If it’s difficult to define a career in a few paragraphs, it is impossible to capture the essence of Armen Napoleon Stepanian, a man who has always been larger than life, a myth in his own time, the 5th Honorary Mayor of Fremont, Christopher Columbus of Curb Collection, and one of the founders and early luminaries of the Fremont Public Association (FPA).
In 1975, Armen led the FPA in the creation of Fremont Recycling Station #1, the first source-separated, curb-collection recycling program in the nation. The Recycling Center showcased the political savvy that always informed the agency. While the FPA (renamed Solid Ground in 2007) primarily served the north end, recycling routes included the Mayor of Seattle and every Seattle City Council member, regardless of where they lived, to demonstrate the importance of the program and generate political support.
Of course, recycling is just one chapter of Armen’s amazing story.
A carpenter and display designer from Hells Kitchen, New York City, by way of San Francisco, Armen won the title Honorary Mayor of Fremont against 37 opponents (including a Black Labrador) in an election held on February 27, 1973 and began his reign as Seattle’s only unofficial public official.
While some took the mayoral race as a lark, Armen took the position seriously. In the process of accepting the role of Mayor, he became a raucous force for positive change, a creative and tireless promoter, and one of the guiding lights that led downtown Fremont’s transition from a poverty- and drug-saturated neighborhood into the tie dye-tinged, environmentally-conscious “District that Recycles Itself” and, eventually, into the arty “Center of the Universe.”
Mayor Armen was a merchant of hope, convincing the community that Fremont could change its image and pick itself up out of the gutter, that the people of Fremont could rely upon their own strengths and resources to take care of each other. As a citizen activist and member of the FPA Board of Directors, Armen played a major role in infusing this philosophy into the mission of the agency.
While he focused local media on Fremont by campaigning to keep the Fremont Bridge painted orange, playing public pool challenges with Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman to benefit the Fremont Food Bank, and helping start the Fremont Fair, Armen earned his national reputation for his role as an environmental evangelist preaching the benefits of source-separation, curb-collection recycling.
Fremont Recycling Station #1 ran for 10 years before leading to the development of the City of Seattle’s and many other municipal curb collection programs.
Armen views recycling as much more than a reduction in waste, or lessening of material extraction from the earth:
Recycling is … theology through technology,” he says. “People don’t understand the spiritual side of it … what people are putting in front of their homes is how they feel about themselves. It is how they feel about their neighbors … about the earth … about The Creator….
“Of the many benefits of recycling, energy is the most critical of all – the energy saved from producing virgin products, the foreign policy implications of consuming less energy, and our own personal relationship to the material – the positive energy we get from recycling.”
When the City of Seattle designed a citywide program, the Fremont Recycling Center did not have the capacity to bid competitively for a collection contract. And the City imagined no role for Armen as an ambassador for curb collection. After signing a five-year agreement not to compete with the City, Armen left the area to continue his recycling career in Indianapolis, IN. Armen is an inaugural member of the Washington State Recycling Hall of Fame. While retired and living in Ocean Shores, WA, Armen continues to advocate for a just and caring community.
In this age when Fremont has become one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Seattle – and Solid Ground one of the largest, most stable human service providers in King County – it is hard to imagine that one man, once called by a reporter “a combination of Archbishop Makarios and Phineas T. Barnum,” could do so much to change the face of our community and help set in motion the work that helps so many people today.