Published on August 15th, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe40
Spokane is Better than Tacoma
For years, there has been an open rivalry between Tacoma and Spokane to claim the title of Second Largest City in Washington. The results of the 2000 and 2010 US Census revealed that Spokane has won the competition rather handily, and proper grudging acknowledgment from Tacoma’s officials was offered – if a box of Tagro sent to the Spokane Spokesman Review counts as “proper.”
As much as it pains me to acknowledge it, Spokane may be a little ahead of Tacoma in more respects than just population.
The two cities compete good-naturedly on a field of their own, singled out by the wearying distinction of the Compton Suffix: Tacompton and Spokompton. It is considered quite a sharp-witted joke, in most parts of the state, to refer to these historically working-class municipalities as if Spike Lee just made “Do the Right Thing” last week.
Of course, those of us who live in Tacoma know it is no longer the downtrodden gang zone it once was, just as residents of Spokane know their hometown has more in common with Boise than the home of gangsta rap.
Despite sharing a reputation for being places one shouldn’t visit and comparable population figures, Tacoma and Spokane have some key differences, most in regards to their relationship with Seattle.
Seattle is Washington’s indispensable city. It is a center of international commerce with few rivals. It is a hub of culture, education, and technology. The impact of all the business and industry occurring in a city as large as Seattle is certain to be felt on a regional level – and even more intensely within such close proximity as Tacoma.
As long as it is within 50 miles of Seattle, Tacoma is going to have a hell of a time trying to be its own city, torn between the choice to be a satellite or develop its own gravity. Making things more than a little complicated, Olympia is also near enough to dull our shine with its enduring artistic allures.
Spokane doesn’t have this encroachment problem. It is outside Seattle’s cultural blast zone, shielded by a range of mountains and its proximity to a host of smaller communities that depend on it as a commercial and cultural hub. It has never been a predominantly “white-collar” town, but some of its hardscrabble reputation surely sprang from the exaggerated derision of students from “finer” cities who gravitated to Washington State University, Gonzaga, or Eastern Washington University. Maybe they thought the shopping mall sucked. I don’t know.
Today, a visitor from Tacoma will be struck by some similarities in Spokane. Spokane does not gleam, but emits a grubby, old world charm from its wealth of historic buildings. It has sprawling late-Victorian to early post-war residential districts and verdant parks. Like Pacific Avenue, its downtown area seems shockingly lifeless during the average weekday, and it can be a challenge to find decent variety in lunch menus. Business hours are casually irregular at many shops and restaurants. Parking is abundant.
Like us, the people of Spokane care about history. Their successes in restoration and revitalization emphasize its importance in urban rebirth. The Steam Plant facility is a fine example of an iconic industrial structure which has been repurposed successfully – in this case as a mixed use center. The heroically-proportioned machinery still climbs the brick of the interior walls, and shoppers and diners can stand in the base of the tall smokestacks to gaze toward the distant sky. The restoration of the Steam Plant is an impressive achievement, and the fare at the brewpub inside isn’t bad either (think Harmon, with a little more creativity and finesse).
The Monroe Street Bridge, also downtown Spokane, is another monumental effort in historic preservation. The bridge is a ponderous structure, lacking the industrial, graceless dignity of our own Murray Morgan Bridge, and it looms over what was once a sacred Native American site – the falls that were mangled for hydropower.
Oh, and there is beer everywhere.
Then, the differences start to smack you in the face.
The unavoidable, evil corporate shopping mall is not on the outskirts of town, but smack in the middle of downtown Spokane. From that shopping district, Spokane’s Riverfront is in walking distance, creating an urban vitality that Tacoma still struggles to harness.
The city’s Riverfront park was the site of the 1974 World’s Fair, which is credited with bringing Spokane back from the edge of extinction. In terms of immensity, accessibility, beauty, and amenities, the only park in Tacoma that could rival it is Point Defiance, which is nowhere near our downtown, while Tacoma’s waterfront parks along the Foss remain difficult to access and only tenuously connected to the main of downtown by comparison.
Tacoma has struggled to forge a relationship between pedestrian and vehicle traffic, but downtown Spokane is already charmingly walkable.
