Posts Tagged 'Pike Place Market'

Piggy back

A pig had been standing on the corner of Pike Street and Post Alley in the Pike Place Market since 1986 and as far as I know had not moved until last month.

The pig is made of bronze and is named Rachel after the prize winning Whidbey Island sow that modeled for the sculpture. It’s actually a piggy bank, and every year, so it is said, the Market Foundation pulls between USD$6,000 and $9,000 out of her in currencies from around the world.

A pig in a pinch. Note the handmade signs visible behind the blonde woman's head. Click to see larger.

Whenever I go visit my friends up at the Post Alley Seattle’s Best Coffee, I walk past Rachel coming and going, and she is almost never not covered with children having their photo taken on it. Many is the time I have broken stride momentarily or walked around a person holding up their iPhone in order to avoid walking through their shot.   

So it is remarkable that I didn’t even notice that for the past month, the pig has been absent. Granted, the market has been under exensive renovation (“so it can stay 104 years old” goes the slogan) and there have been barricades and cones and yellow tape and temporary plywood walls directing and corraling pedestrian traffic for months, so part of the reason I didn’t realize she’d vacated her post was simply that there has been so much of moving things around.

A crowd of Rachel fans looks on. Note the small boys ready to spring. Click to see larger.

Today, however, on my way to meet my friend Erik for a coffee, I came up the stairs from Post Alley and found a circle of people gathering around a handsome, very old truck as if something were happening. The pig was in the back of the truck, and my first thought was…where are they taking the pig? At the coffee shop, Vangie told us that Rachel had actually been hit by a taxi cab in February and roughed up pretty badly and that she was actually returning today after having been away for repairs.

You could have knocked me over with a 5 Deutschmark note. Sometimes I think I’m very observant, and sometimes…well, sometimes I think I’m not very observant.

Erik had known about it. Much of his immediate family lives on Whidbey Island, which for you outtatowners is just up the Pugest Sound a few leagues. According to what Erik has heard, the artist who originally brought Rachel to immortal life and who was called upon to make the repairs lives on the island.

In case you think you might heist this piggy bank, the rebar fastenings and the expression on this man's face should dissuade you. Note plaques on pole and under worker's foot. Click to see larger.

Erik and I took our coffees over and joined the crowd. The men in reflective vests had already hoisted the pig off the truck and within seconds of setting her on the ground were having to pause while kids hopped on and off her back. Eventually they taped her off so they could fasten her down to the concrete in the same place where she has stood all these years.  

More about the trees

Yesterday I walked up the alley to the market to get my coffee. It was a great little outing, the kind that makes my workday more grounded. My friends at the coffee shop greeted me by name. Then I moseyed downstairs to talk to David, who owns a used book store (Lion Heart Book Store) on one of the lower levels. Later I walked up Pine past Fifth Avenue and finally (been looking for several weeks) found Shoe Shine Eddie, who brightened up my Rockports for me. On the way back to the office I ran into and walked several blocks with Julie, who waits at my bus stop in the morning and with whom I often ride into town. It was the perfect downtown mini-adventure.

I don’t often buy anything from David, but if I’m thinking of a particular book I usually will give his place the first crack*, and he’s always glad to see me. David is lively and fun, a big kid really. He’s a chatterbox and the kind of local businessperson who remembers people and remembers what he talked about with them. He is clearly of Middle Eastern or maybe eastern Mediterranean descent, though he was raised here in Seattle, and he regularly adopts the vocal modulations and phrases of a desert carpet seller, just for a lark. When he rings someone up for a two-dollar paperback he says, “For you, my friend, three hundred dollars. It is a good price, a deal for you.” Women are treated to additional cooings having to do with the question of their whereabouts all his life. If our conversation is interrupted he will say to the customer as I stand aside, “it’s okay, this is my twin brother, you see he looks identical to me.”

