Pike Place celebrates 100 years in business
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It’s 6:15 a.m. and the neon sign glows in the dawn: PUBLIC MARKET CENTER. And here they come, the fish guys in orange bib pants, looking a little morning-groggy but gung-ho as they start slapping down salmon on the display-case ice.
Welcome to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, celebrating its 100th year this summer. In the words of head orange-bib-pants guy, the Bear, “You never know what you’re going to see here.”
This is true. From its beginnings in August 1907―when cranky Seattleites started a community market because vegetable prices were too high―Pike Place has become a world unto itself, covering 9 acres of downtown Seattle and drawing 10 million visitors a year.
But back to the fish, because the fish are the first thing the 10 million people want to see. This is thanks to a time-saving scheme devised by Pike Place Fish Market owner John Yokoyama in the 1980s. Why, he wondered, should we carry fish around when we could toss them like silver footballs through the air? His inspiration has gained Pike Place Fish Market international fame; it has inspired motivational books and corporate seminars, which explains why suddenly the orange-bib guys are being joined by a dozen or so well-dressed women who take shovels and start packing down the display-case ice in some kind of corporate-bonding exercise.
“Salmon!” shouts a guy in bib pants, and as the nicely dressed women watch, he hurls a king salmon at the Bear.
I hate to leave, but I need to move on to chase assistant market master David Dickinson on his morning rounds. As we run past the Athenian Inn―where Tom Hanks ate in Sleepless in Seattle―he explains that his first job is to assign spaces to Pike Place’s 300-plus day vendors. “Good morning,” he calls, in Hmong, to a woman selling daffodils. Craftspeople mill around in sweaters they’ve knit themselves. “I can’t sell shirts next to somebody selling shirts,” one complains. After 10 minutes Dickinson has assigned each craftsperson to a suitable stall. “My brain hurts,” he says.
Naturally, given that Pike Place is historic and irreplaceable, it was almost torn down. This was in the early 1970s, when rough-edged urban markets were out of style. But led by University of Washington professor Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle voters halted the demolition. Today Pike Place is integral to Seattle, providing housing for a food bank, a health clinic, a senior center, and on-site day care, as well as 500 below-market-rate apartments, in a very Seattle-like effort to live the good life with king salmon and fresh-cut daffodils, but still be really earnest about it.