IN A CITY changing almost day by day, Pike Place Market always reminds me that Seattle’s heart is still beating strong. Despite the Market’s own transitions, the “Soul of the City,” as Alice Shorett titled her Market history book, still remains.
I knew preservationists had fought hard to save the Market’s character in a 1971 public vote, and I featured some of that story when curating the 2017 “Edible City” exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. What I hadn’t realized until reporting the 50th anniversary of that initiative is how very lonely their work felt at times, how many individuals (and, especially, how many women!) contributed and how impossibly long the challenge continued.
“While I think it is almost a lost cause, I still don’t think we should give up,” architect Fred Bassetti wrote in a letter to University of Washington professor Victor Steinbrueck. That was in 1968, five years into their volunteer efforts … with three more years ahead.
I realize now that the way I think about Seattle — a place where people can win against long odds, where you’re not necessarily wrong even if everyone in power disagrees with you — had roots in that initiative.
The Market defenders are heroes now, but at the time, they were annoyances who refused to compromise. In boxes of Steinbrueck’s papers preserved in the University of Washington Special Collections archive, which archivists kindly shared through a “virtual reading room” while closed for COVID-19, I marveled at notebooks jampacked with plans, lists, people to enlist, tasks, endless arguing points. I laughed at random items, like a 1968 letter from a city project manager who assured Steinbrueck that the city had axed plans for a Pike Place Market ice skating rink. A skating rink in the Market would be “contrived” and contrary to its character, the letter said — and, besides, the city realized the space was too small for a good one.
The questions the campaigners raised are highly relevant today: What happens to low-income people when high-rent developments move in? Shouldn’t a truly great city support places that serve rich and poor side by side? And, as current Friends of the Market president Kate Krafft noted, their core work is still relevant, too. “We don’t want to become complacent about the fact this place was saved. It is still a very fragile place,” she says.
It’s both daunting and invigorating to know the Market — and Seattle itself — still needs us all to join the fight.