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Portland's Gleaming Market By The River

Posted on 18 September 2015

Pike Place Market today is one of Seattle's main tourist attractions. Heck, its one of the world's main tourist attractions - 33rd on the list of most visited international tourist sites. Its history dates back over a century, and it is woven indelibly into the image of Seattle. Pike Place is Seattle's Golden Gate Bridge. After first visiting the market I was curious why our fair city of Portland, Oregon didn't also have an impressive public market. After all, for the first half of the 20th century Seattle and Portland were competing cities, both major sea ports in their own right. It seems surprising that with all that came in and out of Portland, we don't have a historic market. After doing a little poking, I found out that we actually did for a time.

In fact Portland had a couple that have since petered out. The earliest large market was eponymously named Ankeny's New Market And Theater after its developer, Portland businessmen Captain Alexander P. Ankeny. Ankeny realized that in the booming 19th century Portland there was a need for a public market that was more than a couple of dirt lots set aside by the city. Construction began in the late 1860's. Upon completion, the market contained a theater, "marbleized" columns, marble counter tops with intricately carved fronts at each one of its vendor stalls, gas lit chandeliers, upstairs offices, a gym, and most alluringly, an "Oyster Refreshment Saloon."

The market housed a wide variety of vendors, from Western Union, to drug stores, to grocers, to seed sellers. Quickly the new market became the cultural center of the city. Its theater hosted concerts and variety shows, as well as fights by famous pugilists of the day. Unfortunately the the gravy days were short for the market. Portland's upscale residents fled further up the West Hills as the industrial center of the city expanded into their neighborhoods. The population around the market was no longer of the right demographic to support fancy grocery vendors. By the late 1880's the market had closed and was converted into a sales floor for farming equipment. 

Over the next three decades the city was largely without a major public market. There were a number of smaller markets spread around the city but nothing of a very large scale. John Francis Carroll was the next to take up the task of opening a large, organized market. Carroll, a local newspaper man with populist leanings, felt that the people of the city would be better served and have access to more reasonably priced goods if they did business directly with the producers of their food rather than getting their food stuffs from grocery store middle men.

Carroll Public Market was opened on SW Yamhill Street in the spring of 1914 to immediate success. It is said his venders were nearly sold out only half way through the first day, with tens of thousands of shoppers visiting the new market. The crowds didn't peter out over the ensuing months. It proved so successful that the city stepped in and took over the chaotically popular market. It ran the length of six blocks and had at least 400 vendors. By 1927 the market was completely out of control in the eyes of city inspectors. It was packed to the brim with customers, vendors, and trucks. The conditions were unsanitary and too difficult to regulate. The city ruled that the market would have to relocated or close within five years.

Within a few years a plan to build a new market on Portland's waterfront had been hatched, and ground was broken just north of the Hawthorne bridge. The new market was not without controversy as there were many allegations of shifty real estate dealings and the like. Many vendors were unhappy at the prospect of the market moving from the bustling city center to the waterfront. By 1933 The Portland Public Market was complete. Touted as the 'Million Dollar Market', it was a huge structure of gleaming white art deco concrete with room for hundreds of vendors to be housed indoors. Upon completion, its 220,000 square feet made it the largest indoor market in the world. Each food vendor's stall was equipped with a modern springless scale for pricing accuracy, as well as an overhead sprinkling system to ensure produce freshness. The vendors were also given "vermin proof" refrigerated storage rooms to house their goods. The building held everything from dry cleaners to dentists, and even its own gas station. Entertainment was provided in the 500 seat auditorium which had a kitchen built on stage for all sorts of domestic demonstrations.

Idealized pinnacle of modernism aside, there was a not insignificant amount of resistance from the public regarding their new public waterfront behemoth. It was widely felt that the city was meddling in the business of the markets, shutting down the beloved Carroll Market in favor of its own polished monster. Where the Carroll Market had been established on egalitarian principles, the new Portland Public Market was intended to be a temple to consumerism. Many citizens and public figures never lost their feelings of bitterness about the new market. The new market enjoyed some initial success, but it was a fairly rapid downhill slide through the 1930s. Much of the market's early success had to do with it being a novel shopping experience. Once the novelty wore off, it started to become clear that it didn't receive nearly as many repeat shoppers as had been initially expected. Business slowly petered off throughout the decade. 1942 was the last year of the market, and apparently few bemoaned its closure.

The Portland Public Market can be seen to have been doomed to fail for a few reasons. Not only had the new market failed to garner the affection of Portland citizens, it had also opened during the Great Depression. The choice to locate the market on the waterfront surrounded by busy streets isolated it from the busier part of the city and anything but automobile traffic.

After the market went under, the building was used by the Navy during WWII, then by The Oregon Journal until it was demolished in 1969 to make way for the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

The whole fiasco makes you wonder whether, if the city had just worked on improving conditions at the old Carroll Public Market rather than going overboard with a whole new venture, perhaps Portland would still have its own beloved historic public market. Its hard to say though. Pike Place Market has seen its own hard times and is significant in that it is one of a very rare few of its kind left. Chances are, even if Carroll Market hadn't been dismantled in the '30s it very well could have collapsed during the coming devaluation of inner Portland, the middle class population moving out to the suburbs, and the growing American dependance on the automobile.

However, as Portland's downtown has begun to develop rapidly once again, there is talk of the need for a new public market. Developers are eyeing the largely vacant parking lots across the street from where The Portland Public Market sat. A proposed 'James Beard Public Market' is gaining quite a bit of traction, its organizers hosting events locally and already beginning fundraising. Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta has even drawn up a proposed design for the market. Sure, it looks like a hideous stepchild of a J.C. Penny, but hey, It's something! Perhaps we can even hope it comes with a 500 seat auditorium with a test kitchen on stage.


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