Un-Touristed, The Real Pike Place Market Revealed


Images: Clair Enlow

Pike Place Market is quiet and shuttered. No fish guys, no buskers, no tulip sellers—only a few stalls open with baked goods, fresh food, and pantry items. You can drive right through and even find street parking. No one is ambling or gawking or taking selfies or staring at smartphones. The tourists are gone. It’s a good time to look at the Market’s architecture and think about the roller-coaster past and the uncertain future. 

The Market was rediscovered in the 1960s and it has been revered as the heart of the city in the decades since. It lives on because of the attention groups like Allied Arts and Friends of the Market—both full of activist architects—brought to the Market. Practicing architects have done a lot to preserve and renovate it.  

But architecture didn’t have much to do with creating the Market. It’s “architecture without architecture,” a post-Victorian mashup of narrow streets and market arcades, all built around a few ordinary main buildings. Its ad-hoc, infill construction serves commerce of the most basic type—buying and selling seasonal food and related products. 

From the beginning, it pitted scrappy immigrants and small businesses against the establishment. Pike Place Market was founded in 1907 as a protest by local truck farmers against greedy re-sellers and middlemen, the commission houses of that day. From the first days, it was popular with bargain hunters from the grand houses of Capitol Hill. The need for more space was met with pragmatic infill construction. That went on for decades of private development and management, and then it slowed down. When the Market was rediscovered in the 1960s, it was neglected and decayed. Many Japanese-heritage producers had suffered internment during World War II. Middle class buyers were leaving for the suburbs and shopping in climate-controlled, free-parking supermarkets.

But artists like Mark Tobey loved it and made common cause with architects like U.W. Architecture professor Victor Steinbrueck. Together with other activists they targeted a plan that would have wrecked the Market and built on its ruins a mall-like redevelopment scheme, including a tall hotel and massive parking garages. Together, the activists defied city hall to create a preservation district and got that ratified with a people’s vote in 1971. Right around the time the influential author/activist Jane Jacobs called attention to her old Greenwich Village neighborhood because it was threatened by a highway, Victor Steinbrueck and friends championed our own warren of stalls and shops and small shopkeepers. 

Saving the Market was a kind of second founding for the city, a cause perfectly suited to our populist tendencies and obstructive politics.  It turned the tide of euphoric progress that had led to Forward Thrust and Seattle’s 1962 world’s fair. It was also an inspiring victory for grass-roots historic preservation in American cities, and a decisive blow to the wave of urban renewal which was destroying traditional urban neighborhoods everywhere. 

Now the Market is the heart of Seattle, a small city-within-a-city and a model for preservation districts. Its business incubator and welfare missions have worked in tandem with its growth as a tourist destination.  

Pike Place Market is a public trust. It has become so essential that when the mechanical and seismic systems became outdated, architects at SRG Partnership charged with designing a 2012 update were instructed to keep it scruffy. They succeeded in making their own hand invisible, placing new services like elevators and restrooms where they were needed while preserving funky tile cracks and odd paint scratches.  

The Market is preserved, but not static. Folio: A Seattle Atheneum (membership library and event space) settled into the upper level of the Market south of Pike Street. Gum Wall crowds swelled daily, and the quirky Selfie Museum opened in the alley. On the minus side 40-year-old Read All About It, a landmark print news stand with thousands of titles at the corner of First and Pike, closed in December

Nowadays Pike Place Market acts like a key linkage in revisions to pedestrian infrastructure.  Planned improvements in the Pike-Pine corridor, beginning on Capitol Hill, lead to the Market entrance. The MarketFront expansion, designed by Miller/Hull, is almost literally the jumping off point for the future Overlook Walk that is the centerpiece for the James Corner Field Office-designed post-viaduct central waterfront changes. MarketFront builds on beloved features like the Desimone Bridge and keeps a low profile too—all without resorting to imitating historic construction. 

These new connections to the Market have strengthened public support for the new infrastructure projects on the waterfront, and they will help orient us in the future. In the spring of 2023, we can look forward to a local passegiatta that leads from Capitol Hill all the way through Pike Place and down the zigs and zags of the Overlook Walk to the urban shore. Seattleites will be running, walking, biking, and nodding to neighbors from a safe social distance. We’ll soak in the UV rays and remind ourselves where we are before we go back to our screens.

And we will go back. Some trips people made every day have gone away for a while. The commuter works at home, the patient talks with the doctor online, and the groceries come to the door.  The public realm is not just a tourist attraction, or a way to commute, or a last stand for the house-less. It may become, instead, what urbanists have always hoped for and designed for: A place to go every day, by choice. Stepping out the door is a way to get places but also to be a neighbor, especially in the Market.

And to shop. Seller and merchandise are still close. That’s one reason Seattle loves its original farmer’s market and will continue to need it in the future. As the long supply chains of globalism compress, Market vendors can pick up the slack.

The newsstand Read All About It may be gone, but it could be replaced by a store for local maps and related graphics, new and used books, and publications about Pike Place Market and the history of the city. It might be a partnership between Metzger Maps and Folio, brokered by the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority. Together with the old information kiosk at the Pike Place entrance, it could reinforce the gateway to the Market at First Avenue and Pike Place. Titles like Mark Tobey’s World of the Market and Victor Steinbrueck’s Cityscapes and Market Sketchbook would be perfect.

Tourism will soon return, but the travelers of 2023 will find the Market of the future will feed their curiosity as well as their stomachs and their shopping bags. Meanwhile, the unpeopled Market proudly shows its good bones.

Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow is a freelance journalist writing about architecture, planning and history. She’s a Loeb Fellow and an honorary member of AIASeattle.


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