Honest Places in Phony Times

by Jackson Schmidt '75

July 26, 2010

In the early 1970s, a small group of supporters of the Pike Place Market in Seattle created an organization called the Friends of the Market. They overrode the city’s urban renewal plans by going directly to the voters, who passed an initiative saving the Market.
 
Why did they do it?
 
Local architect and founding member of Friends of the Market Fred Bassetti wrote a letter in which he explained that his reason for wanting to save the Market was that it “is an honest place in phony times.”
 
I think the impulse that saved the Market then, and that is behind both its present-day success and that of farmer’s markets generally, is really a reaction against the supermarket culture that proliferated in the post-World War II era.
 
Supermarket Culture
 
With the arrival of the supermarket, gone was the era of buying items over a counter, where you had a personal relationship with the baker, the grocer, the dry goods clerk, or the butcher and you could order things and have products custom tailored. Supermarkets brought with them a self-service approach to shopping using carts and were able to offer quality food at lower cost through economies of scale and reduced staffing expenses. In the latter part of the 20th century, this was further revolutionized by the development of vast warehouse-sized, out-of-town supermarkets selling a wide range of food from around the world.
 
With the supermarket came economic efficiency, convenience, frozen food, and the like. Those advantages come at a cost—we sacrifice quality and variety at the altar of cost and convenience. While modern transportation allows products such as produce not grown locally to be delivered nationally, consider the quality of the produce being shipped. To ship produce, it must be harvested before it is ripe. I have lived in areas where real peaches, tomatoes, and sweet corn grow in abundance. While the peaches in the local supermarkets in Seattle look like a peach, they have more in common with billiard balls than with peaches harvested ripe from the tree.
 
THINK ABOUT THE SUPERMARKET EXPERIENCE. There in the middle of employees and all the other customers, you are isolated, protected from having to interact in any sort of meaningful way with fellow shoppers or store employees. The experience is designed to keep you focused on one thing—being a good consumer. Where are you looking? Side to side as you scan the shelves. You do not have to make eye contact with anyone the entire time you are in the store. You are bathed in an aura of Muzak, where the highs and lows are equalized out of the music so as not to get you excited.
 
The air is perfectly climate-controlled to a stable, year-round temperature, and forget about touching the food. Even much of the produce now comes in cellophane packages. They even manage to get most of the food aromas out of the atmosphere.
 
The physical experience is much richer at a market. You can pick up and feel and smell the produce. None of it comes on Styrofoam trays or sealed in cellophane. Unlike the supermarket, the market is a riot of smells—good and bad, ranging from the smells of food cooking to flowers to garbage that has been onsite too long.
 
But it is real and connects you to the food and to the place in a way not present in the antiseptic atmosphere of the supermarket. The sounds are raucous—from the fishmongers calling to the customers to the maintenance staff yelling at people to move so they can walk the trash bins through. The market is an experience for all the senses, while the supermarket refrains from exciting the senses as it seeks, like fast-food franchises, not to offend anyone.
 
The market experience even differs from the supermarket in our interactions with other customers. In the rough-and-tumble of the market there is far more opportunity for conversation with fellow shoppers. “What are you going to do with that?” you can’t help asking when you see someone buying some exotic mushroom. “Where are you from?” you ask the tourist. The fishmonger intervenes and soon you’re in a three-way conversation on the relative merits of different types of salmon.
 
Honest Places
 
So what is it about the market experience that is so attractive? For anyone familiar with Pike Place Market, Fred Basetti’s line about the Market being an “honest place in a phony time” resonates with truth.
 
What is this honesty? I think of it as authenticity. Robert Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses the term “quality.” These words all refer to something we universally strive to achieve or acquire in all aspects of our lives. We want our friendships and relationships to be open, honest, and real. In our material choices, we want the best we can afford. And when it comes to food, within any price range, don’t we instinctively choose the one we like the best, rather than the least or most expensive?
 
Something was lost here in America and elsewhere in the growth of the supermarket culture of the 1950s and beyond. Markets are a reaction against that culture. The return to the European or “postmodern” style of shopping, which can only happen at markets and mom-and- pop operations, is our culture trying to recover some of the best of that tradition and experience and to restore it to our everyday lives.
 
Markets permit us to gather food in a way that is enter-taining and surprising. When you buy what is fresh, as opposed to what is on your shopping list, you return spontaneity to your life.
 
I predict this trend will continue. Fast food franchises will begin reflecting the best of local fare. They will cater less to uniformity and more to quality and variety. Grocery stores have already departed from the sterile models of the 1960s. They now have “shops” within the larger shop. They carry local and organic produce.
 
And the obvious culmination of this reaction against the corporatization of food is the resurgence of farmer’s markets. The work being done across the country to nurture these markets has an important role in this resurgence and in our cultural history. 
 
A Seattle attorney, Jackson Schmidt was chairman of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority from 2005 to 2009 and remains on its board. This essay is excerpted from a talk he gave to a convention of supporters of local markets in 2009.

The Pike Place Market serves more than 9 million shoppers annually—between 20,000 and 40,000 per day—with goods from more than 120 local farmers and more than 200 area craftsmen.
 
Lower Photo: Dreitcher with village chiefs, following his workshop in Zimbabwe.

 


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