Why does Tacoma exist?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

He had never been to Tacoma and was visiting from the Midwest for the wedding of some friends of ours. At the reception, I offered to answer any questions he might have about the area. His first question was, “Why does Tacoma exist?”

I told him the short version of the development of the Port of Tacoma and the link with the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883.

His tone reminded me of the embedded attitude that most Midwesterners have toward the Pacific Northwest; that we are barely, if at all, connected with the ‘main’ part of the continent.  We are, after all, largely cut off by physical features like mountains and water. We are distant both geographically and culturally. In response, most of us native Northwesterners think of the Midwest as ‘fly-over country.’

You may have noticed that when outsiders (or almost everyone it seems) fly here, they say that they are ‘landing in Seattle.’ Sea-Tac Airport, to most travelers, and the pilots who deliver them, means Seattle.

Even the HGTV Dream Home of 2018, in Gig Harbor, features “local” art with a focus on Seattle landmarks and their promotional video opens with a sweeping scene of the Seattle waterfront (http://www.hgtv.com/design/hgtv-dream-home).

Tacoma, indeed, barely exists in the minds of most visitors and pilots – and in most conversations and travel magazines. To the vast majority of people, PDX is in Portland, LAX is in Los Angeles and Sea-Tac is in Seattle.

There are many reasons for this; Seattle has a long history of taking (or claiming) the best and most creative elements of Tacoma. Seattle is of course far larger, and for much of the rest of the United States, if not the world, the only reason to come to the Pacific Northwest.

Tacoma has a humble, if not thoroughly invisible, presence in the national consciousness. When was the last time you saw Tacoma on a national weather map? Or on the national news? And how many times has something good happened in Tacoma and the national media told the media it was really Seattle?

JBLM is routinely reported to be ‘near Seattle’ – as is Mount Rainier.

Most of the rest of the country (and most of Seattle) considers Tacoma ‘South-South-Seattle.’

One of the defining features of the economy of Pierce county is the far larger – and more dynamic economy of King County.

Is it a curse or a blessing to be a mid-sized city within commuting distance of a seemingly endless burgeoning economic powerhouse like Seattle?

Should Pierce County welcome or set up barriers against those who work in King County but find affordable – and usually far more desirable – housing in Pierce County?

Perhaps like almost any change or challenge, the reality is as difficult or complicated as we choose to make it.

Most communities in isolated areas of eastern Washington – or the heart of the Mid-west – would love to have our problem.

Yes, those lucrative jobs in King County drive up home prices here – but I think we all knew real estate prices had to go up, and yes, many young families are kept out of the home buying market, but every real estate professional I know has described the Tacoma-area real estate market as being undervalued for years if not decades.

It is going to be an awkward year or two (or three) but eventually home buyers, employers and urban planners will get a handle on the kind of place Tacoma is becoming.

Perhaps a far-seeing entrpreneur will seize the waiting opportunity (and adept and quaified workers) and expand – or start – a thriving business here.

Tacoma is far more than an extended appendage or suburb of Seattle. Tacoma’s identity, like every city, is defined by our history and our environment – and both aspects of our identity are rich in complexities and contradictions.

Do we love – or hate – progress and development? Do we embrace – or resent – rules and regulations that are intended to “protect” people or places from exploitation or fair use? We can’t always decide – but we do seem to fight over every change, every development, every lost historic building sacrificed in the name of progress or full-employment.

Old City Hall Photo by Morf Morford

Old City Hall
Photo by Morf Morford

For many of us, Tacoma is a “bedroom community” – we live here in Pierce County and make our way each work day to King County – and traffic in Seattle or Bellevue seems to get more frustrating, time-consuming and sometimes even dangerous every day.

Our lack of direct transit or rail connection to Sea-Tac, Seattle and the rest of the country, hurts us and keeps us invisible.

As our politicians knew way back in 1883, when discussion regarding statehood for Washington started taking shape, a direct link to the rest of the country is essential.

If visitors from the many largely indistinguishable and interchangeable Midwestern cities wonder why, or even if, Tacoma exists, perhaps it’s time to make ourselves, or at least our presence, known.

Tacoma is not ‘The South Sound;’ Tacoma is a defined place with a distinct (and fascinating) history.

Perhaps my visitor’s question was not so much “Why does Tacoma exist?” but “Why does Tacoma matter?”

It might not be immediately apparent, but Tacoma has many unique landmarks, views and more than its share of eccentric characters and historical puzzles.

I have always thought that Tacoma was Washington State’s best kept secret, and perhaps it is, but it is also certainly a great place to live, work and explore.

Tacoma is also, as my friend Art Chantry puts it, the “center of the (un)known universe;” UFOs were first ‘sighted’ here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Arnold_UFO_sighting) back in 1947, many ‘New Age’ celebrities had roots here and even rock and roll had some very early surges here (personally I think if “Louie, Louie” can’t be our state song, it should at least be Tacoma’s civic anthem).

This is not your standard cheerleader-style civic pride – in fact most people I know in Tacoma and Pierce County have lingering dreams of leaving and “making it big” in some major urban setting and never coming (or even looking) back.

And I know several who have moved on in their careers and have achieved great things and have moved back to the relative comfort (and anonyminity) of the greater Tacoma area.

Who expects to see celebrities in Tacoma or rural Pierce County? For better or worse, Tacoma is a great place to be left alone.

But Tacoma, like few cities around the country, is uniquely primed for future expansion and development, and as our civic leaders knew over a hundred years ago, a direct, efficient and affordable link to the rest of the country is the foundation of steady and consistent growth and prosperity.

Our current politicians and agencies are making decisions that will define the Tacoma of tomorrow. Let’s shame them into putting aside the admittedly messy (and sometimes personal) politics and short-term thinking and urge them to work toward a Tacoma to be proud of a generation or two, or three or four from now.