows density has a downside.

Their son, Tom, works as a rock sculptor in Fremont. Noise is part of his work, and he has tried to be conscientious about the impact on his neighbors. Unfortunately, consideration may eventually make rock sculpting impossible here.

A vibrant neighborhood

At the last Seattle Night Out event, Elva noticed, "There are a lot of children on our street." A cotton-candy machine brought kids out in droves, including a "horde of little girls." Young families with their kids - "that's what makes the neighborhood vibrant."

I'd suggest that a lot of the attractive qualities of our neighborhood come from people like Elva and Pete, who have taken an interest and made vibrancy and vitality in Fremont possible at all.

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