THE “LADY BARBER” had a point to make. She’d overheard a gentleman at the nearby restaurant table talking about the place she sat, worked, loved: Pike Place Market.
“He says, ‘I think that old Market ought to be torn down!’ I says, ‘Uh-oh; I’m going to fix him!’ ” she recalls on the crackling recording preserved in the Seattle Municipal Archives.
“I got up from my table. I walked over and put my arms around his neck and pulled him off the stool and dropped him on the floor.
“I says, ‘How do YOU like to be torn down?’ ”
IF A TIME WARP dropped us into Pike Place Market 50 years ago, much would look familiar: the giant red clock and “MEET THE PRODUCER” sign, heaps of fresh fruit and rows of vibrant vegetables, pristine local crab and spices ground to order, artists and craftspeople.
Look more closely, and differences would come into focus: gentlemen’s hats and cigars. Salvage shops and rooming houses. And, in one of the pivotal moments in Seattle history: cheerful, doggedly stubborn volunteers encouraging visitors to “Save the Market” at the ballot box on Nov. 2, 1971.
“Saving” the Market is hard to imagine a half-century later. Today’s Pike Place Market is a symbol of Seattle, a source of identity and pride as well as Copper River salmon and Rainier cherries. The landmark was legendarily founded in 1907 for local farmers to sell directly to shoppers, after middlemen price-gouged necessities such as onions.
But by the 1960s, city and business leaders dubbed it “a ramshackle firetrap” on track to “die of rot,” a derelict dinosaur. Their plan? Replace the grubby drag on downtown with luxury apartment towers and a high-rise hotel, upscale offices and a seven-story parking garage.
The citizens’ initiative — one of the first in Seattle history — called instead for a 7-acre historic district to preserve and protect the Market’s character. It passed decisively, 59% to 41%.
Looking back, that election was about more than saving farmers or buildings or even the Market itself. It was a turning point for Seattle — what we stand for, what we think is possible.
“ ‘You can’t fight City Hall’ was a notion before then,” says Port Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, a former Seattle City Councilman who was 6 years old when the battle began and 14 at the election-night party. His father, Victor Steinbrueck, had galvanized the campaign.
“He proved them wrong. You can fight City Hall, and you can win.”
“The bulldozers are waiting.” — Jerry Thonn, a leader in the Save the Market campaign, recounting a call to arms
THE TWISTS OF the Pike Place Market fight could fill a book (and, in fact, have filled parts of several). The CliffsNotes: Both sides claimed they would save the landmark.
The Market was decaying, and desperately needed improvements. On the vendor side, it had never recovered from the appalling legacy of its Japanese farmers’ internment during World War II. On the shoppers’ side, sales dropped as farmland vanished, suburbs sprawled and supermarkets thrived.
City leaders were hellbent on a “bold modernization,” as one 1963 headline put it, razing rattletrap buildings for their version of a paved paradise with its million-dollar view of mountains and Puget Sound. A small Market was included in compromise proposals, nothing like the quirky, affordable public service it would replace.
“They think that getting rich people back in town makes it all worthwhile, [and] they seem to have no idea how sterile it will be,” lauded architect Fred Bassetti wrote Victor Steinbrueck in 1968.
It sounds startling. But such “urban renewal” plans were the buzzword of that era, with the federal government generously funding projects that replaced rather than repaired blighted areas. At the time, the efforts were considered “progress”; in hindsight, they often obliterated history and displaced poorer residents and people of color.
To city leaders basking in the success of the 1962 World’s Fair, a new Market seemed a logical Act II. That expectation instead caused a Catch-22: Owners refused to spend on improvements, reasoning their money would be wasted when the storefronts were eventually demolished.
On the remodelers’ side was institutional power: the city council, chamber of commerce, newspaper editorial pages, every business group.
On the preservationists’ side were people power and lucky timing. Decades earlier or decades later, Market supporters — and Seattle — might well have failed.
“It would have been Anytown, U.S.A.,” says Kate Krafft, current president of the Friends of the Market, the still-vibrant group founded in 1964.
IN AN EARLIER ERA, Seattle might not have housed a critical mass of supporters. The Market was built on working-class and agriculture values, while its champions were largely professionals with more education and privilege.
“That’s a unique thing, to see those two worlds come together,” says Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. “I think it does speak a little to Seattle as it was after World War II,” a city of greater and more uniform prosperity and a growing shift to “knowledge-based jobs” rather than manual labor.