David and I have been holding an extended conversation about the identification of a tree that he goes past every day — he wants to know what it is so he can get one, and I have looked at it from aerial photos and on Google’s Street View but we’re still not sure. Or rather, he does not think it is what I say it is (Cupressus sempervirens). Every time I go in he asks me if I’ve walked by that tree yet to examine it in person (it’s in the University District), and I always tell him to grab a piece of it and bring it to the store so I can look at it. We get nowhere.

Yesterday I went in because I was curious whether he had an old copy of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but as soon as he saw me he started pestering me about that cypress again. That reminded me about my own tree story, which we will now segue into. Please empty your pockets of any sharp objects and hold on.

You may remember one of my first posts about the family apple tree. Where we left off, I had managed to keep only one of the eight grafted trees alive and I had the thing in a big plastic container and was nursing it until I could get it into the ground in a place where I thought it might be able to stay awhile. Well, Mara and I planted it up above the rockery last spring, behind several large rhododendrons.  I knew it would be safe there, get enough light and water, and be out of the way of most of the kid traffic. We had no rain all summer, but I dragged a watering can up the hill every day or two during the drought, and it did quite well. It put on several feet of growth in its two main stems before shutting down for the winter, so that it reached almost to my height.

Not yet a tartsworth, but the significance of this fruit is enormous.

In April the tree put out a ton of cheery white flowers, and I started being hopeful that it might actually bear fruit this year. Technically, an apple such as the Transparent can bear in as few as two years, and I think I grafted mine over three years ago. I’m happy to report that I went out early in May and found that one of the flowers had closed up and formed a tiny little apple.  It was just over a half-inch long. It didn’t look like there would be any more this year, and who knew if this one would even survive or be devoured by a single snail, but I was happy to see it anyway. Last week I checked again and not only had the first one grown to about an inch, but there was another tiny one lower down on the same branch.

I’m happy because this means that I can now declare success in my years-long quest to preserve and transport the family apple tree’s genetic legacy. These two little fruits are the very clone, the direct genetic offspring, of the old apple tree that grew all through my youth at 106th Avenue SE in Bellevue. If the two apples actually grow to size, we will make a small tart out of them. My mother can hardly wait to make apple pies from the Transparent again. For Mara particularly, this is a great story. She doesn’t really grasp yet what it means to me — she can’t because she has not yet that sense of time and loss of youth and the ages of trees — but she reads our excitement about it and she gets that it’s a big deal, she intuitively understands that it is important that we nurture this tree to maturity. The project was worth it to me for Mara’s journey alone. I cannot control what she remembers or values in her life, but I can fill her days with as many opportunities as possible to sense the wonder.

David drank this story in happily, as though it were lemonade. He noted that his own father planted 30 apple trees on their property before David was born, and that when he and each of his siblings were born his parents planted a cherry tree, and that subsequent owners cut down many of the apples but that the cherries remain. Further, he has known many Greek families whose forebears brought figs or other trees over from the old country and planted them here a hundred years ago, and they thrive and survive even today.

David did not have a copy of Lawrence’s book. Last week he had a beautiful hardback of it, but he sold it immediately, and why didn’t I come in last week? Where have I been lately?

I smiled and stepped back as a wave of customers approached him with questions and purchases, and I went out emptyhanded. No matter.  It’s really about the conversation. 

*This does not change the status of Island Books as my official neighborhood bookstore.

The Return of Third Avenue

The shades of character that neighborhoods, streets, blocks, or even particular corners take on has always intrigued me. There are a few places downtown that have traditionally been “dodgy” (as Hugh Grant says it in Love Actually), where I have been aware that I’m slightly more aware of the people around me — like the hair on my neck is trying to act as antennae for potential trouble from the panhandlers, the crazy yelling people, or the groups of angry young men or even young women that make moving about in the city so invigorating. But one block over, or a block or two away down the same avenue, things are completely different. I’m always watching to see how and why these pockets of dubious character form, take hold, maintain themselves, and maybe finally get replaced by a different character.

