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Editorial Notebook

May 06, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND

In 1906, so the story goes, the people of Seattle were up in arms over the cost of onions, and that led a year later to the opening of Pike Place Market - which today sells everything from onions to monkfish to tulips to artichokes, and has become a thoroughly cheerful and rowdy conglomeration of charmingly haphazard stalls catering to floodtides of tourists (and even a few locals).

So far, so good. But the market is universally described by boosters as the country's oldest farmers' market. This even though Lexington Market in Baltimore has it beat by 125 years, and Central Market in Lancaster, Pa., which also calls itself the oldest farmers' market in America (and may well be), is even older, by an extra half-century.

Seattle - moist, raw, tangy, beautiful - transformed itself in the past decade or two with computer money and grunge and a willingness to explore espresso's possibilities. It is so appealing that people seem to have forgotten how to brag, maybe because they don't have much need for the careful exaggeration that marks a true slogan.

Here's how Scott Davies, a spokesman for Pike Place Market, defends the America's-oldest boast without actually committing to it: "There are definitely markets that are older, but there may have been hiatuses in their operations, or perhaps they have been seasonal." Or perhaps not.

Slogans have a way of addressing what the sloganeer feels most uncertain about. Think of Baltimore, with its low literacy rate, dubbing itself not so long ago "The City That Reads." Or Boston, once it was eclipsed by New York, emerging as the Hub. So could Seattle be a little uneasy about its youth (or at least the youth of its onions)?

Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound, is widely regarded in Washington as the longest island in the lower 48 states. It's 41 miles long. If you wanted to look for an actual, um, long island, you might think about one with a name that's simple yet descriptive - one, for instance, that stretches 118 miles from the East River in New York to Montauk Point.

This may not be psychologically revealing. But Whidbey, as it happens, is shorter even than an island in Michigan, of all places. So why bring it up?

Last week, there was a newspaper convention in Seattle, and one day at lunch a former resident of the city (who is now out of newspapering, and has been granted anonymity for reasons that will become obvious) leaned over and confided that Seattle's Lake Washington is not only the deepest lake in America, but it's so deep that scientists haven't even been able to measure it.

This wasn't immediately refutable, over a plate of banquet-hall chicken. But it sure didn't feel right. Some noodling around on government Web sites reveals that the bottom is in fact 214 feet down, and that the lake is shallower than Oregon's Crater Lake by more than 1,700 feet, and actually isn't even the deepest lake in Washington.

Here's the lesson: Don't pin your boast on a hard and fast fact that's neither hard nor fast. Brag about the slippery things. The World Famous Lexington Market - it works because, well, what's world fame? Maryland used to be called the Land of Pleasant Living. These are contentions that might reveal a certain underlying insecurity, but they don't demand contradiction.

How could this lesson have eluded people in Seattle? Maybe it has to do with being in a remote corner of the country. Pike Place Market has been doing business more years than anyone living can remember, and the lake is deep enough to be a little scary, so maybe that's all you need to build a story around. Seattle, being apparent, becomes a stand-in for the rest of America, which is so distant.

Or maybe it's that computer thing. The Web is a hothouse of unreliability and even paranoia, and what city is more associated with the Web than Seattle?

As it happened, the people running the newspaper convention asked Bill Gates, of Microsoft, to come by and give a speech, and on the day he spoke to the stewards of the venerable old news business, he was losing, personally, $3 billion, as the company's stock price took a dive. Now, that's impressive.

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