Corporations at that time assumed workers would volunteer generously in their hometown base, loyal to Pike Street over Wall Street.
Consider Thonn, a hardworking attorney who also was president of the thriving Allied Arts nonprofit when Steinbrueck asked him to join the campaign.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was young,” Thonn, now 89, jokes. The work he describes could have filled another full-time job. Each time he learned the director of a pro-urban-renewal group had a public speaking engagement, he’d show up and debate his competition head-on. When friction developed between Market support groups, he invited all sides for weekly meetings at his Madison Park home to work through differences. He labored with other volunteers over lengthy, arcane and sometimes-brilliant procedural tactics.
“I spent as much time on civic time as I spent chargeable time in the office, always. I just felt that was a worthwhile exchange,” Thonn recalls.
Countless foot soldiers joined with no billable hours.
A 1960s newspaper article dismissively described Market supporters as “housewives, lawyers and college professors.” But housewives were an underappreciated secret weapon. In one example from a Seattle Times article, 23 women, mostly homemakers, individually staffed a Friends of the Market booth in one month alone in 1964. Elizabeth Tanner (“Mrs. George Tanner” to the paper), the Friends executive secretary who organized such volunteers, was also the campaign’s “right and left hand” the year Steinbrueck was on sabbatical in London, notes Krafft. Women weren’t just behind the scenes. With signs in hand and babies on their backs, passionate moms also picketed City Hall, urging the council to “Save the Market for Our Children.”
Then there was Victor Steinbrueck.
THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON architecture professor was unstoppably stubborn and unbeatably creative, with a sharp eye for hypocrisy, a skill for slogans and a public defender-level zeal to protect the downtrodden.
“We kept doing these bizarre things out of love for Victor. He was so audacious,” recalls Shirley Collins, a stalwart supporter who went on to found Sur La Table at the Market in 1972.
City officials saw Steinbrueck as “a barnacle standing in the way of progress,” his son recalls.
He couldn’t understand, says Thonn, how the council could hear hours of his carefully considered arguments (“They must have hated to see him coming”), view tens of thousands of signatures from residents in agreement … and still vote no.
The publication of Steinbrueck’s “Market Sketchbook” brought beauty even to the area’s rough edges, presenting it as a living whole: Thrift shops and taverns and a rare public women’s restroom got as respectful an artist’s rendering as Roy and Helen Yokoyama’s gorgeous produce and Pure Food Fish, where “Dungeness crabs are always on display.”
As a child, Victor shopped at the Market weekly with his mother after his father, a railroad man, died during the Depression. There he saw immigrant communities from all ethnic backgrounds, workers putting in long hours to make ends meet, “people he had a strong connection to, because that was his own family’s roots …” Peter Steinbrueck says.
“He wasn’t an ‘ism’ person. He wasn’t a socialist, he wasn’t a capitalist, he wasn’t any of those things; he just had human values, but that were grounded in working-class people … The Market epitomized those things to him.”
Together, father and son ate apricot leather from DeLaurenti, enjoyed lunch at the Athenian or Copacabana, noshed on deli pickles and nibbled raw rhubarb. They also painted protest signs, marched, gathered signatures, sat through interminable public hearings and private meetings, and sketched Market details in their separate notepads.
“That’s how he spent his time, and either I went along with it, or I didn’t see him as much,” Peter says. “I didn’t know at the time I was getting an incredible civics education.”
COLLINS WAS WORKING at the American Institute of Architects in 1964, when Steinbrueck suggested she and a friend, Peggy Golberg, back the cause.
“We’re going to have a meeting on Saturday at Lowell’s and talk about saving the Market,” Collins remembers him saying.
Some 60 people attended that epic gathering at the Market restaurant, kicking off a campaign straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Their Friends of the Market group combined moxie with old-fashioned sentiment, defending the Market as “an honest place in a phony time,” as a now-classic letter from Bassetti put it.
Collins became a founding officer, as did Golberg, with their Duck Press printing many classic Friends posters.
Collins grew up in south Texas and had warm memories of the open-air, multicultural shopping districts there. And she appreciated the argument that the Market was an irreplaceable ecosystem, a necessary space that served aging longshoremen as well as wealthy businessmen, selling discount day-old bread in addition to farm-fresh vegetables.
“All these old people who lived down there, that was their life …,” she says. “It just seemed wrong to come in and close down their community for the sake of a big hotel.”
