I’ve never been in love with Tacoma

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Some cities have an unmistakable mystique and many of us fantasize about them like a lost love; Paris, London, New York, LA and a few more are the scenes for endless movies and fantasies. Their landscapes, characters and cultures are unique and immediately recognizable.

Not Tacoma. Tacoma is a ‘meh’ kind of place.

Many of the locals I know hate Tacoma as much as they love it.

I was born in Tacoma but grew up in Parkland. My horizons were the edges around Tacoma. I went into Tacoma when I had to. Medical appointments, official business and legal issues were the only reason anyone I knew would go downtown.

I graduated high school in 1970. From that point on, through virtually all of the 1970s, I lived in Olympia for a few years, Bellingham for a few years, Portland for a year or so and even southern California for a while.

In all those years I never had a car. I rode my bicycle everywhere.

I’m still shocked when I hear that Portland is the most “bicycle friendly” city. When I lived there in the late ‘70s, no one rode bikes. The roads, bridges, railroad tracks, traffic and seemingly endless and unexpected obstacles and one-way streets seemed designed to threaten and terrorize anyone naïve or suicidal enough to attempt to ride an unprotected and vulnerable two-wheeled vehicle around town.

Tacoma was not much different; just add steep hills to the mix.

I got my first car, got married and settled in Tacoma in late 1980.

I lived in Old Town or the North End. I still rode my bike and would go for months without seeing anyone else on a bicycle.

In any given situation, I was also the only one with a beard, but that is an entirely different story.

Now I see five or ten bicyclers on any given day. And it makes me wonder where I am.

These people, of all ages, on bikes, can’t even imagine the barren bicycle-free city we had for a while, when no one, not even children, rode a bike.

And most of those riding bikes, starting businesses, or even sporting beards, are far too young, or too new to Tacoma, to remember the desolate vacant storefronts that dominated most of downtown Tacoma for decades. They too are a grim memory, perhaps best not brought up in polite company.

Every neighborhood, every town and yes, every one of us changes. Our reasons for change can be hopeful, selfish, shortsighted, destructive or visionary. But either way, we carry on. We live and move and make our way in the world.

I’ve never lived in Seattle, but I did go to graduate school there in the early 1990s. Starbucks and Grunge seemed to rule the world back then, and Seattle was Mecca, Oz, Paris and London – the city of vision, energy and utopian new beginnings. At least for a while.

Money, heroin and commercial success all combined to suck the life out of the Seattle scene. Tacoma perhaps never had those threats. We are no one’s fantasy, no one’s ideal.

Some cities, like New York, live on a mass-production industrial scale. Not Tacoma. We live in a human-scaled, hand in hand, word of mouth community where almost all of us know people who know people who know almost everyone else.

We all know that real success lies on far larger horizons than Tacoma. Seattle, New York or Los Angeles, or some exotic city are where success lies; not Tacoma.

Tacoma welcomes those who carry a different definition of success. Tacoma has, for generations, held affordable homes for young families, artists and those rebuilding their lives or seeking another chance.

I am still slightly taken aback when I meet someone who, by choice, moved to Tacoma. The vast majority of us just ended up here and inertia prevailed.

Some people say that the Tacoma Mall hollowed out a thriving downtown Tacoma. In many ways that is true.

But downtown Tacoma has possibilities the Mall will never have. The Tacoma Mall is a center of commerce, for the most part; we know what to expect there. But a thriving urban core is far more than commerce.

Downtown Tacoma is surging with independent, idiosyncratic businesses, art centers and coffee shops. You won’t see very many (or any) big chain stores or even recognizable names downtown, but you will find, at least if you look closely, some unlikely treasures and resources chain stores or malls could never match.

The architecture of downtown Tacoma, again in stark contrast to the Mall, is downright glorious.

And when many of us weren’t looking, many, but not all, of our wonderful buildings were filling up with the vision, energy and impulse of a new generation, a new way of looking at space, livelihood and identity.

Yes, Tacoma is not what it was, and it is not yet what it will be. But Tacoma, in its own clumsy, gritty and misfit style is experiencing growing pains, reaching and becoming, finally, fully itself.

We’ve always had the name “City of Destiny” almost tattooed on our local identity. But “destiny” is never final, it is eternally on the horizon.

Destiny is never finished, and neither are we.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford