Published on September 23rd, 2013 | by M. Morford4
The Once and Future Thing About Tacoma
The Long Shadow of Short-Sightedness
I don’t know any other city’s history as well as I know Tacoma’s but I have to marvel at the weakness, impotence, and occasional self-destructiveness of our civic fathers from the very beginning to today’s or even tomorrow’s headlines.
Some decisions strike me as absolutely short-sighted; some for personal or political gain and, I am convinced, some had to involve surreptitious money changing hands.
The first, and perhaps most enduring bad decision was the literal layout of the city.
We began with a beautifully designed terraced pattern of gradual boulevards across the face of the Tacoma’s steep downtown hills. These graceful avenues would have eliminated the steep streets, maximized views and increased access to Commencement Bay. Broadway and Jefferson Avenue are hints of what this graduated street design would have been like.
Instead, our city fathers commissioned the standard city block grid, suitable for the Midwest perhaps, but certainly not suited to take advantage of our terrain, views, and port.
Perhaps even our streets are an indicator of our “destiny;” we could have had graceful avenues framing the bowl of our city center, our bay, our port, and of course, Mt. Rainier. Instead, over a century later, many of us, especially in winter, curse our steep, boxy, and sterile streets – and these same steep streets are by far the biggest obstacle to the expansion of the Link.
The ugliest decision, besides the literal stealing of land from the Puyallup Tribe (eventually paid for in 1988 for 162 million dollars), was certainly the expulsion of the Chinese in 1885. Our founding fathers stirred mobs to hound the Chinese out of town, burned their dwellings and confiscated (sounds better than stole) their belongings.
And they were so proud of themselves for what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” that they had a group photo taken after their acquittal (thanks to an all-white jury.) This photo included the mayor and sitting city council.
Great buildings have been destroyed, questionable projects have been funded, and money and local monuments have disappeared. The Goddess of Commerce, the Heidelberg Prince, the Humpty-Dumpty characters from Never-Never Land, and many more have been sold, stolen, scrapped, or hidden.
These artifacts of our history can be, and often are, forgotten.
I would never describe Tacoma as sleepy, but I would also never describe it as fully awake to the choices it makes and their possible consequences for our shared future.
It’s the small things that make a community safe and welcoming; things like walkability, benches, views, pocket parks, trees, and public drinking fountains. Tacoma has the potential for all these like few cities in the world. But the reality is something else.
Most cities would love mature trees in their urban cores; Tacoma would cut them down. Most cities want affordable housing downtown. Tacoma has either high-end or subsidized housing downtown, without much, if any, at mid-level prices.
I always imagine that the current city leaders will look at previous mistakes and vow, from now on, to make decisions based on the good of the citizens, the future of the city and, if nothing else, the reputation they will leave behind.
One recent example is the sale of the Elks Club property on South Union. The once-proud Tacoma Elks Club had the largest membership in the country. For a variety of reasons, the Elks Club felt compelled to sell its property and consolidate its resources.
The Elks Club, with its long-standing sense of legacy and civic responsibility, could have sold its property to the city and contributed a wonderful urban park in an already busy neighborhood.
Instead, we have even worse traffic and a living monument to the minimum wage and cheap clutter mostly from Asia.
Some money must have changed hands on this deal; our city government seemed powerless in the face of Walmart’s intentions.
Tacoma’s tap water (fresh off Mount Rainier) is certainly among the best in the country – but you’d never know it. Many cities feature public drinking fountains in their urban center and neighborhoods – and Tacoma had them a generation ago – but where are they now?
Tacoma, like few cities in the world, has panoramic views of mountains, water, sunrises and sunsets, but where is public access to any of them? Most cities would have parks or at least benches to facilitate these views; we have strip malls and parking lots.
Most cities do their best to present their best faces to visitors. Some even have elaborate gateways or entrances. Tacoma’s entrances and boundaries are poorly defined. And sometimes, if defined, are not very welcoming.
I had a friend who was stationed at Fort Lewis back in the 1970s. He had been sent, by Greyhound Bus, to downtown Tacoma. He got off the bus in the early evening, looked around at the garish lights, sleazy bars, and roving transients and was convinced that he had been dropped into Hell. He never returned to downtown Tacoma.
Pacific Avenue has, of course, been cleaned up. But what is the first impression we give visitors today? And what is their lasting impression?
What Is, Was, and Will Be
There are two characteristics that define every community: what it is and what it has access to.
Tacoma, in spite of its continual reluctance, has, and is, many things. And it has access to much more.
How many cities have multiple beaches, islands, mountains, bays, and lands a short drive away? How many cities have immediate access to both a major city and a state capital? How many cities have as many, and as varied, city parks? From Blueberry Park to Point Defiance, Northwest Trek, and Swan Creek, Tacoma has parks like no other city.
No city, or even individual, is perfect. Tacoma is a small town, and each of us sees, reaches, touches, and helps create our own community. Tacoma is, was, and will be a different place for each one of us.
Whether a hundred years ago, 50 years from now, or even you or me in a different mood tomorrow, our city is the ultimate mood ring; the ever-shifting summary of our fears, regrets, shames, hopes, relationships, and aspirations.
Tacoma, again, like every community, has great stories to tell, if we only took time to hear them.
Tacoma has far more than its share of what I might call “pocket-miracle sites;” unexpected vistas and historical places.
Have you walked across the Narrows Bridge lately (especially at sunset)? Ever catch a sunrise – or sprawling rainbow – from Ruston Way? Ever watch the moonrise from the east end of North 38th Street? How about our beaches at extra low tides? Art Walks on third Thursdays? One (or more) of our many Farmers Markets?
Seattle has many wonderful attractions, but most are expensive and parking is always a nuisance. Tacoma has a bounty of free and accessible activities for every interest, age, and ability.
There are those who tell me that not every day can be a farmers market, every park a Point Defiance, and every neighborhood an Opera Alley.
Perhaps not; most cities feel fortunate to have one of these, but Tacoma has them all.
There were those a generation ago who said that the pulp mills and the ASARCO refinery gave us “the smell of money.”
But it was the astringent smell of death; only the logic of the bounty hunter or slave-trader could imagine creating barren moonscapes of toxic sludge (now called superfund sites) as a positive contribution to our community.
Tacoma has a history of large corporations showing total contempt for our city government, civic identity, and values. From ASARCO to Walmart to Clear Channel, we hear the argument that money trumps everything else. It doesn’t.
Perhaps this is human history in a nutshell, but it is so often up to a small force with vision and determination, in spite of a far larger force of naysayers and vested interests, to see any common good accomplished. An example could be the development (finally) of a pedestrian connection between Ruston Way and Point Defiance. The end product is a blessing to the entire community (if not region) and a tribute to diligence and vision. Do we always need to struggle to do the right and best thing? Is there no shame among those who consistently block and defy the common good?
To foster people of vision and determination, Tacoma really only needs two things: public gathering places and a public voice. Thanks to the internet, an online media presence should be easy to set up. A large central public space just slipped out of our hands – the current Walmart site could have been an ideal public square. Perhaps the large property on South Fawcett could be used in this way. But probably not.
Every city, like every individual, is known by what it values and preserves, and what it compromises. Our most enduring legacy just might be something as simple and eternal as a bench in the shade of a lush tree and a refreshing drink of water – small choices that define a destiny.
All photos courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library Photo Archives.