Tacoma; Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I know it’s not the right season, but when I drive around Pierce County, and even more, when I go through Seattle, I can’t help thinking of my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In that film, George Bailey, more than anything, longs to travel and see the world. His hometown, Bedford Falls, is just not big enough for him.
In spite of grand plans, personal obligations intervene and keep him home. As we find out later, his real destiny is to keep his beloved (and sometimes much resented) walkable and friendly Bedford Falls from becoming the crass and hostile Pottersville. You could call it “alternative urbanization”.

Bedford Falls always reminds me of Tacoma. We always seem to be teetering between the immigrant-friendly town — with thriving independent businesses and stable homeowners — like Bedford Falls, and the cynical, impersonal and transient Pottersville.
And we seem to forget that what makes a town is more than the accumulation of people and ever bigger buildings.

Have you ever seen a Beautiful Angle poster?
They have been an unofficial Tacoma tradition for several years.

Each poster is hung in a public place; this is art in its most free (literally) public and accessible sense.
Each poster is a graphically rich, hand-printed, poetically reflective love letter to Tacoma.

On the rare occasions when I see one, I am caught in a moral dilemma; should I take it or leave it?
They are, almost without exception, glorious, passionate, beautiful, and yes, collectible and potentially valuable.

But I want them to stay. I want people to see them. I want locals – and visitors – to pause, reflect and consider what a special, irreplaceable and yes, fragile place we have here.

I love what these posters say about Tacoma. I love their message of longing, appreciation and lingering disappointment. I love their tributes to history and the wispy hopes for a better future.

I have never taken a poster. But they are usually gone within minutes.

They are the perfect metaphor for Tacoma — something carefully crafted and beautifully done — presented and immediately removed.
Like a petulant child, Tacoma loses almost every treasure it holds.

From the Goddess of Commerce, to the Fuzhou Ting, to Old City Hall, and to countless vintage homes, churches and neighborhoods, we take, break or neglect into oblivion the things that make us unique.

Our compulsion to be a look-alike sprawling modern version of Pottersville seems irresistible.

Beautiful Angle posters end up in basements or attics, our Never-Never Land characters are in secret semi-permanent storage and too many of our buildings are ignored to oblivion.

Large companies – Weyerhauser, Russell, State Farm – will come and go.
In the end, they don’t even really matter.

What matters, and what makes us a community, is the individuals who make neighborhoods, friendships and families. Pierce County, unlike King County, is almost evenly represented by population by the city and the county. Many from outside of the city work in town, and many of us who live in the city have business or other connections in the county. “Farm to table” is not just a slogan, thanks to farmers markets, locally grown food is immediately accessible to almost any city dweller.

We might complain about traffic or parking in and around Tacoma – but have you been in Seattle lately?
Just recently I heard that Seattle had 60 building cranes at work. Tacoma has two or three.

I used to be jealous, but now I’m glad. Tacoma has its own pace and personality. We all know Tacoma will grow, but even as it does, it is a community before it is an “urban center.” It is home with names and faces, schools and neighborhoods, businesses and history that, even after just a few years, we have in common.

Community is built by those tangled webs of memories, obligations and shared experiences. It is built and maintained with great difficulty — and lost easily.

Pottersville, on the other hand, is easily constructed, and, is, apparently, a perpetual temptation. Any city can be Pottersville, and too many are.
We have neighborhoods that reflect the cynicism and churning dislocation of Pottersville and others that embody and express the generous, trusting and jovial spirit of Bedford Falls.

I’ve never understood the appeal of Pottersville. Its callous commodification is everyone’s nightmare with a price on every object, place and person.

I know people who represent or even help build what some of us might call Pottersville. For the most part, they are not mean-spirited or short-sighted; they just believe that each demolished craftsman home, each big-box store, each identical strip-mall and sprawling parking lot doesn’t really matter.

But as every member of a neighborhood knows, everything respected or disrespected — every word, every person, place or building — matters.
Every beautiful historic home or building, lovingly restored or carelessly demolished, tells its story. Its story, combined with the stories of other buildings and neighborhoods, tells our story.

It doesn’t take an urban planner to see that a thriving city is full of people — not vehicles.
Too many of our neighborhoods have no sidewalks, no pedestrians and nothing to walk to, even if they could.

Some neighborhoods, especially in other areas, clearly designed in the spirit of Mr. Potter, have endless strip malls and parking lots, mind-numbing big-box stores, seemingly deliberate traffic snarls, and, above all, no character.

But we also have welcoming, walkable, friendly neighborhoods with small parks and street scenes that would make Jane Jacobs feel at home.

Perhaps our destiny, like George Bailey, is to build our community one conversation, one relationship at a time. And sometimes we need to be the one standing up to the snarling Mr. Potters of the world and their Faustian bargains and remind them – and ourselves – that this is our city too.

It is not that we hope or even expect that Tacoma will not change – we know that it will. We just want to have a voice in the shape our community takes.

Tacoma doesn’t need divine intervention or a bumbling angel like Clarence; we just need more George Baileys.

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