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Every place has a story. KNKX Connects showcases people and places around Puget Sound. Through audio, art, photography, music and journalism — discover a new connection with Seattle's iconic Pike Place Market.

Behind these doors, beneath Pike Place Market’s surface, is a world of social services and assistance

 Three people sit at tables in a well-lit room painting, following the instruction of a man with gray hair whose back is to the camera.
Parker Miles Blohm
The Pike Place Senior Center offers a variety of activities including art classes and tai chi.

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll miss it: a little wooden sign posted high on a pole with a chipped corner and an illustrated finger pointing to your left, pointing to a pair of heavy red metal doors. It reads "Pike Market Senior Center."

It’s located just down the stairs near the sign and clock, past the gum wall, toward the back of Pike Place Market.
Stepping inside, the center is quiet for most of the morning. A couple people gather at tables chatting, a few folks watch the morning news. Some just sit with their eyes closed. But at lunch time a line forms out the door and down the hall.

Today’s meal: Indian butter chicken, seasoned rice, salad, and fruit.

Staff and volunteers will serve about 100 plates this afternoon. They already served nearly 100 plates of breakfast earlier this morning. They do this seven days a week - for free.

Maane Farhan is a program coordinator at the center and has been working there for almost two years. He said meal times are a good chance to see who’s coming in.

“They might just be coming in just to enjoy the community setting, just be able to watch TV. But we try to identify the vulnerable population.”

Like many senior centers, the one in the Market provides its members with classes, and activities. Unlike other centers, this one does it all for free. Most, although not all, of the members here live on little or no income. Nearly one third are currently experiencing homelessness.

 A woman wearing a hat, sunglasses and a pink coat smiles standing in front of a tan building with brown doors. Behind her on a column is a worn sign that reads "Pike Market Senior Center" with a finger pointing towards the doors.
Mayowa Aina
68-year-old Josephine ‘Josie’ Pornel stands in front of the easy-to-miss sign for the Pike Market Senior Center. She said joining the center has been central to helping her get comfortable around people again after she was violently attacked on the street decades ago. “Once you are a senior, not everyone is welcoming,” Pornel said. “At a senior center you can identify with people and it may be hard to open up, it may take some time, but later on you will see that you do have the same interests and you can build on it.” Staff described Pornel as one of the biggest advocates for the center, and she’s well-known for bringing lots of energy and positivity into the space. “Each time I come here, I always thank them because they helped me a lot, they’re part of my healing.”

In addition to field trips to the aquarium, acupuncture sessions on Mondays and dance parties on Fridays, a tiny team of case managers are also helping members address their basic needs for food, medical care, shelter and permanent housing.

The senior center provides an important link to the almost invisible resource network of social services the Market provides for the people living in and around the community.

In 2020, the senior center and food bank served nearly 7,000 people and provided over 50,000 bags of groceries. The Market also has low-income housing units that are home to more than 400 people, and a 24/7 assisted living facility that houses about 68 people.

A medical clinic in the Market sees over 4,000 patients a year, and a preschool and childcare center serves around 100 families annually.

 People sit scattered around a room filled with round tables and chairs.
Parker Miles Blohm
Pike Market Senior Center staff and volunteers serve free meals seven days a week. Staff member Maan Farhan says meal times are a good chance to see who’s coming in and identify who may need additional assistance.

“If these resources were to vanish tomorrow, there would be a lot of people's mental health in danger, a lot of people's physical health and well-being in danger, [and] a lot of people feeling like they're drifting in the wind,” Farhaan said.

Knowing all of this, that invisible network, and the people it cares for, suddenly become more noticeable.

Virginia Dolan, 91, used to live in the Market but now she lives downtown, walking distance from the center. She said she’s been coming to the center for about 10 years.

She probably wouldn’t describe herself as vulnerable, but she said she feels like her life changed practically overnight, the moment she turned 90.

“It's like in a dream, where you're walking around and you don't see anything you know, you're supposed to do something, but you can't remember what it is or where to go,” Dolan said. “It was just really spooky, and it still is.”

