Anyone familiar with Seattle’s University Way Northeast — better known colloquially 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 hosted a cavalcade of colorful characters and anecdotes going back several decades. After gaining its famous nickname circa 1919 due to its increasing social and commercial importance within the University District, The Ave would eventually become a major countercultural mecca — not only within Seattle, but also along the entire American West Coast. Unfortunately, that erstwhile streetwise history may now soon become part of The Ave’s permanent past.
Given the impending arrival of Sound Transit’s University District light rail station in 2021 — and the inevitable gentrification it will surely bring to that sublimely gritty neighborhood — now’s a perfect time indeed for looking back poignantly at the glory days of The Ave. The peak years of The Ave’s countercultural blooming were clearly the late 1960s, when freak flags flourished abundantly there and University of Washington student protests against the Vietnam War and other contemporary social injustices inevitably flowed down that celebrated Cascadian street.
The Ave’s grand countercultural crescendo began in the autumn of 1965, when the UW welcomed a record baby-boom enrollment of some 26,000 students. During that crucial academic quarter, The Ave, and the U District in general, became the stage for a rather amusing manufactured controversy concerning a certain segment of Ave regulars known alternately as “beatniks,” “fringies,” and — depending on whose opinion one was then asking — other terms which were much more derisive.
That manufactured controversy became journalistically official on September 22, 1965, when the University District Herald, a weekly neighborhood newspaper catering mostly 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 towards 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 particularly apoplectic rhetorical flourish, “robbers, burglars, thieves, sex-deviates, hopheads and alcoholics.”
It should be said here that Beloin and Forant were calling attention to a genuine 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 among 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 framed 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, noted wryly in his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle:
“[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 northwest corner of Northeast 41st Street, and the Eigerwand Kaffeehaus 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 UW student newspaper The Daily published its own series during the first week of Autumn Quarter 1965 classes, titled “The Beatnik Scare,” which was more sympathetic towards 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 autumn 1965. Within a few short years the U District would see the relatively benign antics of Seattle’s “beatniks” superseded by massive antiwar protests on the UW campus and violent riots on The Ave.
Circa spring 1967, the conflict between Seattle’s countercultural community — which by then had firmly established the U District as its physical and spiritual home — and the U District business community was already approaching a boiling point. At issue at the time was the latter’s recent attempts to expel hippies, homeless people, racial minorities, and other apparent undesirables from the neighborhood, by means both superficially civil — such as lobbying Seattle City Hall and the University of Washington administration — and more direct. The latter means included the aforementioned police harassment, which consisted of discretionary ticketing of jaywalkers, detainment and arresting of hippies for frivolous charges, and other, more brutal forms of harassment — all considered by its target group to be sanctioned, de facto if not de jure, by the University District Chamber of Commerce (UDCC).
Organized opposition to such harassment arrived in the form of the University District Movement (UDM), an ad hoc coalition of activists crucially co-led by Robby Stern, then a 23-year-old UW law student and a key member of the UW chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The UDM’s immediate goal was to document alleged instances of police harassment of “undesirables” in the U District, along with cases of direct discrimination by restaurants, rental agencies, and other businesses. Working with the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the UDM gathered affidavits aimed at convincing the UDCC to formally cease the harassment and discrimination in question.
On April 11, the UDM, with recent editorial support from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, met with the UDCC board of directors to discuss the UDM’s demands. Along with a prepared opening statement, they brought with them a pile of petitions bearing roughly 8,000 signatures in support of their goals. The UDCC’s formal response was politely hostile: they read a five-page prepared statement effectively rejecting the UDM’s demands, and refused to let UDM leaders speak further in counter-response. They did, however, pledge that a UDCC committee would meet with UDM leaders at a later, undetermined date.
Later that afternoon, the UDM met with some 500 UW students in front of the UW’s Husky Union Building to discuss the UDM’s next step. Stern told the crowd, “We need the 8,000 who signed the petitions to rally tomorrow to tell them we’re tired and we’re mad. Who’ll say, ‘We care, we want our district for us’?”
