Pike Place Market was chaos from just about the moment it opened in 1907.
The authors Alice Shorett and Murray Morgan, in their book Soul of the City, describe a scene that greeted one farmer that first day: “A waiting crowd of 50 or so shoppers, most of them women, some fashionably dressed, all carrying market baskets, pushed the cop aside, stampeded to the wagon, and bought out the whole load before the wagon could be maneuvered to the curb.”
That spirit of disorder prevailed for much of the market’s history. And when a band of activists rose up to save the market from demolition more than 50 years ago, that’s what they were trying to save, according to people who remember the fight: not a quaint piece of historic architecture, but an unruly aspect of Seattle’s personality.
It was an early clash between visions of order and chaos. More than half a century later, Seattle is still defined by debates about the place of poor people in the city and the appropriate level of disorder in an urban downtown.
“Part of Seattle’s DNA is a sort of anti-establishment, down-and-dirty, gritty feel,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry.
“We see that in our icons, like [folk singer and restaurateur] Ivar Haglund,” Garfield said. “We see that in our music heroes, like Nirvana. We see that in the Pike Place Market. There’s something in Seattle that loves to celebrate the messiness of life, the collision of people, the excitement of different ideas coming together. And that is messy.”
Before Pike Place Market was a Seattle tourist attraction teeming with cruise passengers, it was an unruly shard of the city — a warren of shops and stalls overlooking the city’s waterfront where humanity collided. Farmers and tradespeople, many of them immigrants, came in wagons and on boats, hawking wares within a structure that gradually crumbled as the decades wore on.
Sara Patton remembers being awash in the market’s intense sounds and smells as she ran through its corridors as a child. When she was 15, she joined the grassroots movement to preserve the market. Her mother, Mary Lou Patton, served as public relations chair for the group behind the effort, Friends of the Market.
“She was a preacher’s kid,” Patton said of her mother. “Preacher’s kids frequently end up being in the church or the hell-raisers. She was on the hell-raisers’ side. I think that had something to do with it for sure.”
Back then, the market was a haven for some of the city’s poorest residents.
“The area that’s now the Pike Place Market really was not considered the center of the city — it was considered the edges of the city, " Garfield said. “It was marginalized Seattle, if you will. It was a place where people who were disenfranchised had a spot. It was a place where the most unpretentious of businesses took place.”
The battle over the fate of the market in the 1960s and 1970s is now Seattle lore. Some of the most powerful people in the city — elected officials, business leaders — wanted to chase federal “urban renewal” dollars and follow a trend sweeping the country: cities tearing down their unruly corners and erecting sparkling monuments to order.
Their plan was to demolish the market and build a luxury hotel, high-rise apartments, a parking garage and high-end retail. An area of the development would still be aside for vendors, but some market fans saw it as an unworthy replacement — a sanitized market. They spent years protesting, lobbying, debating and attending government meetings.
Victor Steinbrueck, the architect and professor who led the campaign to preserve Pike Place Market, helped rally farmers and vendors as well as shoppers who gravitated to the market's low prices and atmosphere.
But perhaps his most powerful arguments came in the form of pen-and-ink sketches Steinbrueck drew that captured aspects of the market's appeal that were hard to put into words, Garfield said.
"They weren't fancy polemics, they weren't fancy advertising campaigns," he said. "They were the most simple and yet most profound way of spreading the message that this was a place of beauty and it's a treasure to be preserved."
The fight culminated in a 1971 initiative. As KOMO's Jack Eddy put it in a 1971 broadcast: "The city wants a market which is spruced up and made respectable so as to fit into a major hotel and apartment development. Supporters of Initiative 1 want a market which is casual, heterogeneous, and out of the ordinary. The difference between these two positions resolves itself, ultimately, in a question of values and tastes."
Nearly 60% of Seattle chose "out of the ordinary," opting to create a 7-acre historic district to “preserve, improve, and restore” Pike Place Market. The decision meant Seattle defied a trend of urban redevelopment sweeping the U.S.
"Part of the brilliance of saving the market wasn't just that they preserved this edge of the city," Garfield said, "but they turned the city's conception of itself on its head and made Pike Place the center of the city."
It was motivated, in part, by Victor Steinbrueck's vision of “messy urbanism" — his appreciation for the rough textures of city life — said his son, Peter Steinbrueck.
“It was not for the buildings,” said the younger Steinbrueck, whose father died in 1985. “It was not your conventional notion of architectural preservation. That was not the driving thrust. It was to preserve culture and community.”
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