Impressive as Spokane’s Steam Plant may be, the restored Davenport Hotel is also a strong example of sensitive historic restoration. Stepping into that sumptuous lobby is like being transported into the opulence of the 1920s. Meanwhile, Tacoma’s grandest remaining historic hotel has fallen into disrepair and its unlikely rescue can’t be comfortably discussed.
Spokane’s culture shines in aspects beyond its civic virtues as well. There is a strong arts community in the area, which anyone can read about in The Pacific Northwest Inlander, an alternative weekly which is admittedly better than The Volcano and Post Defiance combined.
Surprisingly, the acclaimed Knitting Factory chain of concert houses (of New York City fame) has a location in downtown Spokane, hosting shows that beat the knickers off anything Tacomans could see at any of our vital non-existent venues.
The food and drink scene also has its own vitality. From El Que and The Elk, to Manito Taphouse, Spokane restaurateurs have figured out how to combine low prices, youthful atmosphere, sophisticated decor, discerningly-chosen alcohol, and creative meals of high quality – a balance Tacoma seems unable to achieve at any one location.
Spokane is focused on the future and seems to know where its lifeblood will come from. There are still large areas of urban blight, decaying industry, and thoughtless suburbanization within its borders, but on the whole, things seem to be moving in a better direction.
You may read these words and wonder, “If you love Spokane, why don’t you go live there?” The thing is, I don’t love Spokane. I love Tacoma, and want it to be a contender with a vibrant future. Tacomans are missing out if they can’t appreciate the similarities and differences of their eastern sister city. They might actually find inspiration there.
Nevertheless, I am accustomed to hearing people in Tacoma make disparaging comments about Spokane in a manner similar to the Seattle residents who gag out the name of our city. This dismissiveness seems improper, since there is little evidence that Tacoma offers advantages Spokane lacks.
Tacoma hasn’t beaten Spokane at shit, especially in terms of cultural development or attracting and retaining young careerists to contribute to the economy – the kind of people who will carry the city into the future. We can easily remedy that though, because we have some handy advantages.
Our proximity to Seattle surely hurts us in some ways, but it offers us benefits as well. We can learn from the finest innovators in the world, right at our northern doorstep. Spokane, on the other hand, is the biggest fish in its pond, and has to reach a little further when it runs short of expertise.
We have reason to set our expectations high in this abundantly creative region, but with a wealth of talent and creativity should also come constructive criticism and reasons to continue to strive. We do not need to praise dull mimicry or amateur effort from our artisans, officials, and purveyors when we have so many examples of success and excellence to look to.
Yet outside of RR Anderson’s regular comic aggression, I challenge you to find a negative review of a Tacoma institution (aside, perhaps from City Hall and the Northwest Detention Center). When a new business opens in Tacoma, media outlets practically race each other to heap praise upon it. I have a hard time believing that these evaluations of quality are accurate, because it is impossible for everything in Tacoma to be excellent.
The rarity of critical review suggests to me that Tacoma values investment over quality, and our praise is a way of saying, “Hey, we’re just glad you’re here,” while we tremble with the fresh memory of our pariah past.
But we don’t have to just be grateful for any and all signs of life here anymore.
The ability to distinguish junk from food, twaddle from poetry, scribble from art, noise from music – or at least to state a preference between them – does not make one a hipster or a snob, but a participant in culture.
Cultural participation is not a threat to Tacoma’s working class identity. Our friends in Spokane have proven that scrappy industrial heritage is compatible with cultural evolution.
We have to choose: are we too gritty to give a shit about style, or do we truly want Tacoma to be a regional (if not national) competitor, an enviable place to live and work?
If we refuse to make that distinction, we won’t grow. We’ll be a sweat-stained, curmudgeonly suburb dependent upon Seattle’s table scraps.
Because of its welcoming attitude and supportive spirit, Tacoma is a very comfortable place to experiment as an entrepreneur. But a test kitchen isn’t a restaurant, and a laboratory isn’t a home, so at some point, we must require the kind of excellence that can sustain a vital and educated population.
While it is a wonderful thing to live in a city so eager to support and nurture its own, the environment of adulation becomes a handicap that diminishes our ability to perceive Tacoma for what it is, or at least what it is in relation to comparable cities.
If we fail to learn from the successes of Seattle and Spokane, and if we can’t reconcile with our broadened range of possibilities, maybe we’ll continue to lose population contests to Spokane.
And really, fuck that. This is Destiny City. Destiny City wins.