| June 3, 2007
A Century At The Pike Place Market
A mayhem of merchants, competing missions and flying fish
A hundred years ago, a revolution started in Seattle. A revolt over the price of onions.
Today, its resolution has become a city institution and a national attraction: the Pike Place Market. Noisy, rambling, aromatic, venerable, social and confusing, the Market has become an antidote to the sterilized impersonality of globalized chains and speed shopping. In short, it is everything the 21st century is not.
It started simply. Back in 1907, middleman price gougers on Western Avenue had driven the cost of onions from 10 cents a pound to a dollar. A populist city councilman named Thomas Revelle stepped up. With the bombastic backing of a feisty newspaper publisher named Col. Alden Blethen and his (briefly) anti-establishment Seattle Times, he got Pike Place — a muddy lane perched on the brow of a precipitous hill — designated as a place farmers could sell directly to housewives.
The first day, Aug. 17, was dreary and damp, and only six to 12 farmers (accounts differ) backed their wagons to the curb by the Leland Hotel, not knowing what to expect. Eager housewives rushed in. One farmer told a reporter the crowd pushed him away from his own wagon, and by the time he struggled back his produce was gone and a quart-jar full of coins was in its place.
A century later, the Market is the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the nation, a nine-acre public-private complex of a dozen publicly owned buildings, 56 food vendors, 98 other merchants, 50 restaurants, 20 offices or service outlets, 240 rotating street performers, 450 mostly low-income residents, a senior center, a day care, a food bank and a health clinic. It draws about 10 million visitors a year, half of them tourists.
The Market is a village in a big city, says historian Paul Dunn, former president of the Pike Place Market Merchants Association, where cheek-to-jowl vendors and residents canoodle and squabble. It is a meandering warren loomed over by skyscrapers, an uneasy marriage of socialism and capitalism, and an institution that by its very structure is doomed to perpetual crisis: The necessity of keeping rents low enough to sustain small businesses means it periodically needs public dollars to do major repairs and upgrades.
Pike Place Market
It's an economic oddity, depending on a combination of loyal locals and out-of-towners looking for souvenirs. It is cantankerous in its politics, and schizophrenic in its roles as food mart, social agency, repository of kitsch, tourist Mecca, yuppie draw and bargain basement. It's raw and cute, alluring and sometimes off-putting, historic and evolving.
"It's the soul of the city," says author Alice Shorett, who this month is reissuing the splendid Market history she wrote with Murray Morgan, using that phrase as the new title. The Market — democratic, funky, self-absorbed, real, human-scaled and hip — is how Seattle models itself.
"It's the only job I've ever had where I get to be myself and don't have to put on an office face," says Michele Alberts, who helps run the Catanzaro produce stand.
Whether or not the Market really reflects the way Seattle is anymore, it represents the way the city wants to be. "It's a fragile place," says City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who in the 1980s led the fight to save it from foreclosure by New York financiers, just as his father, Victor, had led the fight to save it from urban renewal in the 1960s. "The city has grown up around it, and it has a scale we marvel at now. But while the city has changed so much, the Market remains true to itself, and thrives."
Get ready to protect it again. Money is needed for a utilities upgrade, and as towers crowd ever-closer, the low-rise anomaly will seem ever-more precious — and ever-more valuable for conversion. Wal-Market, anyone?
To see and buy
For historical photo galleries and to purchase Seattle Times images of the Pike Place Market:
Seattle was a vastly different place in 1907, but one thing was consistent with today: rapid change. The city's population tripled from 80,000 to 240,000 that decade. Seattle's first automobile arrived in 1900. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903, and Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905. The city was thick with telephone and electrical wires, and the first commercial radio broadcast had been made in Massachusetts on Christmas Eve, 1906.
Yet it was still a 19th-century town, reeking of manure, sawdust, fish and smoke. Farms ringed the city to supply it with food, linked by dirt roads and steamboats. With refrigeration available to few, shopping was a daily affair. The Industrial Revolution had created extremes of wealth and poverty, not unlike the digital revolution today, and Seattle was pioneer populist, bearing a deep resentment of money men like the wholesalers on Western Avenue who had driven up the price of onions. In 1919 the entire city would go on strike, making national history.
Revelle, great-grandfather of future King County Executive Randy Revelle, discovered an unused 1896 law the council resurrected to allow the Market. The excitement consumers had then about buying directly from the producer — to look in the eye of the person who grew their food — continues today, even though in winter most produce is wholesale and globally produced.
Once swarms of shoppers confirmed demand, real-estate developer Frank Goodwin knew an opportunity when he saw one. Five of the buildings operated by the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority already existed: The Economy Market, LaSalle, Livingston-Baker, Leland and Stewart buildings. By winter, Goodwin had erected the Market's initial arcade, with 76 produce stalls. In 1910, city government chipped in $10,000 for expansion. Over the next 12 years the rest of today's complex — another half-dozen buildings or so — was built, the majority owned by Goodwin, not the city. DownUnder, the shopping area under the food arcade, was tacked between the hillside stilts holding the structure up.
