Published on April 7th, 2015 | by Katy Evans5
Don’t move to Tacoma
Way back at the end of January, I couldn’t wait to see Patton Oswalt grace the stage at the Pantages Theater.
After a very funny opener, Patton took the stage and spent a significant portion of his set slamming Tacoma. This was unexpected; I’ve seen Patton at least four times and I don’t remember another time where he seemed quite so fixated on his location.
Yes, he did it very creatively – Patton was here during that strange, foggy portion of our mild winter and dove deep – describing Tacoma as not just creepy, but actually terrifying, as an H.P. Lovecrafted city complete with damp spectres and floating eyeballs hiding around the corners of our turn-of-the-century architecture.
At first it was funny; the joke was so atmospherically and architecturally specific that it moved quickly to a level of absurdity that was fun for a moment, maybe two. But Tacoma and our ghosty fog persisted as the set’s whipping boy.
What captivated me most was not Patton’s fear of Tacoma, but how obviously delighted the audience was with his Tacoma-ridicule, making it seem that perhaps the Pantages was filled with non-Tacomas. This was confirmed when Patton launched into some crowd work and audience member after audience member shared that they were from Federal Way, Seattle, Bellevue, and points beyond. Some worked in Tacoma, most had just come in for the show. We felt like the lone row of Tacomans in a sea of judgemental northerners.
Need a litmus test for just how gritty of a Tacoman you are? That room was a great way to measure.
I could feel the Tacoman in me hunker down, and claim Patton’s fear and the crowd’s dismissal as a point of pride. And then something changed in my inner Tacoman; instead of wanting to jump up and down like the Tacoma cheerleader I’ve been over many years, I thought, “thank god for Patton; between his insults and the fog, maybe we still have a little bit of time before the world really discovers and ruins Tacoma.”
That was just three months ago. And I have pretty much run out of hope that we can sneak along, undiscovered. Turns out you can only be a secret gorgeous, historic, waterfront town filled to the brim with culture, creativity, and greenspace for so long.
As we see property values rise, new businesses open, a massive, international sport event approach, the sun persistently shine, and the citizenry approve half a billion dollars worth of infrastructure improvements, I wish I didn’t feel anxious.
I love this town and I can’t wait to see what we do with our promising attention, but especially these days, anxiety often outweighs my optimism. This perspective is wrapped up in affordability and opportunity: my Tacoma spectre is more of the gentrification persuasion than fog monster.
I believe in opportunity – for all. I believe in access to resources – for all. I believe that a city only truly becomes a community when it cares for all its residents, not just the ones who can afford and are able to be there.
Although I am wary of the often reactionary diagnosis of the threat of “gentrification” here in Tacoma, I do believe that our civic and economic development decisions must take all of us into consideration and embrace our diversity as a strength deserving of investment. At least one department at the City agrees with me – it’s in the current Human Services Strategic Plan – so how do we make sure that this rising tide, this positive attention, lifts all boats? All residents regardless of assets, abilities, and income?
I think it’s short-sighted and actually dangerous to remove “equity and empowerment” (as the City puts it in their plan) from development. The City’s emphasis on human services should shape our choices when it comes to shaping Tacoma’s economic development action plan. (Which, if you run through it, lacks that particular sensitivity.)
Here’s my true fear: I do not want to see Tacoma development trend in any way toward the consumer lifestyle/corporate monoculture that plagues South Lake Union and Bellevue and reverberates through all of Seattle’s neighborhoods.
Maybe that’s a stretch right here right now; but maybe it’s not – maybe it’s on us to make sure our city stands for all aspects of Tacoma: where we came from, who we are now, and who we may be. I don’t think its impossible to extrapolate the very significant and systemic issues of inequality that define the Bay Area to the growth and prosperity potential of the Puget Sound metropolitan area.
People > money
So where does this leave us, the smug and anxious locals who have coveted Tacoma’s secrets for years/decades/a lifetime and who want to see those who have put in the time be able to enjoy the reward or international (or just northerly) admiration? How do we manage the influx? How do we make room for those who treat us like a bedroom community and still care for those who struggle, who rent, who work for an hourly wage, who open small businesses with all of their savings, who attend public school, and who proudly call Tacoma home?
I regularly return to the work Oakland’s Causa Justa, and their 2014 report developed with the Alameda Public Health Department addressing urban displacement. This report puts citizens before corporate development, and emphasizes that there is value in more than money; there is value in culture. Here in Tacoma, Human Services states the issue clearly:
“The long-range strategic planning process [for Human Services] needs to be supplemented with a regular and ongoing engagement process for Tacoma residents, along with opportunities to test innovative ideas and take them to scale. The targeted focus areas in the Human Services Strategic Plan need to align and/or integrate with larger systems planning efforts – such as economic development – that address regional issues and trends.”
This foresight makes me hopeful, but this same responsive competence is not on display when it comes to the direction of Tacoma’s economic development. The closest we get in the in the City’s Economic Development strategic framework and action plan is a glancing mention of entrepreneurs and neighborhood revitalization, and just in downtown, a consideration of “affordable live/work development as another option to fulfill affordable housing by creating housing for entrepreneurs and artists.”
The sky isn’t necessarily or immediately falling but we, the people and the advocates of the people of Tacoma do not have a lot of time.
If we don’t tell our city, our schools, our parks, that we want our urban infrastructure to support people first, than all we’ll have left to protect us from an onslaught of consumers and corporations will be the fog monster figments of Patton Oswalt’s imagination.