Seattle’s past and present collide on the Market to MOHAI pedestrian route

One foot in front of the other

Always read the plate.

Taking this advice from “The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design” to heart makes me an endlessly slow walking companion, but it also brings otherwise pedestrian corners to life when I learn of the illustrious seemingly bland building past.

More recently, this mantra has made me recite poetry, like Claudia Castro’s verse Luna from “A place to love“Maps of this city / numbered by the thousands / unique and folded / carefully inside the / heart of every citizen. We live in the city / and the city lives in us.

I pondered Castro Luna’s poem from a perch on Western Avenue at Pike Place Market, where the poem is embedded in the sidewalk as part of the Market in MOHAI corridor – an easy 1.7 mile walk where Seattle’s past intersects with its present.

A joint effort of neighborhood organizations and businesses led by retired civic powerhouse John Pehrson, the Market to MOHAI streetscape improvement project began in August 2020 with the installation of 46 historic photos and stories researched by the Museum of History & Industry and engraved on blades which are in turn affixed to lampposts. This eye-level Seattle history lesson is complemented by 75 sidewalk tiles featuring quotes and excerpts compiled by the Seattle Public Library from famous writers, including local luminaries like the former Seattle civic poet and Washington Poet Laureate cited above.

For a map of this route from Pike Place to Lake Union, go to to be continued.

Market in MOHAI

One way distance: 1.7 miles

Done up in an eye-catching blue and yellow color scheme that nods to the original Mariners uniforms, the blades and road tiles have long caught my eye when strolling through these neighborhoods. But it was only recently that I walked the road from start to finish. With my penchant for plaques, Market to MOHAI has turned a route through Belltown, Denny Triangle, and South Lake Union into an outdoor encyclopedia that can make a 1.7-mile walk easily stretch into hours.

The route makes for a pleasant spring outing before the summer rush of tourists at Pike Place Market. Next month it will be ideally combined with a visit to the new exhibition of the Museum of History and Industry “Ansel Adams: Masterpieces“, opening May 28. You’re guaranteed to stretch your legs – and you might learn something new about Seattle’s past and present along the way, as the walking route challenges you to ” see the city with new eyes”.

Start at the market to stock up for the walk. There are endless options, but on a market tour I recently took with a family from out of town, a chef recommended Café Bacco for a Dungeness Crab Omelet and a Strong Americano. By the time the peak cruise season arrives, waits for weekend brunch can easily last an hour. I walked in on a Sunday in April to watch the top notch people at a sidewalk table on First Avenue.

You will find the Historic Blades and Literary Tiles starting on the east side of Western Avenue as you walk northwest past Victor Steinbrueck Park on your left. Market history is well-trodden territory, but the first five tiles along Western offer literary inspiration from local writers like Timothy Egan and Colleen J. McElroy.

The past starts to get interesting when you move into Belltown. You will pass by historic buildings that still exist like Union Stables – once the home of 300 horsepower and now the proper new home of the El Gaucho steakhouse – then turn right onto Bell Street, where you’ll learn that the street and neighborhood are named after Illinois farmer William Nathaniel Bell.

The nine-block route, from Western Avenue to Denny Way, features historic dawns on both sides of the street. It’s a dizzying transect that spans Seattle’s history from the ancient village of Duwamish on Elliott Bay to the Denny Regrade (and a pipe dream “Reverse the Regrade”) and through Belltown’s musical heritage, from big band jazz to grunge, with stops between fire stations, union halls, an ill-fated presidential visit and a devastating fire in 1910.

However, don’t let the historical reflections distract you from the contemporary city around you. Part of the charm of Market to MOHAI is walking through some of Seattle’s busiest city blocks at a pace slow enough to walk on. A short detour down Seventh Avenue will take you to Sub Pop Storewhere the musical legacy depicted on history slides continues to break records.

Or admire the handmade Japanese ceramics in art on the table at the corner of Bell Street and First Avenue. When I told store manager Blake Simpson that I was walking from the market to MOHAI, he sprang on the literary sidewalk tiles that line the block outside. “Every day I find a new one on my commute to and from work,” he said. “They give me inspiration throughout the day.” He recommended an excerpt from Sylvia Plath which concludes, perhaps unexpectedly, given the poet’s reputation, “This is what it is to be happy.”

While there’s no story blade marking Amazon’s arrival, the tech giant’s campus looms over the second half of the walk as you wind your way through Denny Triangle, do a quick jog straight down Denny Way (passing Denny Park, Seattle’s oldest, on your left), then turn left onto Westlake Avenue. The Amazon boom has reshaped this part of Seattle, and one of Market to MOHAI’s goals is to bring together the worn bricks of Belltown with the gleaming glass of South Lake Union. They may feel very distant, but on foot you quickly realize how close they are.

On both sides of Westlake you’ll glean bits and pieces about abortion Bogue master plan of 1911 and the thwarted Civic Commons proposal of 1991, two lessons from our stubborn civic resistance to change. Learn more about the Cordilleran ice sheet will make the city feel like a newborn on the scale of geologic time, while a photo of the largest mammoth tusk ever discovered within the city limits of Seattle (now residing in the Burke Museum ) will have you thinking about what else lurks beneath the construction sites that dot South Lake Union.

A quick right on Valley Street and a left on the streetcar tracks brings you to Lake Union Park, where MOHAI – as you’ll find, a former Naval Reserve Armory – stands sentry. The South Lake Union Trolley will take you back within a third of a mile from your starting point.

Do you want to relax first after your walk? Cupbearer (21 and over) and flat pub (all ages before 7 p.m.) are both steps away from MOHAI. The entrance to the latter is under a preserved terracotta facade whose history you can of course learn if you stop to read the plaque.

About Karren Campbell

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