The crowd was not completely united: some vocally supported the UDM, while others supported the UDCC, with one student proclaiming, “What’s wrong with the police putting on a little pressure to clean [the U District] up?”
The next day, the UDM met with a group of six U District merchants, who tentatively agreed to the UDM’s demands, with minor changes in language and no guarantee of approval by the UDCC. Later that afternoon, another rally, called the day before, comprising some 2,000 persons was held in front of the HUB to discuss a solution to the UDM-UDCC standoff. Just as on the day before, a rift developed between supporters of a potential compromise with the UDCC and more assertive supporters of the UDM. A vote was taken to decide whether the group should march down The Ave as a “show of strength” to the UDCC — a move the UDM had been warned might alienate the UDCC and thus jeopardize any chances for a meaningful solution to the UDM’s grievances.
The vote was narrowly in favor of marching, and a debate began between the pros and the cons in the crowd. At a particularly tense moment, Stern spontaneously proclaimed, “I’m marching down The Ave, and anyone who wants to join me is welcome to follow.”
And so they did so — roughly 1,500 of them, thus introducing the U District to an activist tactic that would see even more spectacular use there during the next half-decade. The UDCC’s immediate reaction to the march was predictably negative, with at least one U District merchant declaring the UDM’s action a “breach of faith.” While negotiations still continued between the UDCC and the UDM, the UDM’s grievances would also continue. Among the UDM’s last acts before disbanding that summer was to document many further instances of police harassment and present them to City Hall at a rally that May.
The summer of 1969 was a time of infamous turmoil in several major American cities, including Seattle. On August 11 that year, a series of riots began in the U District that would shake The Ave over several days. During that week, street people on The Ave would battle with Seattle police, leading to several arrests and injuries and much vandalism and looting. While the origin of the riots remains contentious today, the aftermath would lead to significant changes in the character of the U District, both as a neighborhood and as a community.
The Ave riots were preceded by an incident across town in West Seattle the previous evening, during a Sunday night rock concert at Alki Beach. Despite the concert being an officially permitted event, several Seattle Police Department officers on the scene began harassing attendees. In response, someone — allegedly a member of a local motorcycle gang — dumped a container of gasoline into the back seat of a police patrol car parked nearby and threw in a lighted match, setting the car ablaze. The police, in counter-response, abruptly declared the concert over, donned riot gear, and began throwing canisters of tear gas into the crowd — not ordinary tear gas, but rather the CS variety, which sickens its victims. The thick fumes drifted into the nearby neighborhood, thus transforming a peaceful rock concert into a major public disturbance.
The following day, in the U District, many regular denizens of The Ave shared news of the Alki fracas with disgust. Police harassment of youth — especially countercultural youth — was a regular fact of life in that neighborhood at that time. (It was also then a regular fact of life citywide, which partially explained the heavy police presence at the Alki concert.) In fact, the police presence in the U District had recently been doubled by Seattle’s acting mayor Floyd Miller as part of a crackdown on drug traffic in the neighborhood. Thus, as the evening of August 11 arrived, many on The Ave were ready for a confrontation with the cops.
And thus, the first riot on The Ave that week began at approximately 9 p.m. that night, when a young man kicked over a trash can at the intersection of Northeast 42nd Street and The Ave. According to witnesses, police officers standing nearby quickly grabbed and handcuffed him. His girlfriend then objected, yelling at the officers and pleading for bystanders to intervene. When the cops grabbed her next, another bystander punched one of the cops, Officer Mike Bolger, in the jaw, and the scuffle quickly escalated into a riot. Spectators began throwing everything they could get their hands on. Bricks struck two other officers, Marvin Queen and Thomas Grabicki, and a stray object shattered the window of the Coffee Corral, a popular hippie hangout on the southeast corner of that intersection.
