By Beth Berube
My lifelong fascination with Pioneer Square began when I was around ten. Mom crammed my sisters and me into the back seat of our green Studebaker and we were off on an adventure, leaving sleepy Issaquah in the rear view mirror, bound for bustling Seattle. I don’t remember why we navigated our way through the Square. Probably, our destination was Colman Dock to catch a ferry. What I do remember were Mom’s words; “Girls, lock your doors, we are approaching Skid Row.” She pointed to a towering white granite building with old-timey windows. “That is the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi,” she proclaimed.
I shrugged my shoulders and pressed my nose against the rolled up window of the Studebaker’s locked door and stared at all the wonderful sights unfolding before my eyes. Ne’er-do-wells sporting tattered jackets sat slump-shouldered on a bench under the pergola and drank from a bottle inside a paper bag. A disheveled woman dressed in a paisley mini skirt, torn fish net stockings and white patent leather go-go boots leaned against a totem pole smoking a cigarette. We motored by dive bars and seedy diners. This area offered up underbelly elements of a Jack Kerouac novel on a tarnished silver-plated platter and I loved its vibe, chutzpah and architectural character.
A few years later, my parents allowed my sister and me to take the bus that shuttled between the Eastside and downtown Seattle. Mom would give us a pocketful of spending money and always admonished us to remain within the boundaries of the downtown area.
“You may shop at Frederick and Nelsons and Nordstrom Best, but stay away from Pioneer Square.” She said with a raised eyebrow and a wag of her finger. We promised to follow her instructions.
As we disembarked the bus, our feet hit the ground running. We headed west, in the opposite direction of Fredericks, and raced south toward Pioneer Square. Tucked between two neglected buildings with bars on their doors and peeling paint, sat a trick store with dirty cards and compelling, inappropriate novelties such as Boob Mugs and colorful knitted Willy Warmers. We delighted in browsing its saucy aisles. The crusty proprietor must have wondered what this couple of hayseed teenagers were up to. He probably thought we had broken free of the Underground tour and were up to no good. I do remember buying itching powder to put on the toilet seat in the faculty bathroom at school. I wish I could remember where this enchanting emporium was located, because I suspect you are anxious to check it out—but I have forgotten and now it is long gone.
In the 1970s, Pioneer Square was home to many glitzy galleries and commendable restaurants such as Brasserie Pittsbourg and the Pioneer Banque. I worked in the Horton Building for a law firm and had many lunches at the Merchants Café.
The Square changed profoundly after 1976, when the Kingdome was built. Many illustrious eateries closed their doors. The Pioneer Square Theater, which was founded in 1980, closed its doors in 1989. It produced more than 80 plays. Its most notable production was an immensely popular musical, called Angry Housewives, which ran more than six years. It seemed like this diamond of a district was being pawned off in an adversarial divorce from the rest of the city.
Today, our phoenix is rising. The restaurant scene is vibrant. There are new clothing stores and even a boutique grocery. Luckily, the galleries weathered the storm and mostly remain. Residential towers are bringing life back to our neighborhood and more housing is coming our way. A campy, theater eatery called Café Nordo, recently opened its doors.
We are in the spotlight of a wonderful transformation, and I am heady with enthusiasm for our future.
Beth has been a resident of the Florentine Condominiums since 1996.
Photos Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives