The Pike Place Market as cultural refuge

A longtime theater figure looks back on four decades in Seattle, during which the Market played an endearing, sustaining, starring role.
Crosscut archive image.

The Pike Place Market in Seattle, where commerce is culture. At right, Jonny Hahn performs. (Chuck Taylor)

A longtime theater figure looks back on four decades in Seattle, during which the Market played an endearing, sustaining, starring role.

The year just passed has been a big one for birthdays in Seattle, with centennial celebrations for the Moore Theatre, Children's Hospital, and the Pike Place Market nearing their end. Lately I've been reflecting on my love of the Market and my experiences there, which began when I first arrived in Seattle in 1967 – an even 40 years ago.

We've been hearing a great deal about the history and chronology of the Market, with descriptions of the sounds, smells, and bustle - so I'd like to share some of my personal memories and comparisons and look at some of the changes. Pike Place Market's early history and growth have been well recounted this year by historians and journalists, but my how it has changed just in my 40 years of roaming the stalls and lower-level shops.

I arrived in Seattle in 1967 to help start what is now called the Professional Actor's Training Program, with W. Duncan Ross. Ross and I met in Montreal, shortly after my years in Paris and New York. Paris, New York, Montreal, and then Seattle. What a culture shock! The Market became a panacea to daily woes and cloudy days. Today it retains a genuine feel of Europe amidst the urban sprawl of downtown. Despite the movement of many cities to welcome local farmers, our Pike Place Market still remains a unique experience in America.

Seattle has become a slow-food town since those days, but there was a time when the Market was an oasis in a supermarket desert. City Fish and the Levy brothers were part of three generations of fish sellers (mongers). David, the grandson of the original owners, declined to continue in his father's and uncle's boots but eventually became the manager of the Central Food Market's fish department up in Shoreline. But City Fish's place in the north end, opposite the flower sellers, is anchored, one of four well-stocked fish sellers.

I remember one day in the late 1960s when Jack and Gary Levy stopped me on my stroll through the stalls that are now full of craftsman and flower sellers. "Hey Arne," called Jack. "Can you use these?" He held up a full bucket of moist and shiny mussels. "One of the fishermen gave me these and no one else knows what to do with them. Take 'em away for buck." I did. Of course, now mussels are farmed locally and available everywhere.

Louis DeLaurenti's father had a tiny shop in the basement with barrels of beans, exotic labeled cans, imported pasta, and hard salami. I bought my one and only hand-operated pasta machine from him for $25, a great sum then for a serious home chef – and I still use it. After Louis took the store from a mom-and-pop shop to an upscale corner international emporium, the food boom began to happen. One shopping trip, I noticed that Louis had some Land O'Lakes cottage cheese in his case. I proclaimed, "Land O'Lakes! Louis can you get me some unsalted butter?" He promised he'd ask his buyer for some. One week later: "Louis? Did you get the unsalted butter?" He hadn't. Each week for a month I begged for the butter. And each week Louis said he hadn't been able to get the purveyor to bring him some. Finally, he stated that a local dairy establishment (which shall go nameless) had an embargo preventing any other dairy company from bringing in their butter. Within that year, Land O'Lakes unsalted butter showed up on a supermarket shelves, and suddenly Seattle began it's foodie renaissance for real.

In those days when there were many local farmers hawking their products, one business stands out over the others. The famous poster girl for Verdi Farms, Pasqualina, held forth in the center stalls. Seemingly ageless, with gnarled hands from years of harvesting vegetables, she would always toss in for free an extra bunch of carrots or Italian parsley and give a smile to everyone that shopped there. "How do I do these greens?" I would ask, "Cook 'em up wid a liddle garlic and oliva oil, delish," she would shout back. Next week with a different green, I'd pose the same question! Same answer, of course!

The stalls that line the north end now are full primarily of flower sellers. Four decades ago, it was full of vegetable farmers. Today the arts and crafts sellers are there, too, selling seasonal gifts to the hoards of tourists and locals. A few times a week in the summer, the local farmers set up shop in the street, offering a fantastic array of locally grown fruits and veggies. Now that Seattle is a major port for cruise lines, and due to the close proximity of the Market, the tourist trade is a very necessary part of its health.

In 1976, I was part of a small theater company that I founded with John Aylward, Katherine Ferrand, and Marjorie Nelson, who was the wife our the Market savior, Victor Steinbrueck. We were able with the generosity of Preservation and Development Authority that runs the Market to squat in an open loft on the second floor in the Soames Dunn Building. Under our un-heated, huge, and dusty space, a small coffee shop set up business. It was called Starbuck's. Having no money, I offered classes to fledgling actors in return for their opportunity to be in plays. We did Beckett, Shakespeare, Gunter Grass, and scrounged bloody meat boxes, discarded every evening in the street, and built our sets out of them. It inspired one of the many "collage" revues, which we called The Box Show. It eventually led to a dozen other similar shows, including 25 versions of The Big Broadcast. My first rock 'n' roll version of Midsummer was created there, too.

As artists, we thrived in that vital atmosphere. The Empty Space was doing Pinter in a small narrow space under the south end, while we were doin' our thang in the north end. We had to set up our staging area away from the picture windows, lest the ferry boats distract our precious concentration.

We would gather nightly in a dark and smoky bar in the corner next to Don & Joe's meat shop, called Place Pigalle. A dive to be sure, but free peanuts and good draft beer. Place Pigalle is still there, but now it's quite a charming little French restaurant, with the same fine view of the waterfront. The elderly, wizened lady bartender would often mention that a rowdy fellow one fatal evening was thrown from those windows. We were well behaved.

By the mid-1970s, the Market was in grave danger of falling to the developers' wrecking ball. Victor Steinbrueck singlehandedly waged a grassroots campaign to keep the Market from a deathly fate. Politics confused every voter. Friends of the Market was formed to urge voters to vote "yes" on an initiative on the ballot, which was actually a veiled measure to destroy it. Market Friends was another faction formed to literally save the market by voting "no" to the same initiative. Needless to say, by voting "no" we were able to save it from being a parking lot and hotel. Many of we local artists led tours through the streets to show the voters what they would loose if the measure passed. Eventually, Market Park, as it was named at the raising of the totem pole at the north end, was dubbed Victor Steinbrueck Park shortly after his death, in honor of the man who saved it.

Has it changed for the better? Not necessarily. Change is inevitable, but somehow the commercialization has caused a loss that history can't recapture. Once- or twice-a-week organic produce stalls is better than nothing. Le Panier brings a true taste of France, with its classic patisseries. The summer cooking demos are fine, and now businesses stay open on Sundays. That's progress and business, available to us all when ever we want the atmosphere of a "real" place.

Whenever I'm blue, or life becomes stressful, it's still a great balm to wander the Market with my young children in search of a balloon man, to find Jim Page looking all weathered and worn but still making up brilliant lyrics skewering the politicos, after 40 years of strumming his guitar all over the world. Where else can you take home a bucket of mussels, a genuine French baguette, clap hands with an a cappella ensemble of gospel singers, and observe 25 people lined up outside of a tiny coffee shop out the door and down the street?

I still love the Market, and I know that change is inevitable, but I miss those good old days when Pasqualina would flash her movie-star smile and roll me some free kale in the daily newspaper.

  

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