One Foot in Front of the Other

Always read the plaque.

Taking to heart that advice from “The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design“ makes me an interminably slow walking companion, but it also brings otherwise pedestrian corners to life when I learn about a seemingly bland building’s illustrious past.

Most recently, that mantra had me reciting poetry, like Claudia Castro Luna’s verse from “A Corner to Love“: “Maps of this city / number in the thousands / unique and folded / neatly inside each citizen’s // heart. We live in the city / and the city lives in us.”

I meditated on Castro Luna’s poem from a perch on Western Avenue in Pike Place Market, where the poem is embedded in the sidewalk as part of the Market to MOHAI corridor — an easy, 1.7-mile walk on which Seattle’s past intersects with its present.

A joint effort of neighborhood and business organizations spearheaded by retired civic powerhouse John Pehrson, the Market to MOHAI streetscape improvement project debuted in August 2020 with the installation of 46 historical photos and stories researched by the Museum of History & Industry and etched onto blades that are in turn affixed to light poles. This eye-level Seattle history lesson is complemented by 75 sidewalk tiles with quotes and excerpts compiled by Seattle Public Library from famous writers, including local luminaries like the former Seattle civic poet and Washington poet laureate cited above.

For a map of this route from Pike Place to Lake Union, head to st.news/Market-MOHAI to follow along.

Market to MOHAI

One-way distance: 1.7 miles

Done up in a fetching blue-and-yellow color scheme that nods to the Mariners’ original uniforms, the route’s blades and tiles have long caught my attention when walking through these neighborhoods. But only recently did I walk the route from beginning to end. With my penchant for plaques, Market to MOHAI has turned a route through Belltown, Denny Triangle and South Lake Union into an outdoor encyclopedia that can make a 1.7-mile walk easily stretch into hours.

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The route makes for an amiable spring outing before the summer tourist crush at Pike Place Market. Next month, it will pair conveniently with a visit to the Museum of History & Industry’s new exhibit “Ansel Adams: Masterworks,” opening May 28. You’re guaranteed to stretch your legs — and you might learn something new abut Seattle past and present along the way, as the walking route challenges you to “see the city through new eyes.”

Start at the Market to fuel up for the walk. There are endless options, but on a Market tour I recently took with out-of-town family, a chef recommended Bacco Cafe for a Dungeness crab omelet and a strong Americano. By the time peak cruise ship season rolls around, weekend brunch waits can easily run an hour. I walked right in on a Sunday in April for prime people-watching at a sidewalk table on First Avenue.

You’ll find the history blades and literary tiles start on the east side of Western Avenue as you walk northwest, passing Victor Steinbrueck Park on your left. The Market’s history is well-trod territory, but the first five tiles along Western offer literary inspiration from local writers like Timothy Egan and Colleen J. McElroy.

The past starts getting interesting as you move into Belltown. You’ll pass still-extant historical buildings like Union Stables — once home to 300 horses and now the appropriate new home of steakhouse El Gaucho — then turn right onto Bell Street, where you’ll learn that the street and neighborhood owe their name to Illinois farmer William Nathaniel Bell.

The route’s nine blocks from Western Avenue to Denny Way feature history blades on both sides of the street. It’s a dizzying transect that covers Seattle history from the former Duwamish village on Elliott Bay to the Denny Regrade (and a quixotic “Reverse the Regrade” idea) and through Belltown’s musical legacy, from big-band jazz to grunge, with stops in between touching on fire stations, union halls, an ill-fated presidential visit and a devastating 1910 fire.

Don’t let the historical musings distract from the contemporary city around you, however. Part of the charm of Market to MOHAI is walking through some of Seattle’s busiest blocks at a slow enough pace to browse. A quick detour down Seventh Avenue takes you to the Sub Pop store, where the musical legacy described on the history blades is still minting hit records.

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Or admire the handmade Japanese ceramics in Art on the Table at the corner of Bell Street and First Avenue. When I told shop manager Blake Simpson I was walking Market to MOHAI, he gushed over the literary sidewalk tiles that line the block outside. “Every day I find a new one on my walk to and from work,” he said. “They provide me with inspiration throughout the day.” He recommended a Sylvia Plath excerpt that concludes, perhaps unexpectedly, given the poet’s reputation, “This is what it is to be happy.”

While there’s no history blade marking the arrival of Amazon, the tech behemoth’s campus looms over the latter half of the walk as you wind your way through Denny Triangle, make a quick jog right onto Denny Way (passing Denny Park, Seattle’s oldest, on your left), and then turn left onto Westlake Avenue. The Amazon boom reshaped this patch of Seattle, and one of Market to MOHAI’s goals is to stitch together the well-worn bricks of Belltown with the shiny glass of South Lake Union. They may feel worlds apart, but on foot you quickly realize just how close they are.

On both sides of Westlake, you’ll glean tidbits about the aborted 1911 Bogue master plan and the thwarted 1991 Civic Commons proposal, two lessons in our stubborn civic resistance to change. Learning about the Cordilleran ice sheet will make the city feel like a newborn on the scale of geologic time, while a photo of the largest mammoth tusk ever uncovered in Seattle city limits (now residing at the Burke Museum) will make you ponder what else lies beneath the construction sites that dot South Lake Union.

A quick right on Valley Street and a left across the streetcar tracks puts you in Lake Union Park, where MOHAI — as you’ll find out, a former Naval Reserve Armory — stands sentinel. The South Lake Union streetcar will return you to within one-third of a mile of your starting point.

Want to unwind after your walk first? Tapster (21-plus) and Flatstick Pub (all ages before 7 p.m.) are both a stone’s throw from MOHAI. The latter’s entrance sits under a preserved terra cotta facade whose history you can learn, of course, if you stop to read the plaque.