For Bellingham's baby boomers, echoes of the '60s protest years continue

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 10, 2012 

Forty years ago I was sitting in a political theory class at Western Washington University when the professor held up the latest issue of the Northwest Passage, an alternative newspaper that had started in Bellingham three years earlier.

The cover showed four police officers standing watch in a community garden at 11th Street and Harris Avenue, in the heart of Fairhaven. Or at least where a garden used to be.

Several days earlier, on Nov. 30, 1972, about 20 officers carrying nightsticks and wearing hard helmets with visors cleared the corner of about 40 protesters who were preventing a bulldozer from scraping the garden into the dirt pile of history. An estimated 100 bystanders watched the kerfuffle.

Ten people were arrested on trespassing and related charges. Eight of them - dubbed the "Fairhaven 8," of course - were ultimately found guilty, fined $25 and given suspended sentences.

The Passage's headline - "Property is Theft" - was custom-made for political science students to debate, and reflected the view of many people at the time who were upset with developer Ken Imus' plan to turn Fairhaven from a collection of rundown brick buildings into a retail and tourist hub with a restored, turn-of-the-century charm.

Looking back to one of Bellingham's signature moments from the hippie and protest era of the late-1960s to early 1970s sheds some light, I believe, on how Bellingham developed in the decades that followed. And because many people are still around from those days, the recollections of graying baby boomers should start being gathered before memories and non-digital photos start to fade.

Neelie Nelson, a history-lover who retired to Bellingham a few years ago, is doing her part by researching the Fairhaven garden clash.

"Anytime you move to a new area, you get excited about learning about the place you just moved to," she said.

By the early 1970s Bellingham was in the news as a West Coast liberal, hippie mecca, akin to Berkeley, Calif., and Eugene, Ore., but smaller. Reg Williams, mayor at the time, attributed the influx of longhairs partly to plentiful food stamps and partly to the region's natural beauty.

Other factors were at play, too. The baby boomer surge was going to college. Western's enrollment topped 8,000 in 1972, more than double the number of students from a decade earlier. Also, Fairhaven College opened in 1967, attracting independent thinkers, and Huxley College opened in 1970, attracting green thinkers.

Of course, the Vietnam War was still aflame, with young men still subject to the draft.

By the early '70s Fairhaven was home to several businesses associated with the youth movement, including Toad Hall, serving up pizza, coffee and citizen discussion; Kulshan Tavern; and Bank Books.

Whether those business folk could have revived Fairhaven on a broader scale will never be known because Ken Imus, who grew up in Bellingham but earned his fortune elsewhere, began buying up Fairhaven buildings and vacant lots, including the corner with the garden.

The clash at the garden reflected, in part, the tension between developers and people wary or resistant to change. But Imus, at least, restored his buildings instead of knocking them down.

"Without him, I truly believe, those buildings would have been torn down," Nelson said. "We clearly owe him a huge debt for coming in and keeping that from happening."

Several links between then and now are apparent. The Community Food Co-op, which had a hand in the community garden, flourished and grew into its two large stores today.

John Blethen, the owner of Toad Hall who grew vegetables at the garden and hauled away top soil ahead of Imus' bulldozer, has played a prominent role in the development of Bellingham's parks and trails.

Many contributors to the Northwest Passage have remained active citizens, including Mary Kay Becker, who went on to become an attorney, legislator, County Council member and, now, a State Appeals Court judge.

Today, community gardens are blossoming in Bellingham and elsewhere in the county, as is support for the "eat local" movement. And Bellingham voters have repeatedly agreed to pay higher taxes to acquire property for parks and trails - the antithesis of "property is theft."

Looking back, it's clear that much can change in 40 years, but not perhaps as one might think.

Consider these two news stories: (1) A leading Republican politician says the GOP must welcome workers and minorities more, or risk remaining a minority party. (2) Former Gov. Romney steps away from government and politics to influence the world as a private citizen.

Both stories were news - in November 1972. The Republican leader was Washington Gov. Dan Evans. The former Gov. Romney was George, Mitt's father.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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