News Flash! Tacoma is not Seattle

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

A version of the sign from the 1090 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (yes, it was in Seattle) Photo by Morf Morford

A version of the sign from the 1090 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (yes, it was in Seattle)
Photo by Morf Morford

Perhaps it’s human nature, but most people I know in Tacoma have an exaggerated sense of identity based on what we don’t have and what we are not instead of appreciating what we are.

There are many things I love about Seattle, the 5th Avenue Theater, Seattle Art Museum and the Pike Place Market are just a few, but if I lived in Seattle, would I go to them any more than I already do? In fact, if I lived in Seattle, would I go to them at all?

I get the feeling that the accumulated everyday pressure of traffic and parking would make me want to stay home and hide out. But besides that, I, and the vast majority of my friends and family, could not afford to live in Seattle – even if we wanted to.

But would we even want to?

Could most of the people I know have the life, the home, the access to quality schools and parks if they lived in Seattle? The obvious answer is no.

Seattle has many unique and wonderful attractions; but it strikes me as a very difficult city to live in.

I love many the many attractions in Seattle; but I’m always glad to head for home.

In Tacoma, in most neighborhoods, it is quiet and green, with ample free parking, and, in my neighborhood at least, you can see the stars on a clear night, and every so often, when I least expect it, I catch breath-taking views of Mt. Rainier, the Olympics or Puget Sound.

Where else could you take a short drive (or even bike ride) to an uncrowded beach or park?

My daughter, who currently has three young children, lives walking distance to three parks. How many cities could offer that?

Tacoma is small enough that almost anyone could run for public office or attend city or county council meetings. With no political background, and inspired only for the love of my neighborhood, I was on my local neighborhood council and have met most of the city council members (and the mayor) several times. Could an average citizen with do that in Seattle?

Tacoma holds remarkable opportunities that won’t be found in many larger – or even most smaller – cities.

Pierce County stretches from Mt. Rainier to Puget Sound. What other county has a world-class national park on one end, two ferries which go to two separate islands (Anderson and Vashon), two major Native reservations (Puyallup and Nisqually) and one of the largest military bases in the world?

Pierce County has more geographical variation and altitude difference than most counties, many states and even several countries.

I am not terribly interested in what is right – or even wrong – with Tacoma. In Tacoma, for better or worse, almost everything (and everyone) is in reach and few things are as fixed and immovable as almost everything seems in Seattle.

In short, Tacoma is a human-scaled place, a place where things can get done, inertia is not necessarily paralyzing and an average person can make a difference.

In many cities, things seem stuck or impossible; Tacoma, in many ways, is a blank slate, or at least a community in motion.

There is no question here of which is ‘better’; I love Seattle, Olympia, and Bellingham, and Portland and a few other places, but Tacoma, for me and many others, some born here, some transplanted, is home.

Tacoma has its share of in-groups, silos and obstructionists, and perhaps more than its share of wanderers, cranks and eccentrics – and plenty just passing through – but in the midst of all this, I find myself the ultimate reluctant civic booster.

I’d like to initiate a campaign which emphasizes what Tacoma is not; Tacoma isn’t boring, Tacoma isn’t predictable, Tacoma is not all the same, Tacoma isn’t what it used to be, and Tacoma is not what it could be. And yes, Tacoma is not Seattle.

Tacoma has more space for people, for creating, for building, for that crazy business idea that would be too expensive to set up anywhere else.

Tacoma has room for experiments, for disasters and messes that we can learn from and that don’t need to keep us from doing it better the next time.

In Tacoma, for better or worse, most of us don’t have terribly high expectations  – we can make mistakes and recover from them and then, maybe, just maybe take our idea to another city.

We have a wealth of schools in our area, from TCC to PLU, UPS and UWT, Bates Technical College and several others, including engaged public schools. Students need projects and every neighborhood and park needs students, stewards and volunteers.

Imagine what a design research team, urban studies class or mentors and volunteer tutors could contribute to our local neighborhoods and community groups.

Last week and next week are two of Tacoma’s largest community gatherings; the Taste of Tacoma and Freedom Fair. Both of these events started out small and with plenty of criticism.

Every flag flapping in the wind on the Fourth should remind us of the scrappy determination, sacrifice and yes, ‘foolish’ shared vision that earned us the freedom we continue to celebrate. This determination and shared vision still brings out the best in our nation and neighborhoods. And our neighbors.

But sometimes it seems as if we have lost our way.

The Freedom Fair will, as always, be centered on Ruston Way, but have you driven on it lately? Any other city would be proud to feature a lush green park with stunning views of the bay and the Cascade Mountains. The setting is fabulous – but the road itself is terrible.

Summer is the time when we should be proud of our unique and spectacular natural setting, not ashamed of our failed-state infrastructure. What happened there?

On the other hand, could you picture a neighborhood project, something you’d like to see built, removed or repaired with the sign “Your tax dollars NOT at work; this is the work of your neighbors.”

Wouldn’t you love to be one of those who can say that they helped reclaim and define the singular character, identity and reputation of Tacoma?

Everyone in and around Tacoma knows the term ‘aroma of Tacoma,’ but how many of us know that the dictionary meaning of ‘aroma’ is ‘a pleasant or pleasing smell’?

What if we renamed The Taste of Tacoma to “The Aroma of Tacoma”?

Think we could replace the collective bitter wood- pulp olfactory memory with the smell of saltwater, summer flowers and BBQ?

If you are ready to declare, or celebrate, your own independence – or at least neighborhood autonomy – join, enjoy or volunteer for some of these summer events.

You just might see, or hear, or even smell, an ‘aroma’ you never expected. And we just might be encouraged to do the right, the courageous, or even the ‘foolish’ thing.

We have official agencies and local politicians, but a community is a shell without connected neighbors.

Police enforce laws, but it is neighbors who watch out for and prevent crime.

It is not good laws, policies or even politicians that make a neighborhood appealing; it is the neighbors.

Healthy neighborhoods make healthy communities.

Our problems and challenges are not immense, though sometimes it feels like our inertia is.