Survivor: Our 107-year-old Pike Place Market

Fifty years ago, Seattle's beloved landmark dodged a wrecking ball thanks to Friends of the Market, the group that still protects and manages it today.
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Rescued from developers, the Market has become an enduring symbol of Seattle's soul.

Fifty years ago, Seattle's beloved landmark dodged a wrecking ball thanks to Friends of the Market, the group that still protects and manages it today.

In his poem “Bubbs Creek Haircut,” Beat poet Gary Snyder drew on impressions from a trip through Seattle in the mid-1950s:

Seattle has the best for logger gear
once found a pair of good tricouni boots
at the under-the-public-market store,
Mark Tobey’s scene,
torn down I hear …

Not so fast, Snyder. That’s not what happened.

At the time the poet passed through, there had long been talk about demolishing Pike Place Market. It was a half-century old and declining, a lively but shabby bookend to First Avenue’s Skid Road. But rumors of the Market’s death were premature. Not only did the now 107-year-old Market survive, it thrives as an engine for tourism, a source of local food, an outlet for artisans and a cornerstone urban neighborhood.

It didn’t happen by accident. The Market’s demise was addressed 50 years ago by a grassroots group that is still protecting and serving it today. In September 1964, a citizens’ group devoted to preserving “Mark Tobey’s scene” in the face of a massive 1960s urban renewal scheme launched Friends of the Market over a Champagne breakfast at Lowell’s restaurant.

In that era, the federal government dangled millions of dollars in front of cities to rebuild their downtowns, and Seattle wanted its share of that largesse. With the Market considered to be urban blight, the city eyed the location as a prime spot for high-rises and parking lots. Friends of the Market launched to change hearts and minds.

Its activists did so not simply by claiming that it was historic, though it was, but by showing that saving the Market could accomplish urban renewal better than unleashing the bulldozers. In fact, they outlined a model that would both preserve character and serve a low-income population, plus broaden Pike Place’s appeal to a new generation of downtown condo dwellers and tourists. Renewal could come by improving a special place that had magic in it; magic not easily conjured in glass and steel.

Victor Steinbrueck’s name is the one most associated with the Friends campaign, but there were many, many others involved in the effort. One of the key instigators of Market preservation, for example, was Wing Luke, the first Asian elected official in Washington and a member, elected in 1962, of the Seattle City Council. Luke was a progressive, way ahead of his time, which was tragically cut short by his death in a plane accident in 1965. He was interested in promoting urban agriculture and open housing, and was almost alone on the council for wanting to protect the Market from the wrecking ball. Steinbrueck credited Luke with getting the movement to save the Market going.

The Friends used art to convey their message — the paintings of the Market by Northwest artist Tobey, the sketches by architect Steinbrueck, the expansion of the arts and crafts elements by the Market itself. They devised a ballot measure that offered an alternative to the city’s plan to tear it down. Famously, the Friends put the Market’s future to a public vote and won in 1971. But that was just a beginning.

The Friends and the city had to hammer out a strategy for going forward, with a plan that laid out the values of the Market’s renewal. They sought to protect more than bricks, mortar and vegetables, but an entire urban ecosystem — the farmer stalls, yes, but also housing for older and low-income residents. They sought to expand social services and create a “well-balanced, pleasant urban space.”

That they’ve done.

The Market is home to day care, a food bank, a senior center, a medical clinic and other services for the district’s residents and neighbors. It also attracts some 10 million visitors per year. And it continues to evolve.

A new extension of the Market was announced in March, with a completion date of 2016. A parking lot on Western Avenue will be converted into a complex connected to the Market by the Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone Bridge, named for the Italian farmer and vendor who was a Market mainstay and owner for many years.

Called the Pike Place Market Waterfront Entrance, the project will feature space for new retail, restaurants, possibly a brewery. There will be room for new craft stalls, an open-air deck and plaza with fabulous views, and additional low-income housing. An “overlook walk” is designed to connect it with the city’s planned waterfront improvements.

“Torn down, I hear.” Thanks to Friends of the Market, poet Gary Snyder had it wrong. Not only is the Market still standing, it’s still growing and evolving, along with the city that saved it.

This column originally appeared in Seattle Magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.