By 9:30 p.m., the crowd of rioters had grown to roughly 150. Witnesses later noted that many in the crowd had also been present at the Alki fracas. More police soon arrived, along with a local TV news crew, but by 10:15 p.m. the rioters had drifted away and the police withdrew. All in all that night, seven rioters were arrested and three police officers were injured.
The next day, August 12, the U District was buzzing with news of the previous night’s incident. While The Ave was quiet that night, and the police then kept a low profile, the following night would be a different story entirely.
While the riot on August 11 may have been politically motivated — some attributed it to the antiwar activists who were a regular part of the Ave scene at the time — the rest of the week’s rioting was clearly the initiative of restless teenagers from across the city coming to the U District strictly for kicks, lured by news of Monday’s incident. The most intense and destructive of the riots occurred on the nights of August 13 and 14 — and most regular U District denizens who witnessed the riots later claimed they did not recognize most of the participants on those nights.
The evening of August 13 began with a spontaneous community meeting of about 50 people at 7:30 p.m. on “Hippie Hill,” the stretch of lawn on the UW campus near the intersection of 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 42nd Street, then a popular gathering place among Seattle’s countercultural community. The meeting was called to discuss the recent disorder in the U District. Much anger was vented there concerning police harassment, but the apparent consensus was that all concerned there should avoid further confrontations with the police.
Among the topics of discussion was a pair of flyers that had been circulating in the neighborhood since the morning of August 12. One urged calm in the name of “the New American Community,” while the other was unsigned and much more militant, bearing a sketch of a pistol with the caption “We’re looking for people who like to draw,” an apparent parody of the matchbook ads for art school so common at the time — and an obvious attempt at violent provocation.
After the meeting on Hippie Hill adjourned around 8:30 p.m., several attendees headed towards The Ave and immediately noticed two strange things: there were no police visible anywhere, and The Ave was filled with hundreds of teenagers, both white and black, whom no one at the meeting had ever seen in the U District before. All was calm until around 9:30 p.m., when a group of the unfamiliar teenagers began looting Bluebeard’s, a hippie boutique on the 4200 block of The Ave. Several locals tried to intervene, proclaiming that Bluebeard’s wasn’t the enemy — but to no avail.
Meanwhile, no police appeared, despite the returning chaos. Someone dragged a trash can onto The Ave and lit it on fire — still, no police came.
The cops finally appeared at precisely 10 p.m., when a banshee wail erupted from the roof of the Adams Forkner Funeral Home on the east side of The Ave, where police had installed a “howler,” a high-frequency noise generator designed to disorient crowds. Moments later, a loudspeaker announced, “You are ordered to disperse. If you do not disperse, you will be removed by force.”
Soon afterwards, scores of Tactical Squad officers in full riot gear charged onto The Ave from nearby alleys, and CS gas grenades began exploding. The rioters, undeterred, began pelting the police once again. As the chaos quickly escalated, trash cans were ignited to bait the police, parking meters were smashed, and stores were looted. Meanwhile, on 15th Avenue Northeast, a mobile crane was set on fire, and when firefighters arrived, they had to withdraw under a hail of stones.
Around 11 p.m., the Neptune Theatre’s showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s hit film Romeo and Juliet ended, and hundreds of moviegoers — many themselves young people, the film’s target audience — exited into the middle of the chaos. They were promptly attacked and gassed by police as they attempted to return to their cars. Amazingly, the police never blocked off traffic along The Ave, and several motorists at the intersection of The Ave and Northeast 45th Street found themselves trapped among clouds of tear gas and agitated hordes of teens and police.
The chaos that night continued until 3 a.m., and the night of August 13 ended with 21 rioters in jail and three police officers in the emergency room.
The night of August 14 was almost an exact replica of the previous night. As dusk fell, roughly two thousand young people from outside the U District gathered on The Ave, obviously anticipating further violence. The events of the previous night began to replay promptly at 10 p.m., when a group of teenagers broke into a TV repair shop on the northwest corner of The Ave and Northeast 43rd Street, and also began looting other stores nearby.