Give me First Avenue any day. Real local shops, human scale, a well-peopled way.

When I was growing up, if we mentioned Seattle’s First Avenue we snickered, because it’s where ladies of ill repute plied the oldest trade (supposedly — I never saw any of that trade’s practitioners and I had to cross First at Marion to get onto the ferry as a teenager to visit my friend Cam on Bainbridge Island). The street’s name was synonymous with harlotry and sleezy businesses. There are still one or two businesses that hark back to that time but in the main First Avenue is now  upscale, clean, and reputable. Because I pay attention to the built environment and the social environments that it either nurtures or discourages, First Avenue is my path of choice if I have to walk on a North-South axis. There are lots of coffee shops and cafes and restaurants and retail stores, a great stationer, and enough older brick and stone buildings to retain a human scale.

Second Avenue through the main part of downtown (say Marion through Stewart) is boring — made up now of the empty concrete “plazas” and courts at the bases of skyscrapers, interchangeable burrito joints hidden in their deep shadows. (There are some exceptions to the monotony, which I’ll treat of in other posts someday). At five oclock these areas become deserted. Even the disenfranchised prefer places with more human energy. It’s not run down. It’s just lifeless. As long as I’ve been walking around downtown Second has been a safe street you could walk down without being bothered — except for the intersection at Pike. 

Second and Pike seemed to me like a drug-deal corner for ages, and in truth the two blocks of Pike Street from Third to First (where Pike meets its market) remain the corrider for people you don’t want to bump into very rudely. A few years ago, the police would ensconce themselves daily at the parking lot on the southeast corner of Second and Pike, and even ran a needle exchange program there for a while to help reduce the spread of AIDS. The grocery or tobacco shop just east of this parking lot was secured behind a drop-down metal gate at night. I was always nervous around there. Still, seventy yards further east and you were on the other side of Third, and that was a “nice” area. Tables with crisp white linens were set out on the sidewalk in front of cafes. A block from the needle exchange.

The Maximus Minimus truck now sells pork sandwiches where the pusherman used to sell drugs. Photo taken earlier this year.

The Newmark Cinema went in at Second and Union (one block south of Pike) during the late ’80s or early ’90s as the anchoring tenant of a large new building there, but the theater failed because — in my opinion — it was too close to Second and Pike. People didn’t like to walk around there. As I mentioned, Second Avenue through most of downtown doesn’t have enough sidewalk life to feel inviting, but then when you get closer to Pike, the kind of sidewalk life you encounter is the kind you want to pass through quickly, not queue up for a movie and pull out your wallet in.

In recent years, however, the block of Pike between Third and Second has come up, and I think it is part of a revitalization of Third Avenue. Because of the presence of the world famous Farmer’s Market at the west end of Pike (a chaotic place friendly to the dodgy element), I think the blocks immediately eastward on Pike will always be a little greasy. But between Second and Third the police cars come less frequently and the needle exchange vans are gone. The old grocery/tobacco place was replaced two years ago by a second installment of Mae Phim Thai, a lunchtime institution that is still line-out-the-door every day down on Columbia below First. Soon after Mae Phim opened its new restaurant there, a gourmet popcorn joint went in right next to it.

Because of the many nice shops and restaurants nestled among the towers of finance on those streets, if you walk along Fourth or Fifth Avenue you will share the sidewalk mostly with business people and retail shoppers during the day and with a few theatergoers, happy-hour revelers and shoppers in the evenings. If you walk along Second, two short blocks toward the bay, you will encounter business people during the day and no one at all in the evening, because there aren’t any nice restaurants and there aren’t any shops. But between these two avenues, Third is this unusual blend. It has the Post Office, which until recently has been the third ugliest building in town and which sits directly across from Benaroya Hall, our symphony’s home. There is a fine restaurant called Wild Ginger at the same intersection (University), and there is a McDonald’s on Third and Pine. Because of this mix and because Third is the main bus corridor, both daytime and evening traffic consists of the upper class element threading their way among other people with considerably less to lose, and late at night Third Avenue is virtually an avenue of urban decay, gangs of youths yelling and strutting across the street in front of buses and clustering into an impenetrable wall in front of McDonald’s.

