Anyone familiar with Seattle’s University Way–better known affectionately among longtime locals as “The Ave”–surely knows that it’s long been one of our city’s most lively stretches of urban thoroughfare. Indeed, The Ave has been host to a cavalcade of colorful characters and anecdotes going back several decades. In the autumn of 1965, as the University of Washington welcomed a record baby-boom enrollment of some 26,000 students, The Ave, and the University District in general, became host to a rather amusing manufactured controversy over a certain segment of Ave regulars known alternately as “beatniks,” “fringies,” and–depending on whose opinion one was asking–other terms which were much more derisive.
That manufactured controversy became journalistically official on the date in focus here, when the University District Herald, a weekly neighborhood newspaper mostly catering to the U District business community, published the first in a series of front-page articles lamenting “The Beatnik Situation” in that neighborhood. The tone of the articles, all written by Herald publisher Lillian Beloin, was blatantly alarmist and condescending toward their chosen subject.
The series mostly painted the many young bohemians who had become a regular presence in the U District by that autumn as a parasitic scourge. In support of her rhetorically vivid scorn, Beloin cited several recent incidents of absurd “beatnik” activity on The Ave, including the following amusing anecdote:
“In the wee small hours of the morning, a group of ‘individuals’ dragged a coffin to a spot in front of a business establishment on the 4200 block. One of the ‘beats’ remained lying in the coffin for two hours. When he vacated his ‘resting place,’ the coffin was placed in the doorway of the business firm.”
The Herald received several letters to the editor in response to the series. Some were sympathetic to the “beats,” and some accused the Herald of practicing “irresponsible journalism” in its overly dramatic depiction of Seattle’s bohemian scene, while others went even further than Beloin in terms of rash anti-”beatnik” rhetoric. Among the letters the Herald received was one from assistant King County Prosecutor William L. Forant, who berated the local liberal elements who were then preaching tolerance for the U District malcontents whom Forant described, within the space of one short letter, as “juvenile delinquent[s],” “monsters,” “8 balls,” “teenage hoodlums,” “human sludge” and, in one particular rhetorical flourish, “robbers, burglars, thieves, sex-deviates, hopheads and alcoholics.”
It must be said here that Beloin and Forant were calling attention to a very real concern among certain U District merchants and residents that the presence of the “beatniks” may have been driving away potential customers from that neighborhood, which had long been a commercial district for the entire city as well as for members of the UW community. At one point Beloin asked a question which was reportedly then being asked throughout the neighborhood’s more conservative population:
“Is there a solution [to the beatnik problem], or must the University District become Seattle’s second ‘skid row’?”
The term “beatnik” is being used in scare quotes here because it was rather contentious among the crowd it was then being used in the local press to describe. Radical Seattle icon Walt Crowley (1947-2007), himself a UW freshman and a regular Ave presence at the time of the Herald articles, wryly noted in his 1995 memoir Rites of Passage:
“[We] never called ourselves ‘beatniks.’ Anyone halfway hip knew that [San Francisco Examiner columnist] Herb Caen had coined that word as a put-down. If you were ‘beat,’ you didn’t need a label.”
Crowley also recounted how the lifestyle so lamented by the Herald had already been an undercurrent in U District life for a good few years previous, its kindred-spiritual epicenters on The Ave being the Pamir House, a folk music magnet on the corner of Northeast 41st Street, and the Eigerwand Coffee Haus one block north, a haven for, in Crowley’s words, “rancid coffee and fiery conversation.”
In response to the first of the Herald articles, the University of Washington student newspaper The Daily published its own series during the first week of Autumn Quarter classes, titled “The Beatnik Scare,” which was more sympathetic with The Ave’s bohemian crowd. The Daily coined the alternative term “fringies” to describe their chosen subject, and the denoted crowd apparently preferred this term enough that, according to Crowley, “some clever entrepreneur printed ‘Fringie’ buttons to make it official.”
Seattle’s fringie scene would soon bloom into something much more flamboyant. Lillian Beloin and her local kindred spirits should have been counting their blessings in late 1965. Within a few short years the U District would see the relatively benign antics of Seattle’s “beatniks” superceded by massive antiwar protests on the UW campus and violent riots on The Ave.
Sources: Lillian Beloin, “Is It Fiction Or Reality?,” University District Herald, September 29, 1965, p. 1; Deb Das, “Life On ‘The Ave’: An Introduction,” University of Washington Daily, September 29, 1965, p. 13; “Dangerous Drugs, Not Narcotics, Are The University District Problem,” University District Herald, October 6, 1965, p. 1; “DAILY Explores ‘The Beatnik Scare’,” University of Washington Daily, October 6, 1965, p. 1; “Who Are the ‘Fringies’?,” University of Washington Daily, October 6, 1965, p. 6; Craig Smith, “Lillian Beloin: She Fanned Fire,” University of Washington Daily, October 6, 1965, p. 7; Larissa Hrishko, “‘Fringie’ Character Sketches; All Are Young and Sensitive,” University of Washington Daily, October 6, 1965, p. 7; “And Who Is A Beatnik?,” University of Washington Daily, October 6, 1965, p. 7; “Merchants Split On ‘Fringie’ Issue,” University of Washington Daily, October 7, 1965, p. 6; Deb Das, “‘Fringies’ May Be The Angriest Of The ‘Avenue’ Crowd, But They Still Receive The ‘Community’s’ Moral Support,” University of Washington Daily, October 7, 1965, p. 7; Don Kehoe, “The Universal ‘Fringie’,” University of Washington Daily, October 8, 1965, p. 8; “Grad Urges Tolerance” (letter to the editor), University of Washington Daily, October 8, 1965, p. 8; “The Beatnik Scare: Some Conclusions,” University of Washington Daily, October 8, 1965, p. 9; Vic Lygdman, “Our Oldest ‘Fringie’ Remembers How Things Were ‘Way Back When’,” University of Washington Daily, October 8, 1965, p. 9; Lillian Beloin, “Do We Need This Type of Color?,” University District Herald, October 13, 1965, p. 1; William A. Forant, letter to the editor, University District Herald, October 20, 1965, p. 1; “Those ‘Fringies’” (letter to the editor), University District Herald, October 20, 1965, p. 7; “Notes from The Editor’s Desk,” University District Herald, October 27, 1965, p. 6; “‘Apologia’,” University District Herald, November 3, 1965, p. 1; Bart Becker, “The Beats Go On,” Seattle Weekly, November 29, 1989, p. 34; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995), pp. 48-50.