Being part of the senior center has helped. She said the staff helped her navigate an issue she was having with her landlord, and she also likes meeting with a women’s group on Thursdays.

“And the meals are really good,” Dolan said with a laugh. “They're the only balanced meal I get.”

An older Black man half-smiles looking at the camera wearing a Seahawks hat.
Parker Miles Blohm
77-year-old Willie Turner Jr. took his first art class at the center and uncovered a new passion. He has since started selling his work. “Even though there’s doom and gloom in the world, there’s so much beauty. And that’s what art means to me and that’s what this place means to me,” Turner said. He said senior center staff members encouraged him to try art and he credits them with helping become an artist. “I enjoy it makes my life meaningful. And being in recovery, it soothes my mind. It's therapy for me.”

Ian Johnson is a researcher who did some of his doctoral work at the Pike Market Senior Center.

“Senior centers are so important,” he said. “It really becomes a space where it’s like a one stop shop for older folks. ”

He looked at the experiences of older unsheltered adults in Seattle’s downtown area. He said people described all the ways their movements are restricted, controlled, and policed either through literal law enforcement, or through the built environment like not having places to sit, use the bathroom, or not having access to transportation. Their worlds can suddenly get a lot smaller. He said people who are unsheltered are often forced into care in a variety of ways.

“A senior center provides the space where you can have these loose social networks and relationships. You can go there to socialize, you can go there to get resources, and you can talk to a social worker if you want to. But nobody is forcing it into your world.”

That sense of agency, control, and respect is important to the members at the center, whether they are unsheltered or comfortably housed.

Everyone is celebrated for their diverse life experiences and talents. They’re encouraged to engage with one another and take ownership of the center’s programming. That’s part of what makes this one of the most unique places in the Market.

“We're not one of the merchants but we are a community,” said Programming Services and Member Services Manager Zoe Freeman. “The Market is a village, made up of a lot of different people. And that's what you see here.”

A Black man wearing a "U.S. Navy Veteran" hat and glasses smiles standing in an alley.
Parker Miles Blohm
69-year-old Brother Tony Green is a relatively new resident of the market having moved in in 2020, during the pandemic. He said he started coming to the center for the meals “and then I found a whole world of opportunities.” He said center staff helped him purchase a plane ticket online and find black slacks for his new job at the Sea-Tac airport. And when he had an allergic reaction, a staff member walked him to the nearby clinic. “I did not know they had a clinic, and the staff member walked me up there. I mean, how cool is that? They took the time, they stopped what they were doing, so that's the thing that I found out about the senior center, they’re here to help you,” he said.

There are all sorts of people found at the center with incredible stories. Former teachers and engineers, people in recovery and people who have started whole new careers as artists. People who are unhoused and people who are still working well into their 70s and beyond.

Freeman, who turns 80 this year, has been working at the senior center for more than 30 years. She said the center’s approach, making the services free and designing intentional programs was innovative for a program that got its start in 1978. And it was impressive to her. Today she’s one of the center’s biggest ambassadors.

“People look at us sometimes and see that we serve people who are considered less advantaged, and they think we're the 'poor' senior center,” Freeman said. “I think we're the richest senior center in Seattle because of the beautiful community that we have here, because of the diversity we have, because of the opportunities we offer for developing friendships.”

At any given moment, this hidden center humming with activity just beneath the Market could transform into a dining room or a living room, a doctor’s office, a writers circle, a wedding venue, a space to practice Tai Chi, a karaoke lounge, or a watercolor class.

It’s a place where even learning to paint a pink lily can be transformative.

 People sit at a table painting with water colors.
Parker Miles Blohm
Painting a lily with water colors at Pike Place Senior Center.

KNKX Connects is an ongoing series showcasing the people and places of our diverse and vibrant region. Your support helps KNKX connect listeners throughout Western Washington, presenting a much deeper look at the place we call home. Donate to this vital community service today.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing
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