Squads of cops quickly appeared at that intersection, coming from both north and south and surrounding a crowd of about 200, while a truck-mounted howler swept the street. The cops ordered the encircled mass to disperse — but when the officers moved in, there was nowhere for the crowd to go. Finally, the police opened a narrow gap onto 43rd Street, and people escaped through a gauntlet of clubs and fists.
Another crowd gathered at Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast and trashed the brand-new plate-glass windows of the Pacific National Bank building before police chased them away. Eventually, the cops grew tired of the cat-and-mouse fracas and closed The Ave to traffic, then gassed the street from 42nd to 45th with foggers and grenades. All in all that night, the police arrested 21 rioters and roughed up five local news reporters, including KOMO-TV’s Don McGaffin and Brian Johnson. Order was finally restored just before one o’clock in the morning.
On August 15, in the aftermath of the riots, police finally detoured traffic from The Ave while volunteers spread out to prevent any further unrest among teenagers. As the community discussed what to do next, everyone agreed that the police could neither prevent nor contain any further violence in the neighborhood. The city was considering ordering a curfew and summoning the National Guard when a delegation of community leaders from the U District met with Acting Mayor Miller and Deputy Mayor Ed Devine. After that meeting, the police agreed to step back and let the community try to handle the situation.
The police closed The Ave to traffic at dusk and parked several hundred Tactical Squad officers out of sight, while several volunteers wearing peace-symbol armbands spread out along The Ave. Whenever a significant number of teenagers gathered there, street monitors stepped in to prevent any attempts at looting or vandalism. The same tactic was repeated the following night with equal success. By Sunday, August 17, The Ave was back to normal and the police finally withdrew.
The success of the U District community’s response to the Ave riots led to months of negotiations among street people, merchants, residents, clergy, students, police, and city officials, all aiming to reduce police harassment and to establish a community center. Not all of this coalition’s goals were realized, but the U District would become a much more closely-knit neighborhood as a result of the catharsis.
Among the other aftermaths of the Ave riots, several of the women who participated later came together and formed the core of the Seattle Weathermen — crucially including antiwar activist Susan Stern (1943-1976), who later became one of the Seattle Seven. Stern would eventually present her radical interpretation of the Ave riots in her 1975 memoir With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman.
Who provoked the Ave riots? Some said it was political agitators; some said it was juvenile delinquents; some said it was the cops. For a few years prior, Seattle police had been constantly harassing countercultural youth, mostly at the behest of business owners in the U District and elsewhere in the city who loathed the fringies’ local presence. While SPD Chief Frank Ramon told The Seattle Times that the riots were simply “violence for the sake of violence,” members of the local countercultural press had a much different explanation. In a commentary on the riots published the following week in Helix — then Seattle’s reigning underground newspaper, founded in the U District in 1967 — Helix editor Walt Crowley explained the profoundly volatile situation which had likely set the stage for the riots:
“Since 1966 when the aberrant individuality of the Beatniks gave way [to] en-masse migration of middle-class youth from the suburbs, the University District has become the scene of ever-growing police harassment and internal conflict. Merchants and long-time residents, disturbed by the influx of unorthodox young people, loitering and drug traffic, have applied economic pressure against their long-haired tormentors and sought police cooperation. In the name of ‘cleaning up the District’ hippies have been discriminated against by retailers, restaurants, and realtors. They have been subjected to arbitrary law enforcement, harassment, and brutality and humiliation at the hands of the police. Thus over the past four years the tension has slowly grown and the antagonism between the various sectors sharing this same geographical area has deepened and entrenched.”
Despite the initial trauma of the Ave riots, positive and permanent outcomes quickly resulted from the aftermath, including and especially the University District Street Fair, Seattle’s first modern street fair, which continues as of this writing. Organized by the UDCC as one means among many of healing the neighborhood in the wake of the riots and other tumultuous events in the U District during the preceding year, the first University District Street Fair was held during the weekend of May 23 and 24, 1970.
Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.