With boundless fervor, Friends held fundraisers, gathered petition signatures, doorbelled neighborhoods, held weekly City Hall protests, wrote letters to any politician who would listen — and plenty who wouldn’t. (Zev Siegl, young co-owner of a new “coffee, tea and spices” shop, Starbucks, asked Sen. Brock Adams for help in 1971. His letter drew one of the many cool rebuffs filed in Victor Steinbrueck’s papers.) They spoke with civic groups (The Burien-Highline Guild of the Seattle Art Museum was one typical target) and recruited unlikely allies, like the UW students who held a rock festival fundraiser. When Market owners claimed many vendors supported urban renewal, in an angry ad scolding “every hippie, do-gooder and dilettante” seeking a “Market merit badge,” the Friends recruited many more vendors to support their side.
They won points from twists such as a late-breaking exposé showing the pro-development group was bankrolled by business interests, while the Friends filled their coffers with $5 bills from individuals. (One lucky exception: Artist Mark Tobey, a staunch Market defender, mailed the Friends a roll of lithographs that indirectly paid for TV ads near the end.)
The 1971 initiative, a final Hail Mary effort going directly to voters, benefited in other ways from its timing: an era of civil rights marches and Vietnam War divisions.
A grassroots endeavor to preserve Pioneer Square succeeded in 1969, when protests against the proposed R.H. Thomson Expressway along the arboretum stopped that project in 1970.
MOHAI’s Garfield wonders whether the Boeing bust, when the region’s biggest employer began massive layoffs in 1969, didn’t play a part in it all.
“Did that shake our confidence and say we don’t have to follow the playbook that’s given to us by the usual suspects? … I wonder if there was just a little crack in the armor there,” he says.
Swinging for the fences, standing up against authority figures who insist they know what’s best, trying to save our history. “We really have to say that is a fundamental part of the Seattle spirit, of the Seattle DNA, now,” Garfield says.
The day after the vote, as Steinbrueck ate French toast at the Athenian with a reporter, Art Bauder, a Market “buttons and notions” seller who donated $10 to the campaign, interrupted them.
“Congratulations; you did it!” Bauder told him.
Steinbrueck, who died in 1985 at age 73, beamed a reply: “We all did it. You can tell your children you did it.”
THE PRESERVATIONISTS HAD won, but the work still had to be done. To his credit, Mayor Wes Uhlman immediately said he’d respect the people’s will. Officials worked full-blast to find federal funds — this time, for preservation. Powerful patrons such as Sen. Warren Magnuson came through. The Market was carefully upgraded rather than destroyed, with governing guidelines that “weren’t about just paint and plaster,” says Krafft, but about people and character. The voters’ influence went beyond Seattle, too, she says, creating a national groundswell for such preservation.
Collins received the first certificate of occupancy for the new historic district, for the groundbreaking kitchenware store she created in a “wreck” of a spot. Sur La Table became a national success — one of many Market features that made it into a top attraction, bolstering downtown rather than bringing it down.
The Market hasn’t stood still, and it wasn’t meant to, says Collins. “It changed in ways we thought it probably would, and it changed in ways that the people who fought for it were afraid it would change.”
The Market “is like its own community,” says Carlee Kulman of Pure Food Fish, still going strong. Her great-grandfather founded the business in 1911, and her grandfather, Sol Amon, was hawking those Dungeness crabs during the 1971 campaign. Sol didn’t step away from the business until 2020. He died Sept. 28, at the age of 92.
It’s all so familiar to Kulman: the workers who feel like family, the fellow vendors, the look of the place and the love for it.
“The Market is like the sacred space that you don’t touch … while the rest of the city is changing,” she says.
It’s true: The day-old bread shop and the salvage stores are long gone. The short-stay hotels disappeared with stricter building codes after a devastating 1970 fire. Many social services are organized, rather than evolving organically: a food bank, a medical clinic and day care, and senior-citizen housing, all serving low-income residents.
But the glorious public view is enhanced further with a recent Marketplace expansion. And there’s still the point raised by the barber interviewed by the Friends so long ago.
A shiny new Market “wouldn’t be natural,” she said. What did she mean? “I’m an old woman,” she explained. “And if I was to be changed into a young girl, what would happen? … They wouldn’t know me!” She’s gone now, but forever part of the Market story, just as she was.
Pike Place Market celebration
What: Pike Place Market, Friends of the Market and Pike Place Market Foundation celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of Initiative 1 on Nov. 2, 1971, which saved the market from extensive demolition and renovation. Friends of the Market, founded in 1964, led the fight to save the market.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 23
Where: Pike Place Market