MLK Housing Development Association celebrates revitalized Hilltop

There was a time when a large gathering of people at the corner of South 23rd St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way usually meant some sort of criminal activity was taking place, including the buying and selling of drugs, prostitution and worse.

“We saw a lot of violent crime, a lot of murders,” recalled Interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell, referring to what the area was like more than a decade ago.

Ten to 15 years ago, the intersection was the site of more murders and assaults than any other place in Tacoma, said Felix Flannigan, executive director of the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association.

“This is where people misbehaved,” Flannigan said.

Fortunately, times have changed, as Wednesday morning’s congregation of people at that location was a moment of celebration.

Dignitaries, officials and area residents turned out to mark the MLK Housing Development Association’s ground-breaking on a development of 12 new single-family homes, which will be available to low income-buyers – that is families making 80 percent of the median income.

Financing for the homes is available through the City of Tacoma and other lenders.

The homes to be built will be in addition to the six town houses already constructed along South 23rd Street.

The new construction signals the rebirth of what was one of the most notorious intersections in the United States.

The area was so infamous for its crime rate that in the early 1990s it was featured on the ABC news magazine show “20/20.”

The MLK Housing Development Association has cleaned up the area, demolishing vacant buildings that used to be the gathering place for gangs and criminal activity.

“As you look down this street today, it’s something to behold,” an emotional Flannigan said. “There’s a lot that’s been accomplished.”

He made mention of the fact the association lost $600,000 on the development of the six town houses already built.

“Is $600,000 worth all of the lives we’ve saved?” Flannigan asked – eliciting applause from the crowd – noting the area has not seen one murder since the construction of the town houses.

“That’s something we can all be proud of.”

Noting this major milestone in the redevelopment of Upper Tacoma/Hilltop, others echoed those sentiments.

“Are we on a roll in Tacoma or what?” asked Mayor Bill Baarsma, in what has become a mantra of sorts for him when he attends groundbreakings, grand openings and the like.

A decade ago, he said, he wouldn’t have believed in the area’s potential, noting this shows the importance of people’s beliefs and what they can accomplish.

Greg Rolsma, vice president and manager of Frontier Bank in Tacoma, which is financing the project, was also stunned at the area’s turnaround.

He said he used to avoid the intersection of 23rd Street and MLK Way when he drove his daughter to school.

“I applaud the community and all who were involved in this initiative,” Ramsdell said.

The event’s keynote speaker was U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-6th District), who has been actively involved in all phases of the 10-year effort to revitalize the area and has helped bring in federal help in dealing with the area’s crime problem.

“This was, frankly, a very daunting challenge,” Dicks admitted. “There was a tremendous community effort to get things turned around here.”

Dicks said he would continue to seek federal funding for Tacoma, mentioning outdoor recreation parks and facilities and urban parks.

“I’m really excited about Tacoma,” he said. “I’m just glad to have been part of it.”

Following the ceremony, Dicks, Baarsma and others made the short trip to Stanley Park to visit the association-hosted Back-to-School Fair.

Attendees enjoyed food, refreshments, giveaways, hands-on arts and crafts and other fun activities as part of the free community event targeted at households with kids in the Upper Tacoma neighborhood.