The Hidden Heart of Pike Place Market


Contained Chaos

Pike Place Market is barely contained chaos on a good day, so you could be forgiven for not taking the time to stop and stare at the set of murals overhead as you dive into the throngs of tourists and shoppers. Those murals, found at the main entrance near the corner of Pike Street and Pike Place, tell an often-overlooked story of growth, struggle, and devastation for the Market’s community of Japanese American farmers, and very nearly for the Market itself.

Pike Place Market is an integral part of Seattle’s spirit, but it’s also one of the oldest continually running public farmer’s markets in the US. A single spot where farmers could come together directly with hungry shoppers seems obvious now, but in 1907 it was a bold move that cut out price-gouging middlemen and ended a city-wide uproar. What began as an experiment was an immediate success.

Beating Heart of Pike Place

Many of the farmers who showed up on that first market day, and all the days after, were Japanese immigrants. By the 1920’s, Japanese American farms produced three-quarters of the produce and half the milk sold in King County. Those farmers were the beating heart of Pike Place Market, and kept hungry Seattleites well supplied, but racism reared its ugly head at every turn.

Early on, laws were written to prevent those of Asian origin from becoming citizens and owning land, forcing farmers to rent the land they worked from white farmers. Later, attempts were made to ban greenhouse-grown produce, which would have benefited those who hadn’t quite picked up the technique most popular with the Japanese farmers. For several seasons, the lottery for stall selections was openly rigged against Japanese farmers.

Despite every barrier thrown up, it was the Japanese farmers who were driving the success of the market. This became abundantly clear in 1941, when almost 7,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living in and around Seattle were rounded up and shipped to internment camps. Families were forced to abandon their homes and pets as predatory buyers snapped up farms for pennies on the dollar, or promised to “watch over” the land only to quietly claim it for themselves while the owners were imprisoned.

Our Inspiration for the Southpaw Blend

Pike Place Market became a ghost town as the number of farmer licenses plummeted from over 500 to fewer than 200. After the war, many of those farmers would not – or could not – return. Without the Asian-American immigrant farmers at the heart of Pike Place Market, this iconic Seattle institution very nearly crumbled to dust. In the 1960’s, the aging maze of buildings was slated for demolition. It was only through the concerted preservation efforts of the “Friends of the Market” that the tradition was revived, renewed and renovated for future generations.

Today, it’s hard to imagine Seattle without our beloved market – but it’s more than just an eclectic mix of farmers, artisans, tourists and musicians. The market is a testament to hard work and determination in the face of prejudice, and to the richness and vibrancy that immigrants continue to bring to our city. Local Japanese-born artist Aki Sogabe created the mural that welcomes visitors to the market. “Song of the Earth” honors the memory of those early Japanese American farmers and reminds us that diversity isn’t always easy, but a great blend is always worth the effort.

The photos were taken by Seattle photographer, Chris Jenne. Check out his other work here.