Smart Growth World Blog


Pike Place Market Retains Its Historical Flavor

By ​Samantha Schipani via APA Planning Blog

1930s farm to table. Courtesy Pike Place Market PDA.

1930s farm to table. Courtesy Pike Place Market PDA.

In 2007, the APA recognized the Pike Place Market neighborhood a Great Place in America for its functionality, memorable characteristics, and livability.

The most iconic aspect of the neighborhood is indubitably the Pike Place Market itself. This intricate system of food distribution has formed much of the historical, cultural, and economic development that defines the area today.

At the turn of the century, Seattle was booming. Gold rushers, loggers, fishermen, shipbuilders and merchants flooded to the city to take advantage of the area’s rich natural resources and bustling port. Between 1890 and 1900 alone, Seattle’s population nearly doubled from 42,000 to 80,000 citizens. The multiplying population was met with an increase in demand for produce and goods from the city’s neighboring farms.

Farmers would spend precious time traveling by horse drawn wagon or ferry to the city, where wholesalers would distribute them to warehouses on Western Ave. But the wholesalers grew increasingly crooked. Farmers would rarely profit from their commissions, often only breaking even or losing money.

1910s Pike Place Market at Pike Street. Photo courtesy Pike Place Market PDA.

The citizens demanded change. When the price of onions increased tenfold between 1906 and 1907, consumers rebelled against the price-gouging middlemen. To cut the corruption, city councilman Tom Revelle proposed a public street market where residents could buy directly from farmers.

On opening day, the first farmer sold out of produce within minutes. Within a week, 70 wagons were gathering daily to sell along the newly named Pike Place, then a mere wooden roadway that connected First Street to Western Avenue.

Decades later, developer Frank Goodwin saw an opportunity while watching shoppers dodge the Seattle rain. Using the small fortune he obtained from the Klondike Gold Rush, he constructed the permanent arcades that make up the heart of today’s Market.

The Pike Place Market survived the suburban supermarket boom after World War II and narrowly escaped demolition in the 1960s. Thanks to the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development authority, the market today is recognized as the nation’s premier farmers’ market, with nearly 220 year-round commercial businesses, 210 crafters, 100 farmers, and 250 street performers.

Japanese farmers at the Pike Place Market in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Pike Place Market PDA.

The success of the market has reverberated throughout the neighborhood. With over 20,000 residents within walking distance, pedestrians rule in the Pike Place Market neighborhood. The human-scaled building facades encourage foot traffic. Pedestrians have the right of way; when sidewalks are full, shoppers walk without fear down the middle of the street. The Pike Place Market has contributed to the growth of key downtown neighborhoods such as Belltown, the waterfront and the Western Avenue area (including the Harbor Steps development).

The Pike Place Market is an important economic contributor not only to the neighborhood, but to producers throughout the area. The Market serves as a major employment center, with the number of workers ranging seasonally from approximately 1,500 in winter to up to 2,400 in summer. To preserve the market’s original intent of “meet the producer,” owner-operated businesses are required, and franchises and chains are not allowed. As such, much of the economic benefit associated with these jobs remains in the local economy. Analysis shows that gross revenues of businesses in the Pike Place Market totaled nearly $86.8 million in 2002.

The legacy of the Pike Place Market lives on in its commitment to local producers. The Market has partnered with the City of Seattle and nearby agricultural center of King County to identify key recommendations for preserving farmland and increasing market and distribution opportunities for local small and mid-sized farmers.

Pike Place farmers. Photo by Mike Kane Photography.

According to Emily Crawford at the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, the market’s popularity among tourists and cruise stopovers poses unique challenges. The 10 million visitors each year bring great business to the market, but tourists generally don’t buy produce that will perish on their journeys. To prevent growers from suffering, the Pike Place Market is now trying to promote locals shopping there through the Pike Place Evening Farmers Market on Wednesdays, which features more than a dozen local produce farmers and hands-on cooking classes from Seattle’s top chefs after usual market hours.

The market also hasn’t forgotten its original purpose: to provide consumers of all backgrounds with fresh local produce.

Pike Place Market signs. Photo courtesy Pike Place Market PDA.

Pike Place Market’s farmers markets offer a wide array of affordable fresh produce for those enrolled in the government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and who receive a monthly stipend with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT). Its Fresh Bucks program gives every customer who pays with an EBT card a bonus dollar for every dollar spent. The Farm to Go CSA, which serves low-income communities, provides members with season’s worth of fresh and local produce sourced from Pike Place Market Farmers.

The Pike Place Market is not only the breadbasket for downtown Seattle, but the economic beating heart for producers in its surrounding areas. Despite the changing tides over the century since its creation, the Market has not lost sight of its roots as a fairly-priced onion cart on a wooden roadway.


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