Catching fish and history at Pike Place Market on Seattle's bustling waterfront

October 27, 2014
A Ferris wheel is the latest high-profile addition to the Seattle waterfront, where the Aquarium and a variety of restaurants are just a few steps from the Pike Place Market on August 26, 2014.

SEATTLE ó Somehow, on four visits to Pike Place Market over three decades, I failed to learn where the brothel was. Nor did I hear how the first Starbucks did business for years in this neighborhood before selling its first cup of coffee. Clearly, I was missing a lot.

Like millions of tourists every year who approach this hillside warren of shops, stalls and eateries, I charged around sniffing flowers, appraising fish, listening to buskers, tasting produce, glancing at Elliott Bay or the Olympic Mountains and savoring the vintage magazine ads in Old Seattle Paperworks ("More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!"). It was a sensory riot, and that was enough.

My fifth trip was different. In late August, Times photographer Mark Boster and I spent four days in the market, and this time I met more people and heard more history and backstage chatter.

First, the Pike Place Market Historic District is 9 acres ó bigger than you thought, right? Besides its many stalls, which house a rotating cast of farmers (about 80) and artisans (about 225), its 20 buildings hold more than 30 restaurants and 250 stores, four fish merchants, a senior center, a health clinic, a food bank and a child-care center. (That child-care center, market officials say, is one reason weed will not be part of the marketís offerings any time soon, despite Washington stateís vote to legalize marijuana in 2012.)

Most visitors "never see it for what it is," said Mercedes Carrabba, a second-generation market vendor who runs Ghost Alley Espresso and leads tours. Itís a city within a city, she said.

Carrabba likes to point out that more than 400 people live in the market district, that its first mortuary is now occupied by an Irish pub (Kells) and that Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, lived in a shack on this hillside until her death in 1896.

The old brothel, Carrabba reports, did business in the LaSalle Hotel in the 1940s and í50s when madam Nellie Curtis handed out business cards reading, "Friends made easily." Itís a residence for seniors now, just upstairs from the market.

If youíre a visitor, one obvious place to start is on the eastern side of Pike Place, where you can find the neighborhoodís biggest commercial success stories.

One is the first Sur La Table cookware store, opened in 1972. (By the way, you canít see it from inside the shop, but just upstairs thereís a jaw-dropping 1,400-square-foot loft apartment. For $1,500 a night, itís yours. For details, consult the Inn at the Market next door.)

The even bigger story is Starbucks, which was born a block away in 1971 as a purveyor of coffee beans and equipment and moved to its current district spot in 1976. Management finally got around to selling coffee by the cup in the í80s. Also, at some point on the road to global domination, the company redrew its logo to make the mermaid more demure. But the Pike Place location still uses the topless original.

There are plenty of young businesses in the market too. Not far from Starbucks and Sur La Table is Steelhead Diner (opened in 2007), a sleek lunch and dinner destination that shows off its Black Witches and Green Butt Skunks (fishing lures, not cocktails) in museum-style displays. Just downstairs, Rachelís Ginger Beer (opened in 2013) brags about its Moscow Mules and Porch Swings (cocktails, not fishing lures). Radiator Whiskey, an upstairs den for dinner and spirits (not necessarily in that order), has done gangbusters business since opening last year.

And, of course, youíll need to linger at Pike Place Fish Market, where wisecracking mongers draw crowds with their hardy fish-flinging and order-hollering. John Yokoyama, its owner of 49 years, has a healthy side business in motivational books and speeches, and his guys speak that language too.

"If youíre short with people and you donít love them, theyíre going to go down the hall and spend their money," fishmonger Jake Jarvis told me. "If weíre really having fun, people feel it."

When I asked to buy a copy of Yokoyamaís and Joseph Michelliís book, "When Fish Fly," Jardin leaned back and hollered: "One Johnny book!" Then the mongers swarmed and seven of them signed the title page.

Some locals grumble that the market has become too touristy, especially when the cruise crowds shuffle through in summer. But I didnít hear visitors complaining. Most seemed busy basking in the market magic.

Which isnít magic at all, of course. Itís highly curated capitalism. To change the color of a fixture or stock a new product, tenants often need permission. Street performers annually renew permits to circulate among 13 designated spots (look for the musical notes painted on the pavement). To ensure turnover, the limit is one hour in a spot.

In fact, Pike Placeís birth and rebirth were both cases of government intervention.

In 1907, Seattle first set aside a patch of Pike Place as a farmers market because consumers were complaining that middlemen were inflating the price of onions and other produce. Once direct-to-the-public sales began, developers rushed in to put up buildings.

By 1971, many shoppers had turned to the suburbs, and privately owned Pike Place buildings were starting to fall apart. Thatís when a citizens campaign to stave off demolition led to voter approval of a rescue plan.

City officials created the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority to set rents, approve tenants, keep out nonnative chains and enforce a set of restrictions that has grown to 48 pages. These crowded aisles might be the most carefully managed chaos this side of professional wrestling.

Fortunately, thatís not what most people think when they step up under that big orange Public Market Center sign. If theyíre like me, they think: Who wants to catch a flying fish on a cold day? Would it be wrong to follow my morning croissant and coffee from Le Panier with pastry and coffee from DeLaurenti? What will my wife do if I come home with a cigar-box guitar made by that guy in the arcade?

Meanwhile, the marketís management has launched plans for a new $65-million waterfront entrance and addition on Western Avenue. State officials are tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which for decades has screened the market from much of the waterfront.

At Virginia Street and 2nd Avenue, a new Palladian hotel, a 97-room boutique property from the Kimpton chain, is scheduled to open late this year. At Stewart Street and 1stt Avenue, a 159-room Thompson Hotel is to open in 2016.

In other words, more tourists are coming. Now all the market has to do is keep making magic.

 

 





 


Associated Press