Is Tacoma's glass half empty or half full?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I meet a lot of people in and around Tacoma. One continuing theme of most conversations is what Tacoma was, is and is becoming.

Maybe other cities moan about what they have lost on their way to finding themselves, but I get the sense that world class cities have more to think about and work on than decisions that could have, or should have been made by previous generations.

I seem to be running into more and more people who have been in Tacoma a year or two. For the most part, they seem struck by the potential here – as opposed to possibilities at home.

Those who grew up here seem almost mired in the negative stereotypes and reputation of a city defined by its “aroma,” dreary weather and “gritty” neighborhoods.

But, like the all-too-common weather forecast, “rain, turning to showers,” it is all subject to interpretation.

Yes, Tacoma’s roots are caked in sawdust, sweat and industrial slag, but that is who we were, not who we are.

I will always appreciate Tacoma’s working class roots – that pride of honest workmanship that gave us so many craftsman homes and historic stone buildings we pass by almost every day.

Steel and glass, and near miraculous composite materials may be stronger and more earthquake safe, but iron, wood and brick will always speak of those who came before.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

Here are some thoughts on Tacoma’s journey…

Half empty – and getting emptier….

Is Tacoma and Pierce County the engine that can’t seem to get started, the lumbering giant that just can’t seem to find its footing?

We beg and bribe for projects, we whine for attention like a neglected puppy, we constantly present ourselves as the lowest bidder or the biggest compromiser.

We will (eagerly) welcome, even subsidize, any mental health facility, sex offender center, toxic waste site, detention center, methanol plant or prison expansion.

We are the desperate lover who will take any suitor no matter how abusive, unfaithful or temporary.

Weyerhauser, Russell and now DaVita and State Farm, the companies that seemed to promise so much, all move on.

But they were never meant to stay.

Apparently they knew – and we all know now, their destiny would lie elsewhere. But so does ours.

We are the desperate, clinging lover that pouts and shrieks and whines. Like a jilted individual, we drive away far more than we attract. And, unfortunately, our status as the discarded lover is the stuff of near onstant public discussion.

To put it mildly, this is not the best material for our community marketing.

But it’s better than the arguments we’ve made before. It’s usually phrased a bit more delicately, but our marketing pitch is usually a variation on “We’ll take your toxic dump, your mentally ill, your half-way house, your hazardous waste, your incarcerated immigrants, your sex offenders or anything else no one else wants.”

Other regions might have restrictive zoning or safety standards (we do too, but we are willing to waive them on request or if the price is right). Driving around Pierce County, it’s hard to escape the sense that we love industrial sprawl and pockets of residential density. We seem to like traffic snarls and bottlenecks.

History shows that we will gladly take projects our neighbors hate and other communities don’t want.

Who knows how we got here. Like everything else, our identity and character has emerged from hundreds of small decisions, unfortunate circumstances and forced choices.

Bankruptcies, mergers, economic declines and greener pastures have taken company after company from us. That seems to be who we are – we take the vision, put our muscle behind it, embrace it with iron, wood and stone and watch it put on finer clothes and recede in the distance, without even a glance back at us.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

Half full and getting fuller…..

There are more building cranes at work in Tacoma in the spring of 2018 than probably at any other time in its history. The Port of Tacoma has more (and larger) shipping cranes than it has ever had – and more are on the way. Real estate prices, rents and employment levels are at record highs. Tacoma’s parks and schools, already nationally recognized for their quality and innovation, are continuously being updated and renovated.

Tacoma’s reputation may be a lagging indicator, but change, for better or worse, is rapidly coming, or unavoidably visible, in almost every corner or Pierce County and Tacoma.

One of my complaints about Seattle has been the difficulty and expense of parking. Parking in downtown Tacoma can be a challenge, even many residential neighborhoods – like the North Slope and Proctor – have timed and limited parking – if you can find it.

Not that many years ago, college options for recent high school graduates were extremely limited. Those with resources could always go off to college somewhere else, but for most potential students, Pierce County held two community colleges (Pierce and Tacoma Community College) two private universities (PLU and UPS) and two vocational colleges (Bates and Clover Park).

Now, besides those, we have several private business colleges, a branch of The Evergreen State College, University of Washington-Tacoma and an ever-expanding roster of online higher education possibilities. For those associated with JBLM, the base offers a full menu of educational choices both face to face and online.

To sum up, Tacoma’s streets, neighborhoods and career options for more and more of us are significantly greater than most of us could imagine even a few years ago.

If you mix in the new Dune Peninsula ( the expansion of the Foothills Trail (, Point Ruston, a new McMenamins  and a new food co-op, Tacoma is full and getting fuller.

A physics professor would insist that a cup can never be empty. Any container is full of something – some solid and tangible, while some like oxygen and nitrogen are not visible or recognizable. A humanities professor might insist that a cup, not matter how apparently empty for the moment, is inherently full of possibility and potential.

I can’t think of a better definition of Tacoma at this precarious, vulnerable and nearly kinetic moment when so many pieces of Tacoma’s puzzle are in motion, where entire neighborhoods – and yes, even former toxic waste sites like Point Ruston, the Thea Foss Waterway and much of Commencement Bay – glimmer and flourish as they never have before.

My grand kids live in a Tacoma incomparably different from the Tacoma I grew up in.  Did you know Tacoma has ten sprayground parks? You can see them here.

Did you know that Metro Parks of Tacoma operates over 100 parks? You can see a map of them here.

Don’t forget Pierce County Parks. You can see a list of them here.

Did you know that TPU (Tacoma Public Utilities) owns and operates several parks that offer fishing and camping? You can see them here.

In the greater Pierce County area there are many tiny (or not so tiny) local parks that are not to be missed.

Parks, like schools, are the ultimate investment in the future. They are the living reminders that change is constant, but somehow enduring.

Tacoma has strong links to its past, but our eye is, and always has been, on the future. Each generation builds its own legacy and defines its identity anew – and the shape, texture and pace of that new identity may take some getting used to.

Thanks to Spaceworks ( and RAIN ( and, for over thirty years!, William Factory Small Business Incubator ( putting the foundation in place for your business idea has never been easier.

And yes, we all know that Seattle, San Francisco, New York, London or Paris seem to be calling you as you get more and more successful, never forget that Tacoma is home and, we, more than anyone else, know that you, and we, are just getting started.

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