Bruno's single-handedly held down the west side of Third Avenue for years. Now the sign for the IGA supermarket is visible to the north. Photo taken earlier this year.

Third has some exceptional old buildings like the Arctic Hotel, the Dexter Horton Building, the Telephone Building and the Northern Life Tower. Some other time I’ll talk about some of these, along with the ugliest two buildings in the downtown core, which are also on Third. But Third has two particular blocks, the blocks between University and Union and the one between Union and Pike, that have been problematic up until now. The old Woolworths building, now a Ross budget clothing store, takes up half the block between Union and Pike but only has windows at the corner. The rest is a bare wall without awnings, so it bakes in the summer sun and offers no relief from the drizzle during the rest of the year. That side of the block also contains a Bartell’s Drugs, which is handy but attracts trouble. While I was talking with Ben Gant at his newsstand the other day three men came running out of the Bartell’s. The one in front was brought down to the sidewalk by the two chasing him, who turned out to be store detectives. In the low buildings on the other side of the street there were mainly empty or not-often-occupied spaces, with the exception of Bruno’s Pizzeria, which has been there a long time. South a block, between University and Union, the Post Office and the symphony hall face off over the heads of hundreds of bus patrons. The Third and Union bus stops create throngs on both sides of the street. The Post Office, with its cheerless facade and offensive parking garage, had the audacity to replace the old neo-Classical Post Office and the Pantages Theater, the Pantages having had the audacity to replace the neo-Gothic First Presbyterian church [UPDATE 5/2010: Paul Dorpat has posted a thorough treatment of this section of Third on his blog, here]. Along this side there are again no awnings and until recently only a few windows to break the dread monotony of this thoughtless architecture. The Benaroya, while inside a paragon of high culture,  is outside a block-long refuge from the rain and sun for people wanting to light up a cigarette while waiting for the bus. One of our greatest architechtural treasures is a building I can’t stand walking in front of.

The bright facing and new windows are long overdue, but it's still a depressing stretch of sidewalk. Photo taken earlier this year.

All this combined with the McDonalds a block north, in my opinion, has kept this section of Third in the doldrums. But a few developments have begun to make things look brighter for the neighborhood. I’ve already blogged about the resurrection of Ben Gant’s newsstand, which is the only spot of life along the wall of the Woolworths building. The aforementioned Thai and gourmet popcorn places appeared on Pike around the corner, and the addition of a Starbucks directly on this corner gave them a reliable friend nextdoor. Last year, in the wasteland between Wild Ginger and the Starbucks, a new upscale Kress IGA grocery went in next to Bruno’s, which for a number of years had to hold down the entire block by itself. The opening of a supermarket on this long-forsaken block surprised me, but a moment’s reflection reminded me that the regentrification of Belltown a few blocks north provides a sufficient customer base for a large store.  Lastly, as if finally realizing that it was sharing the block with greatness across the street, the Post Office got a face-lift last winter and spring. Now it has some fake windows (I assume they’re fake — I don’t think they cut holes in the building for this) that do wonders for the upper floors. [UPDATE 5/2010: The windows are not fake. On dark winter days after I wrote this post I could see in through the tinting, and the fact that I never previously noticed the windows — plain as day — demonstrates that the facade was so glum that I couldn't look at it.]

Of course I’m in favor of the new shops going in, and I especially like the Post Office’s makeover. It all helps create a sense of place. However, I still prefer the sense of place two blocks west on First. A lot of people are crazy there, but they aren’t all standing in a line to form a gauntlet of cigarette smoke. 


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