Published on June 13th, 2014 | by M. Morford


Parkland is (still) burning

If you think the common attitude of most of the greater Puget Sound area (especially Seattle) towards Tacoma is a smoldering, condescending compilation of terms defining Tacoma as a gritty, not-worth-visiting, noxiously smelling burg with a thriving case of abused-child syndrome, you don’t know Parkland.

Parkland is gritty, volatile, abused, and misfit squared. And Tacoma looks at Parkland the way Seattle looks at Tacoma.

Framed on the southern side by one of the largest military complexes in the world, with thousands of acres of military reservation and open woods, suburban Lakewood to the west, Mt. Rainier and the Cascades to the east, and Tacoma to the north, with, of course, the cultural oasis of a university, Parkland has a pulse of population, energy and impulse like no other.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the woods south of Parkland surged with hillbilly moonshiners, hippies, anarchists, and later, meth labs. The vast stretches of mind-numbingly identical, cramped cul-de-sacs belie the PTSD-fueled anarchy simmering just below the surface.

Where else in Pierce County could you buy a Confederate flag? And who could forget the strings of military surplus stores where any teenage boy could buy military surplus survival gear, weapons and even bomb-making supplies under the counter.

Where else, back in the 1980s at least, could you, for $20, buy a beater car (unregistered and probably stolen), drive it in a drunken frenzy all over the rough dirt roads of the military reservation and leave it wrapped around a tree or hanging off a cliff? (I never did this, but I know people who did and I saw many of the cars out there, there may even still be a few).

The kids I grew up with had lived all over the world, called nowhere home and had grown up with either no authority or military style discipline – at least when dad was around. Unlike Tacoma, and certainly Seattle, this area bore the brunt of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least when I was there, the stakes were high, the opportunities endless and possibilities surged.

Parkland was the place where Huck Finn met Frank Zappa and then they both met Nikola Tesla. Most of us who were young then operated under the assumption that we could invent, create, survive, or destroy anything.

The death rate was high back then, but most of us lived (or died) as if there was no tomorrow. And for many, there wasn’t. Parkland was transitory, cross-cultural, and defined by class and race a generation before it was cool.

The view of Parkland, as one drives through Pacific Avenue, is much like the drive north through Tacoma on I-5. Unflattering. But you’d never imagine what lives just a few blocks away from the main drag.

Pacific Lutheran University held a continuous flow of Midwest wholesome optimism that offered (usually) vain hope and refuge for the locals.The ivory tower of brick and ivy-crestedPLU was a constant reminder of what the rest of Parkland could, or could never, become.

Most imported PLU students had little reason to venture much beyond Garfield Street. And yet it was the mix of all these elements that produced the cauldron of masculine, surging, nothing-left-to-lose creativity.

For those who survived, or moved on, or even who focused and prospered from that strange, erratic, seemingly infinite energy, earned a determined wisdom, a weary, clumsy tattoo of the soul found nowhere else.

Perhaps Art Chantry summed it up best with his “Parkland Is Burning” poster.

I’m sure it still is. And I hope it keeps on.

Poster designed by Art Chantry & Lance Kagey

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, community story-teller, poet, advocate of the oddities of earthly existence. Scavenger of the unlikely.

7 Responses to Parkland is (still) burning

  1. Kassidy Smith says:

    This has got to be one of the most offensively written articles I have read in my entire life. As someone who was born, raised, and still lives in Parkland as a young adult, I find it difficult to believe that the author of this has spent any time in Parkland in the last fifteen years. This take on Parkland (which is actually a part of Tacoma; Parkland is not its own city) cannot be further from the truth. The idea that Parkland is still full of rednecks is beyond me, when I grew up in a school system full of more diversity than most people are lucky enough to experience in their entire lives. My high school was around the corner from PLU, and it was never a focal point in any of our lives, unless it was the college we hoped to attend. Quite frankly, this article is really shitty, and I hate the way it’s tried to spin my home.

    • Katy Evans says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective – it’s exactly why we do publish articles like this; in order to hear from readers like you. I think Morf’s perspective is definitely that of someone who grew up in Parkland and he is describing the Parkland of his childhood from a few decades ago, but do you disagree that Parkland does suffer from an unfavorable/ignorant attitude from other parts of Tacoma?

    • Morf says:

      Ah, you are correct. I have spent virtually no time in Parkland in the past 15 years. More like 30.

      Which is my point, the Parkland of a generation ago is, in some ways vastly different, but in some ways not so different.

      Parkland has always been ‘diverse’ – whether it has worn that well or respected other cultures is a whole other story.

      And I didn’t even mention the John Birch Society bookstore that thrived there for decades…

  2. jennifer uppendahl says:

    I grew up there (1967-1985) and it was exactly this! Thanks for writing.

  3. Kellyduh says:

    Interesting story, I think though, it is ignorant of any of us to think one part of a town is any better or worse or somehow less or more corrupted than the next. As someone mentioned Parkland is NOT a city, only a part of Tacoma, its borders formed with indestinct lines, changing whenever an undesirable event occurs. Pierce county in general has suffered many harsh tragedies, and far too many criminal activities are an everyday ocurance here. Yet I’m a lifer here. I am not afraid to walk down any street in Tacoma day or night. I don’t clutch my purse, or cling to a can of mace. I know what is possible and what this or any town has potential to be. I cannot say the same for Seattle, or any of its many surrounding cities. I would definitely carry mace and clutch my wallet (and have)while walking to and from my car during a Mariners game.I would think that anyone who grew up in Tacoma/Parkland would agree that it is what you make it. And if you go looking for trouble you will find it here. But if you aren’t, an average normal everyday life is not only possible but probable. I’ll live here forever.

  4. Benji253 says:

    “Where else in Pierce County could you buy a Confederate flag? And who could forget the strings of military surplus stores where any teenage boy could buy military surplus survival gear, weapons and even bomb-making supplies under the counter.”

    Are you serious? Do you have a problem with teenage boys purchasing military surplus survival gear?
    You can buy bomb making supplies from walmart.

    This article is good for a laugh, I like how you tried to make parkland look all scary and ghetto. Sure it has it’s downfalls, but your’ll likely find what you look for, good or bad, in alot of places.

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