A Voice From the Winthrop: Jessica Creso

It is difficult for Jessica Creso to see the Winthrop as Home Sweet Home.

“This place has stressed me out so much that I’m really sick,” she says of her second-floor, one-bedroom apartment. Like most of the Winthrop’s residents, Creso, 32, is on a fixed income. Her rent is $208 per month, and she receives a steady disability check. “I feel like staying here is hard and difficult. Even the air in the Winthrop is bad. It is stagnant.”

Just a few years ago, Creso’s life appeared to be better. A Tacoma native, she moved to Los Angeles six years ago to pursue a career in fashion and cosmetology. But an unforeseen disease would put everything on hold. When Creso was 29 years old, she learned she had breast cancer. She says her family encouraged her to move back to Tacoma for the treatment.

That’s how she arrived at the Winthrop.

“I don’t have a lot of options,” she says. “During the time I’ve spent here, I’ve had two surgeries, gone through breast cancer treatment, and I take heart medication. I’m not in the best predicament right now, but I’m trying to make the best of my life anyway.”

Creso is the latest subject of the Tacoma Daily Index‘s series of interviews with Winthrop residents.

She is one of nearly 200 people who qualify as low-income and live in the 84-year-old, 12-story former Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma. The building is the focus of much attention.

Nearby merchants have long complained the Winthrop is a magnet for criminal activity that stunts the economic hopes of small business owners. The building has consistently topped a list of locations for downtown emergency service calls. In August, four fires were set in the Winthrop by someone Tacoma firefighters and police officers say is a serial arsonist. A Crime Stoppers bulletin was issued last month offering $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist.

Some want to see the Winthrop restored as an historic hotel; others point to the building’s track record as a magnet for crime and emergency service calls, and want it shut down; and still others want city leaders to find alternate housing so residents aren’t concentrated in one location. In May, Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) announced that it was asked by Prium (the current building owner who had originally planned to convert the building into a four-star hotel) if it wanted to purchase the building. THA is currently weighing that decision.

If anything keeps Creso afloat at the Winthrop, it’s writing poetry (although much of what she writes documents her frustrations living in the building). She speaks fondly of her 93-year-old writing instructor, Laurene Jensen, who provides literary guidance. “She gives me inspiration for what to write about,” Creso explains. “Her opinion of my writing style is like a rapper’s melody. She says I have a modern style and use beautiful words.”

Another thing that keeps her spirits up: the possibility of moving. She has been working with a counselor at Comprehensive Mental Health Center to try to move to Spanish Hills in Tacoma. In a few weeks, she’ll meet with her counselor to learn if she is any closer to achieving that goal.

Until then, she’s biding her time at the Winthrop. “We, as a whole of people, have to work together and be friendly and amenable to each other,” she says. “A lot of the people that moved in here in the past year don’t seem to want to treat the Winthrop as that entity.”

Here is what she had to say about her life and experience living in the Winthrop.

“I wore hand-me-downs through high school and didn’t feel comfortable with myself.”

I grew up in the North End of Tacoma. I was brought up in a Catholic School, but it didn’t really work out for me. So I went to public schools. I went to Stadium High School. I was extremely shy in high school. I wore hand-me-downs and didn’t feel comfortable with myself. I wrote poetry. My teachers were very impressed with what I was writing. After high school, I was a waitress for five years. My ex-fiance helped me go to cosmetology school. I became a make-up artist and hair stylist in Los Angeles. At the time, I was also going to Los Angeles City College where I was majoring in art. I was going to work with this one salon exclusively, but I got breast cancer.

“I felt like I was out of my mind.”

I started the breast cancer treatment in 2006 and it didn’t end for me until a few months ago. I went through two surgeries — a lumpectomy and a mastectomy, and six months of chemotherapy. I went through two months of radiation. I went through a year of Tamoxifen and four months of Lupron shots. At the end, I felt like I was out of my mind. But I recovered. I haven’t been able to work. The chemotherapy made my heart 50 percent damaged. I take Enalapril for my heart. My doctor says it will take a year and a half for my heart to recover. I try to walk to build it up. I hope my heart is strong enough to go back to work. I would love to go back to work. I like to be busy.

“It’s gotten really bad.”

I moved to the Winthrop in July of 2007. I had friends that lived at the Winthrop before. They had a good sense of character about them. They had fun in their lives. They liked to live life. I guess that’s what drew me to the Winthrop. The Winthrop was a very sociable place. It was a place where people can sort of be who they want to be. But in the past year or so, it has changed. It’s not that place anymore. It doesn’t have that sociable appeal anymore. [There are a] lot of uneducated people in the building. People who aren’t really going anywhere in their lives and haven’t been anywhere in their lives. People who have caused kind of a catastrophe in the building. There are people hanging out in front of the teriyaki business and right in front of the entryway. They barricaded the door so much that my grandmother couldn’t even get in. I was sick and she couldn’t even bring me the soup she wanted to bring me. She said she didn’t want to stay there. It’s gotten really bad. These are the kind of people in the building — people who cause problems on a daily basis. I’m a little bit scared because it’s gotten really bad.

“The building was off the hook and out of control.”

Living at the Winthrop has been so stressful that I ended up having a heart attack in October 2008. That’s because the building was off the hook and out of control. There was nothing being done. It was just crazy to live there. A lot of the people targeted me because of my situation, having had breast cancer. There were these girls that hung out on the corner that called me every name in the book and I don’t even have a boyfriend. I don’t bring any guys into my apartment, period. Now that the new management is here, they’re not putting up with any crap. They are trying to clean up the gutter that [former managers] Monique and Erica once cleaned up at the Winthrop.

“Either comply or vacate.”

I think the Winthrop really needs someone who is going to take control and power over this building and not let thug-type people have control over it. That’s what has happened. They think they are running the whole show here. It wasn’t that way when I moved in. For almost a whole year, we never had any problems. I’ve met the new management. I think they’re very professional and intelligent. There is a psychotic schizophrenic guy who lives down the hall from me. I couldn’t even take out my garbage without him coming out of his apartment and yelling at me. The old management wouldn’t do anything about it. But the current manager gave him a 10-day notice — either comply or vacate. The new management is cleaning it up.

"This place has stressed me out so much that I'm really sick," says Winthrop resident Jessica Creso. "I feel like staying here is hard and difficult. Even the air in the Winthrop is bad. It is stagnant." (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

To read the complete series of interviews with Winthrop Hotel residents, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.