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Pike Place Market – Pike Place & Pike Street – Downtown – Seattle, WA

Having spent the bulk of my life in the western United States I have become something of an expert on post World War II cities. This notion of being an expert comes from having spent my youth in such a place and later, bouncing across its face when the need to move struck me squarely on my behind and made it uncomfortable to stay sitting.

One thing you learn quickly is that most places are really not places at all. Well, that is not quite accurate. Technically they are places because they exist, however that vast majority of these so-called places have as much of a sense of place as a cotton ball has sharp edges. And that, rather more accurately, gets at the heart of what causes them not to be places in my taxonomy of places.

Fortunately Seattle fits easily into that book; for if it didn’t our collective lives would be nudged closer to simply existing instead of energized by the sense of place this city gives us. At the simplest level the notion of a sense of place describes a set of attributes, so delicately arranged, that even the routine things in life become uniquely expressed.

This set of attributes, or characteristics, are nearly endless but often include things like how the light in mid August looks, the regional foods, the color of the land and its vegetation, the sound of its people voices and the sound of their point of view, how commerce is conducted and where, how the climate affects everything, how its institutions anchor education and the arts, and so on. If corporations are allowed to be considered people, then so may cities be considered in the same light. Unlike corporations though, great cities are allowed, no must have, souls.

At the center of Seattle’s soul is the Pike Place Market, a place that got its start as way to break the hold food wholesalers had on the food delivery system. In the simplest terms around 1905 the wholesalers had implemented a system that would occasionally pay farmers a break even price, create false shortages at will, and by doing that raise consumer prices to levels that made greed blush.

The catalyst for change came when the price of onions went from 10 cents per pound to $1.00 per pound between 1906 and 1907. This created a bit of a public firestorm and a city council member, using a zoning rule, got the land where the market sits converted to, well, a market. The critical change this newly minted market brought was a place where farmers sold directly to the consumer, a practice that is still at the core of the Market today.

The city nearly lost the Pike Place Market in 1963 when the mucky mucks in Seattle decided that the Market had outlived its usefulness and need to flattened and reborn in a manner that predated the soulless architecture that is popping up all over the city right now. They even wanted a hockey arena on the public dime (somethings never change: that same arena fight is now being fought down in the SODO district as I write this – gag). The unruly and unwashed masses staged a 10 year revolt, led in part by Betty Bowen and Victor Steinbrueck, and saved it for posterity. Personally I think people like this deserve to be elevated to secular sainthood.

My relationship with the city was cemented when I began to go the Market on my own as a teenager where I was introduced to spices, tea, hippies, green things that vaguely resembled food I saw in the grocery store, more hippies, and the ever dangerous and exciting 1st Ave. I have never recovered from those trips and I pray I never do.

Today the hippies are farther and fewer between and generally replaced by immigrant farmers, the tourists outnumber the locals, I can now name a few of the those things that vaguely resemble food, the spices and tea are still in the same place, the Starbucks store where Seattle’s coffee culture stared is a mob scene everyday, and every night the entire place empties out and let’s me come and take loving portraits of this place that has anchored Seattle’s identity for over a century.

Copyright 2012 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved.