Pike Place Market Oral Histories: Suzanne Hittman

  • By Nick Setten
  • Posted 12/15/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21369
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Suzanne Hittman grew up with her parents and grandparents on their farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. Her grandfather was Giuseppe "Joe" Desimone, an Italian immigrant farmer who owned the Pike Place Market for several years. Her uncle Richard Desimone took over the Market after Joe Desimone died in 1946 and ran it until the 1970s, when the city bought it and preserved it as a historic landmark. Hittman attended Stanford University before starting a career helping others. Her early welfare work entailed signing people up for New Deal-era safety net programs after the Great Depression, and she later moved to Harborview Hospital to help with patient intake. Many decades later, she was still making an impact in her hometown. Wrote Neal Simpson in a 2021 profile of Hittman: "Now 90, she’s been a social worker, professional fundraiser, Seattle School Board president, and political activist. She’s still fiercely involved in Seattle politics and public policy" ("Wisdom From A Longtime Philanthropist ..."). In this interview conducted by Nick Setten on September 20, 2021, Hittman talks about life on the farm, and her favorite memories of the Market. 

Daughter of Italian Immigrants

Nick Setten: Did your grandfather know anyone when they came out here? 

Suzanne Hittman: They were from Mirabella in Italy, the Provincia Mirabella. Avellino was a town in Mirabella.

My hunch is some of these people were from there and they knew that there was [opportunity in Seattle]. Because why you would come out here to the West Coast, is ridiculous because on my mother's side they originally stayed in Connecticut, and then came out here for laboring jobs and primarily to build the ship canal, which was all done with pickaxes. It was before the era of these huge machines you see today.

NS: Sure.

SH: Yeah. We "tsk, tsk" at people that come here now with nothing and, "What the hell are they going to do?" And blah, blah, blah, blah. We wouldn't all be here if it wasn't for that.

Nick Setten: Tell me abut meal times with your family.

Suzanne Hittman: I grew up in the era when if was green and it grew, you cooked it and ate it. If it was a weed or whatever, it didn't matter, you ate it. And that's, I think, because of the grandparents -- my paternal grandparents in particular, [and] somewhat the maternal. But they grew up very poor in Italy and meat was not common at all. But it was just the greens. When these nice heads of lettuce that you see at the grocery store, well it has outer leaves. So, when they'd clean off those outer leaves, they weren't thrown away. You cooked and ate 'em.

A Melting Pot at Pike Place

Nick Setten: Pike Place Market has always been this coming-together place for folks from all corners of the planet. From your experience, was there any level of intentionality in that? 

Suzanne Hittman: I don't think so. I think it was a place where recent immigrants could go, because where else could they go? Many could not speak [English] ... well, at least I'm speaking for the Italians. Now, I don't know about Sephardic Jews because many of them were better educated because of their faith and where they had been and everything. But for a lot of the Italians, they had never gone to school in Italy. They had never gone to school and that.

Now, in my husband's family, they were German and then they left, I think, Austria probably to avoid going into military, but this is way back and I don't know, but they first came to Chicago and then they came west. And you stayed with people that you understood their values, you understood the language. And I think that the recent immigrant ... It's interesting that here was Grandpa when I was little, you had the Italians working on the farm and then you had these Japanese who could not speak English. I mean, if they did, I don't know. I went to school with the kids and they could speak English, but their parents, I don't think a lot could.

NS: What can you remember about efforts to overcome the language barrier?

SH: When I think of the farm and the ladies more than the men, the ladies, it was all stratified. The Japanese ladies would be in that kind of crouch-down position, not on their knees, and their black dresses, I don't know why I remember that, weeding by hand. Weeding. And they could do it for hours. And in retrospect, why didn't any of them say no? And I don't know what Grandpa paid them, but when I think about what they grew, it wasn't even stuff that we think of as part of the Japanese diet -- celery and green onions and lettuce.

Memories of the Market

Nick Setten: Can you tell me about any of your favorite shops or what was your favorite kind of market day?

Suzanne Hittman: The spice shops, because I loved the smell, the different smells, the cinnamon and that shop. The meat market. Don's Meat Market. Of course that's where Grandma always bought her meat. But we never really ate there when there were shops that sold that kind of stuff. And DeLaurenti's. They were down in the basement. That's where I remember them.

And the beans. The beans and everything just being in barrels. I used to love to run my hands through them. If you can imagine a kid with their hands going through the beans and then someone would buy them ... but that's the way [it was] ... Nobody thought about it, I don't know, but I remember the barrels with beans and rice and different kinds of dried beans. Yeah. That was great. And the smells.

NS: Walking into Pike Place Market today, what's that experience like?

SH: It's kind of like going back in time. Maybe the merchants are different, but it has a lot of the same character. It has, certainly the appearance hasn't [changed] ... Nobody's put up, I don't know what it would be, the plastic, something or other.

And the little bridge and the meat market. And there are things that they're there where I remember it being a fish market. Now was it the same vendor? Maybe not. Where DeLaurenti's is though, that's wrong because that was Bartell's. That was a drugstore and they had a soda fountain counter.

NS: Was that one of your spots?

SH: Oh yes because the ladies made flavoring and then they had soda in a tap and they made milkshakes in those silver cans. And then it was a very crowded, a lot of merchandise in that Bartell's. Now that I think about it, the Bartell's was there and a Bartell's was at Second and Pike ... And then as you went down First Avenue, there was a department store. And then I don't remember much beyond that. And then the post office was gone. And then by the time DeLaurenti's moved to the old Bartell ... I really wasn't that familiar with it anymore.


Suzanne Hittman interview by Nick Setten, September 20, 2021, transcript and audiotape in possession of HistoryLink.org; Neal Simpson, "Wisdom From A Longtime Philanthropist And Activist: 'It's Going To Take Some Upheaval," Solid Ground.org website, October 22, 2021, accessed December 10, 2021 (https://www.solid-ground.org/its-going-to-take-some-upheaval/).

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