Tacoma, relatively speaking

Like our sometimes wrinkled and disheveled relative, Tacoma has character and stories to tell.

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Sometimes Tacoma strikes me like that shirt-tail relation that we never quite “get”.

Like that brother-in-law that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the family. This relative doesn’t always live up to, or even seem to recognize shared expectations or even standards of behavior.

And, like that errant relative, Tacoma disappears without a word, and emerges without a word of explanation.

And, also, like that meandering relative, Tacoma astounds as often as it disappoints.

Other regional cities, from Seattle to Portland, have reputations and nationally recognized attractions.

Tacoma is more of a place to live, than an attraction to outsiders. We are a community best seen from the inside.

Like our misunderstood family member, Tacoma may not impress others by its appearance – its first impression.

Outsiders need to get to know us.

Seattle, even from the freeway, glistens in opportunity and possibilities.

Tacoma, at first glance, especially at freeway speeds, seems to have little to offer.

But like our sometimes wrinkled and disheveled relative, Tacoma has character and stories to tell.

But, as with every family, we don’t always want to hear them.

Or even acknowledge that certain events even happened.

Tacoma, especially downtown, looks fairly placid, even unremarkable to the passing view.

But virtually every neighborhood, and in the downtown core, every historic building, and most parking lots, hold a statement and depth of history that is stunning in its contradictions and complications.

Snippets of granite or cobblestone are visible hints of a time and community that once was.

A few remaining architectural features or mis-matches are tangible shadows of what once was – or almost was.

Tacoma’s once thriving “Japan-town” once dominated much of the downtown core (mostly on and around what is now UWT). The internment program of World War II was the end of an entire ethnic and historic texture and core of our city.

About fifty years before that, the Chinese were driven out of Tacoma. They, like the Japanese, literally helped build our city from the ground up.

Most west coast cities, from Vancouver to Seattle to San Francisco have thriving “China-towns” or international districts – almost always in or immediately close to their urban cores and certainly integral to the history and character of their cities.

Tacoma’s “international districts” are, for the most part, on the fringes of the city core. And they are barely, if at all, anchored in the history of the neighborhoods they currently occupy.

Tacoma’s Lincoln District, for example, has shifted dramatically, becoming “international” only in the past couple decades – if that.

I love the Southeast Asian “vibe” (and food!) of the Lincoln District, but it’s not historic and not tied to the previous Japanese or Chinese roots of our city.

The other major “international” district of Tacoma (along South Tacoma Way) is not technically within our city limits. It’s in Lakewood.

Tacoma’s identity, like our not-always-consistent relative, shifts over time and takes shape in unexpected ways and places.

And sometimes Tacoma shines.

Our city, like our misfit relative, with rough edges and a sometimes-gruff manner, offers far more than is first noticeable.

And like our family member, Tacoma amazes us when we least expect it. You could call us city of curmudgeons, pioneers, natives and opportunists and that’s all true, but we are also a city made up of those of us who came here, were born here or somehow ended up here.

Few of us were drawn here by promises of wealth or stardom – as we might have been to the grander cities of New York, London or Los Angeles.

Many people I know in Tacoma just kind of found themselves here. Many stopped here on the way to somewhere else, and somehow didn’t take that next step. For better or worse, not that many intended to stay here – or even come here at all.

Tacoma, like the indefinable relative, for the most part, didn’t decide to deliberately stay, or even come here.

We somehow got here and couldn’t leave.

I lived in, and attempted to stay in, several other places, from Bellingham to Olympia, to Portland, Oregon, but somehow couldn’t find my roots there.

And, for whatever reason, like many of us, I couldn’t stay away from Tacoma for very long.

Perhaps in the same way, our unlikely relative may not feel at home, or be understood or even welcomed by his own family, but no matter how much he doesn’t really belong, he can’t stay away either.

I see that same dynamic at work with many in Tacoma.

I know many people here with immense talents, experience and capabilities, but somehow they could not make their mark in the larger major cities.

And most of them are at least as talented as some of the major stars or creators on our national, if not international, stages.

Tacoma is a great place for talent – and celebrities – to go unrecognized.

Our biggest strength, perhaps, is that our passions, our creativity can be purely our own. We, like those adventurers of earlier ages, make our own way, define our own success and identity.

In other cities – especially those cities that are literally defined by their industries, from Hollywood to New York City, or even Seattle, it is easy to coast on the creative energy and passion that thrives on those streets and in those boardrooms.

In Tacoma, for the most part, we make our own way, perhaps with a small community of those with a shared vision, but mostly we cobble together our own tribe and community and market.

Tacoma is a place of beginnings, of possibilities, of reaching for that crazy scheme no one else seems to understand.

From Costco to Mars candy to Baskin & Robbins to The Sonics and rock and roll, Tacoma has made its mark on the world.

But in these, and many other cases, the Tacoma connection, as essential as it may be, is in fact barely recognized.

Tacoma, like my awkward relative, takes some time to appreciate.

I don’t know about other families, but in my family, the outlier is barely tolerated when he is present, but somehow a fascinating and unpredictable presence in family history and lore when he is absent.

Tacoma is not the kind of place anyone would go to in order to make their fortune or find fame.

Tacoma is the crumpled younger sibling to the elder super-achiever city to the north of us.

Tacoma is like the clumsy relative that doesn’t quite fit in, rarely lives up to expectations and sometimes stunningly exceeds them – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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