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New: Pike Place Market

Posted on Apr 21, 2017

For a long time, I only went to Pike Place Market when my extended family from the East Coast visited Seattle, which might be the reason I’ve since avoided it for much of my adult life.


Don’t get me wrong: I love my family, and I never felt any ill-will toward the Market. If anything, I essentially forgot about Pike Place’s existence, writing it off as a tourist novelty that didn’t warrant attention from a Puget Sound native. Never mind that I was actually from New Jersey, and probably would have spent my life there if my parents hadn’t decided to relocate to the Emerald City (I imagine one of them randomly looking up from the newspaper and saying something like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be swell if we moved to the rainiest corner of the country?”); no, in my mind I was already a true Seattleite, and I couldn’t be bothered by tourist attractions.


Of course, whenever my uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins gathered in the Northwest for reunions, Pike Place was always their destination of choice. On one memorable family outing, everyone insisted on visiting Pike Place’s Starbucks, famous for being the business’ original location. It’s also notoriously busy, and my family found ourselves jostling through a crowd of roughly 12,000 tourists upon arrival. It took approximately five hours for myself and my cousins to order and receive our triple-shot macchiatos (or whatever it was we drank in those innocent, youthful days), and by that time we were all starving. A dreadful argument erupted over where we would eat, and I remember one of my more excitable relatives repeatedly bellowing, “We must feed the children! We must feed the children!” In the end, we ate towers of onion rings at a nearby Red Robins, and I can safely say this experience convinced me to stay away from the Market for good.


Which is a shame, because the Pike Place Market is actually wonderful.


It’s a historical gem, for one thing. In an age in which Seattle is reinventing itself as a shiny successor to Silicon Valley, Pike Place serves as a reminder of the city’s wild past. Its origins harken back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Seattle’s grizzled population of mariners, loggers, and gold-hunting entrepreneurs doubled in size. During this time, fresh produce from surrounding farms was carted into the city and sold wholesale, an inefficient system that often cost local farmers considerable sums of money. Around 1906, public disgust over soaring produce prices (apparently, Seattleites were especially appalled at the high prices of onions) led the city to seek a more streamlined approach that made it easier for farmers to turn a profit. More specifically, Seattle set aside space on a nondescript wooden road where farmers could easily sell their goods directly to the public.


The result was Pike Place Market, and what followed was a transformation of Seattle’s character. New, permanent structures were built for the farmers’ use in the 1920s, eventually becoming the permanent arcades in use today. Eventually, the Market became a gathering place for musicians, artists, and political dreamers, becoming the catalyst for a creative renaissance. By the 1930s, what had begun as a collection of self-directed, modest business transactions had cemented itself as a central cultural phenomenon.


Hard times were ahead, however. The 1940s saw the shameful internment of one of the Market’s important backbones: farmers of Japanese descent. Then, during the postwar period’s suburban boom, former customers retreated to supermarket chains, leaving the Market to wallow in increasing shabbiness. By the 1960s, Seattle was prepared to demolish the whole enterprise for good.


It’s actually a small miracle that the modern Market even exists. In a surprising, one might even say dramatic, development, voters suddenly rallied to preserve Pike Place, and the district was eventually refurbished and protected as a historic site. And we all know how the story ends, of course: today, Pike Place is one of Seattle’s most popular destinations, one of the oldest continuously occupied farmers markets in the whole country, and perhaps the only place on Earth where you can buy used books, records, action figures, fresh seafood, and foraged delicacies in the same location. Oh, and there’s a guy on the corner who plays a full-sized piano, which I think we can all agree is pretty fabulous.      


About a year ago, I decided to explore Pike Place for the first time since my childhood. It was a typical spring day in the Pacific Northwest, and the Market’s narrow cobblestone streets were slick with rain. I wandered through the crowd beneath a sea of black umbrellas, rediscovering the many forgotten attractions from my youth. Beneath the Market’s sizzling red entry sign, I found Rachel, the bronze, 500-plus pound piggy bank standing proudly by Pike Place Fish, an establishment famous for lobbing and juggling fish fillets to entertain onlookers. Further on was the Beecher’s Handmade Cheese shop and Le Panier, an exquisite French bakery and cafe. Venturing down below the main arcade, I revisited the Market’s perplexing underground, a maze of rickety wooden corridors leading to antiques, dusty towers of books, arts and crafts, and untold oddities.


Emerging at the other end of the Market, I trudged to Victor Steinbrueck Park overlooking the Puget Sound. A raw wind was blowing off the waves, and the fir trees on the opposite shore swayed beneath a bank of mist. I sat on a bench (foolishly soaking my jeans on the damp wood in the process) to sift through my thoughts.


A lot of Seattle is changing these days, and it can be hard to recognize at times. The punk urban grit of my childhood has mostly disappeared, giving way to waves of new development and, while I enjoy the vibrant excitement that comes with a booming economy, I can’t help but miss the old city sometimes. It’s perhaps this reason that I’ve found a new appreciation for Pike Place. Amidst the hustle and bustle of rapid growth, the Market keeps us tethered to our roots, reminding us that, for all our bells and whistles, we still rely on the communal earthiness that first made our city something grand to behold.

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