Tacoma is many things, but “normal” might not be one of them

Just call us Latitude: 47.2528768 - Longitude: -122.4442905

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

No matter how long you’ve lived in, been away from or even heard of Tacoma, there is one undiminishing aspect none of us can deny or evade – Tacoma is a very strange place.

From its name (our city was originally named after the mountain seen hovering on the eastern horizon – which by some most peculiar historical/imperial convolutions is now called “Rainier”) to its peculiar, and distinctly anti-symmetrical shape (most cities are approximately square or circular – even Seattle is approximately rectangular with clear north, south, east and west boundaries).

Tacoma looks like a splatter – as if someone spilled coffee across a map.

Our only clearly defined boundaries are water.

On the south side, or even north east, good luck keeping track of where the city officially ends or begins.

On the east side, Puyallup and Midland are around there somewhere.

Many years ago my daughter and some friends bought fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July. Since fireworks were prohibited within the city limits, they drove further east to what they had assumed was beyond the city boundary. After a few minutes a couple Tacoma police cars pulled up.

My daughter, as the group’s representative, explained that they had gone out of their way to follow the law and use fireworks outside of the city.

The policeman quietly said, “You don’t know where the city limits are do you?” No one did.

It turns out that few of us do.

I’ve often thought that a great civic activity would be to have an organized walk around the city. With stops or activities or even events sponsored by various neighborhoods, it would be a good way to get to know those distant reaches of the city few of us encounter.

How high is Tacoma?

Ever do an elevation search for a city or neighborhood? If you do an elevation search for Tacoma, you get an average of about 245 feet/75 meters.

But in this, as well as every other category, in Tacoma there is no such thing as average. If you want to check out local elevations (do so here: en-us.topographic-map.com/maps/ncx/Tacoma/) you will see that we have businesses and homes, even parks, right at sea level.

And, as you might guess, Tacoma’s highest point is barely in Tacoma. It’s out of reach for most of us, and even out of sight, in the north east section above Brown’s Point.

The highest point in the main part of the city is in fact the site of Bellarmine Prep – above Center street and Snake Lake.

I’ve often thought there should be some kind of observatory/lookout on that hill.

It would hold unobstructed views of sunrises and sunsets.

And storms and rainbows.

And, of course our glorious mountain.

It would be an ideal destination for photographers, tourists or the occasional romantic rendezvous.

We don’t need no “Keep Tacoma weird” signs

Many cities, from Austin, Texas to Portland, Oregon have popular slogans and bumper stickers with the statement “Keep our city weird”.

Tacoma, as we all know, needs no assistance or marketing campaign to keep us “weird”.

Being “weird” is perhaps like being “cool” – if you have to work on it, you have clearly missed the point.

To mix a bunch of metaphors, many of us are paddling in the other direction.

Many people I know are working, desperately, to keep at least a few aspects or neighborhoods as “normal” as possible.

But that too, as we Tacoma-people know all too well, is a lost cause.

Tacoma is a lot of things, but “normal” is rarely one of them. From “average” income to education level to racial distribution, Tacoma is far from “average” or even predictable.

Tacoma, for example has two thriving “Asian” neighborhoods/shopping districts.

The one along South Tacoma Way is predominantly Korean/Chinese (with a few exceptions) while the “Asian” neighborhood around South 38th and Yakima (also known as the Lincoln District) is predominantly South East Asian – with an emphasis on Viet-Nam and Thailand.

We also have tiny clusters of Asian influence on Hosmer and MLK. If you want fabulous bahn mi or pho, you don’t have to go far in Tacoma. Just about anything Asian is probably in your neighborhood.

And it’s not just Asian

Tacoma has Ukrainian, Mexican and Scandinavian neighborhoods, grocery stores and churches. Among many others.

And it’s not just human

Not very many cities have a literal wilderness within their borders.

Tacoma has “official” wilderness areas (Point Defiance, for example, is more than 90% undeveloped wilderness) and “unofficial” wild areas – especially in the gulches in the city’s waterfront areas (north and west side in particular). I see deer and raccoons in my neighborhood on a near daily basis. Eagles overhead are not rare. And local coyotes love pet food – or pets as food.

Ever notice how many celebrities have Tacoma roots or connections but deny or ignore them? From Richard Brautigan to Kurt Cobain to Neko Case, Tacoma rarely comes up as an influence in their formative years.

But I think I know why.

Yes, Tacoma doesn’t hold the panache of the city up north, but I think it’s more than that. Tacoma is perhaps more of an attitude than an accident of birth.

We know that we are not like everyone else – and never will be. And for most of us, we like it that way.

And many of us also know that even if we told outsiders what it was like to grow up in or live in Tacoma for a long time, no one would believe us.

Plus, our view of the mountain, when we can see it, is far better.


As I was researching this article, I found this: according to DistancesTo.com Tacoma is the seat of King County.

Anyone want to tell them?