An early version of the Bon Marché (now Macy's) opened at Second Avenue and Pike Street in 1896, and Frederick and Nelson (now Nordstrom's flagship) opened in 1918, but there were no malls or supermarkets in those days. The Pike Place Market was not an amusement; it was a central place to buy good produce and meat at a fair price. As crowds grew, Pike Place was first planked with wood and then paved with the bricks visible today.
The Market rapidly developed a personality. Horseradish Jerry ground roots on the curb. Orphans gave regular horn-and-drum concerts on Saturdays. The Three Girls Bakery drew crowds with its new-fangled doughnut machine. Farmers and customers alike would arrive on the boats of the Mosquito Fleet, before there was a state ferry system. When salmon prices rose to a shocking 25 cents a pound during World War I (today, a single line-caught wild Chinook can cost $300 at the Market), the city opened the City Fish Market with hatchery salmon carcasses and forced prices back down to 10 cents.
With the motto "Everything For The Table Under One Roof," the Market thrived in the Roaring Twenties, adding a library and post office. But in 1922, a proposal by the Goodwins to rent the best-placed stalls to wholesalers set off an uproar. The owners wanted to ensure a year-around stable supply of good produce, while individual farmers feared they were being squeezed out of the best stalls. The price pirates of Western Avenue, they protested, were back.
The Goodwins eventually won the argument — these so-called "high stalls" still have permanent vendors today — but it illustrated an argument as old as the Market: Is the city's institutional responsibility to provide a business outlet for producers, or to provide a bargain buying opportunity for citizens? Where does public ownership leave off and private entrepreneurship begin? Is the Market a model of socialism, or of capitalism? Should it pay its own way, or be subsidized?
The answer is, "Yes." The Market has multiple, sometimes conflicting goals. Without city and federal financial support, it would have folded long ago. And yet what makes it work are the hundreds of small-time entrepreneurs. In the Market, government and small business are co-dependent but make love like porcupines: very carefully.
"Capitalism and communism have been butting heads here for the whole century," says Carol Binder, executive director of the Market's Public Development Authority, which serves as landlord. But while her job is partly to worry about plumbing and electricity, she stresses that the Pike Place Market is not just bricks and boards. "It's all about the people."
That was the case in the Great Depression, when the political wrangling died away and the Market became a vehicle for survival. Pike Place became a safety net, the place with Seattle's cheapest food and liveliest talk, the refuge of the little-guy merchant. The Italians, Chinese and Japanese manned many of the stalls (as Hmong do today) and artist Mark Tobey began sketching the pluralism in 1938. There was a dance hall in the Economy Market Building, and the number of vendor stalls peaked at 515 in 1939.
Then came Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Eight days later, a mysterious fire in the Sanitary Market building was, without evidence, blamed on Japanese-Americans. Early in 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that eventually interned 110,000 from the West Coast. Japanese farmers didn't plant crops that spring, and whites failed to replace them. By 1943, the number of Market stalls fell to 196.
The Market began a long, slow decline. After World War II, truck farming — small farms that sold a variety of crops directly in markets — was increasingly noncompetitive with large, single-crop farms that shipped long distances. The truck, freeway, airplane and refrigerated shipping container slowly made agriculture global. Supermarkets erupted to serve the car, and Pike Place was becoming an anachronism. By 1949 only 53 market stalls remained, down nearly 90 percent from a decade earlier.
As business plunged, the neighborhood became seedier. Japanese evacuation allowed brothel madam Nellie Curtis to buy out the lease of the Kodama family in the LaSalle Hotel and start a celebrated bawdy house which ran until 1951. Downtown became Seattle's haven for seniors, the disabled and the poor. First Avenue became a "skid road" of taverns, peep shows and pawn shops. Starting in 1950, proposals began appearing to replace the antiquated Market with a gigantic parking garage.
Artist Mark Tobey was appalled. Shorett quotes a letter-to-the-editor from Tobey: "What do we want? A world of impersonal modernism, a world of automobiles? I've studied and painted the Paris stalls, the markets of London, Mexico and China, and none is as interesting as ours."
But where Tobey saw color, others saw decay. The city renewed its 10-year lease on arcade space in 1957, but only by a 6-3 vote on the council. After the 1962 World's Fair that began a revitalization of Seattle, planners proposed that 12 acres around the Market be leveled for urban renewal and replaced with a 3,000-car garage, hotel and park. By 1968 the ante was upped to 4,000 cars. And a showdown was brewing.
VictorSteinbrueck, a University of Washington architecture professor, thought the city was about to sell its soul. He saw opportunity, not blight. Meanwhile, urban renewal was colliding with new populism rising from the ferment of the 1960s. City Councilman Wing Luke helped organize the first coalition to save the Market, and architect Fred Bassetti joined those arguing the Market had value. Friends of the Market was formed. University of Washington Press published Tobey's "The World of a Market" and later Steinbrueck's "Market Sketchbook."
The conflicting visions came to a head in 1968 — one of the most tumultuous years in American history — when the city tore down the National Guard armory at what is now Victor Steinbrueck Park and proposed running a highway through it. Market-redevelopment plans included a garage, a hockey arena and 300,000 square feet of office space. Mayor Dorm Braman denounced skeptics as "nitpickers" and called the Market "a decadent, somnolent fire trap."
So Friends of the Market started a petition asking the City Council to endorse the Market's historic value, getting 53,000 signatures in 1969. The council ignored it, voting for the urban-renewal plan. Steinbrueck countered by getting the council to declare the area historic under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Downtown businessmen fired back by trying to get the historic area reduced from 17 acres to 1.7. The Friends sued. This was civic war.
When the federal government finally approved the $10.6 million Pike Plaza project that would raze the Market, the Friends launched an initiative campaign to establish a seven-acre historic district instead. They needed 15,560 legal signatures but got 25,478 in just three weeks. In November of 1971, after a fierce city-wide debate, the initiative passed, 76,369 to 53,264. It was a landslide. But what had Seattle wrought?
Determining just what the new historic district should be would once again fall to city leaders. Mayor Wes Uhlman appointed a commission to make suggestions, and it drafted the vision that governs the Market today. In 1973, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority was created to run the place. (The city now has eight development authorities for other entities.)
The real key to success, however, was money. U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson was a legendary budget powerhouse, and during the 1970s he funneled $60 million in federal money to rehabilitate the Market, which in turn drew $75 million in private investment. The city began purchasing Market buildings from private owners, particularly the Desimone family who, in 1941, had taken over from the Goodwins. (Both families still have many members in the Seattle area.)
The future seemed assured. Yet Pauline soon faced yet another peril.
In 1980-'81, dealing with mounting maintenance bills and tenants' demands that rents be kept low, Market administrators entered into real-estate agreements with The Urban Group, a New York consortium of financiers. Under tax law, The Urban Group was granted a controlling interest in 90 percent of the Pike Place Market for a down payment of $2.93 million, money that was badly needed. In return, it could use the Market as a tax write-off, saving more in taxes than it had paid. It seemed a win-win.
But the tax shelter disappeared in 1986, and by 1988, The Urban Group was threatening to foreclose, take over ownership of the Market, and possibly radically redevelop it.
Victor Steinbrueck's son, Peter, an architect who had grown up in the Market, took up the fight anew. The Urban Group was designated THUG, lawyers stepped in, and another bitter fight ensued. Outspoken deputy mayor Shelly Yapp became the savior's feisty spokeswoman. As court decisions went against THUG, a settlement was proposed, but where to get the cash to pay the New Yorkers to go away? State Sen. Ray Moore worked with reluctant lawmakers to get $1.5 million from Olympia, coupled with $750,000 in local money. THUG was bought off in 1991, and the Market was saved again.
At this point we might say, "And they lived happily ever after." The Market has thrived, raising $1.2 million in donations by selling named floor tiles in 1985, and $500,000 from a Pigs on Parade contest in 2001. "If you visit Seattle, you go see the Space Needle, you go see the guys at the Market throwing the fish," says fish salesman Justin Hall of Pike Place Fish Co., who has worked there since 1986, when he was in eighth grade.
True: On a summer afternoon, you can't squeeze through.
"It's the greatest job ever," says Mike Osborn, manager of Sosio's produce stand where he's worked 21 years. "You never have the same day." When daughter Jackie, 19, went to work there, she told him, "Dad, I get it. The customers are more like family than people you just take money from."
But markets don't stand still. Big-box stores have an average life of 15 years before renovation. Department stores reinvent themselves all the time. Binder points out how badly dated the Market's heating, cooling, plumbing and wiring has become, and one side of Pike Place is a mess of cars, recycling bins and blank walls. How long can cute but marginal tenants be subsidized? As downtown is redeveloped with million-dollar condos, is the Market customer base changing? What if the Market goes tacky, or schmaltzy, or yuppie? What if it sells out not its buildings but its integrity?
With priceless views and precious real estate, the temptation to redevelop a century-old icon will never go away. There will be fights enough for several more generations of Steinbruecks.
So a hundredth anniversary is a good time to reflect what a miracle it is that the Market survives at all. In a city propelling the future, the Market links us to the past, and reminds us that convenience is not the same as character.
If the Pike Place Market didn't exist, how many billions would it cost to invent it?
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.