Tacoma’s lack of an identity might be its identity

We in Tacoma, for the most part, take pride in not being tied to anywhere — or anything.

It might be because I am a visitor, and because I know Tacoma better than anywhere else, but I have noticed that everywhere I go, the people, institutions and events seem, almost without exception, to have a common shared opinion about who the community is and what they represent.

From restaurants to conferences to people on the streets or in the neighborhoods, it seems that everywhere I go, there is a unified theme — a deliberate and conscious adoption of a shared, partially inherited partially created identity.

I don’t see that in and around Tacoma.

It might be because our economy, our daily lives, even our terrain and weather are in constant contrast to larger realities, trends and natural forces.

One aspect of Tacoma is that we are “not Seattle.” Yes, essentially everyone from King County (and beyond) to corners of Pierce County (from Elbe to Orting) would agree — as would anyone from any neighboring regions.

But what could that even mean? Yes, of course we are “not Seattle” — but neither is Lynnwood or Bellingham.

Those places (and a hundred others) might not “be Seattle,” but we in Tacoma thrive on our difference, even on our distrust and opposition to, the city to our north.

We don’t vilify it (much) as most of the communities east of the Cascades might, but as much as our economy and a lot of our social and cultural energy might come from (or find itself there) there is simply something about Seattle that most of us from Tacoma don’t trust.

If you travel the world, or even the U.S. or Canada, one thing you discover almost immediately is that Seattle has a near mythic reputation. Whether it is music, or coffee or Amazon, everyone around the world seems to know Seattle.

But few know, or even acknowledge, Tacoma.

The suburbs of Seattle accept this as part of the bargain of working in or around Seattle, but not living in the city.

Bellevue, for example, has a culture and value system (relatively) independent and distant from Seattle — but not in opposition to it.

Seattle is literally within sight of much of Bellevue, and the crossover is constant.

Not so in Tacoma. From Tacoma, Seattle is beyond our visible horizon, but is always there, hovering like some estranged and intrusive in-law.

Tacoma would be a very different place if it were a few more miles away from Seattle.

One major highway (Old 99) connects the two cities and, on street signs it is still acknowledged as the “Seattle-Tacoma Highway,” and the airport has the official name of Sea-Tac (but with SEA as the acronym).

Bellevue or Everett aren’t tied to Seattle in those ways.

But we in Tacoma, for the most part, take pride in not being tied to anywhere — or anything.

We may not be clear about who we are, but we are proud of what we are not.

If you scratch below the surface of almost any community, gathering, group of friends or even local kids, you get the prevailing sense that Tacoma is more of a process than a place — a nexus of ideas, rejections, uncertainties and wishful thinking.

Other cities and communities might have “the way we do things here,” but I virtually never hear that term in Tacoma.

It might be because no one knows, but I think it is more likely that no one cares.

If you encounter entrepreneurs in Tacoma, you learn one thing very quickly: No idea is off the table and no market is out of reach.

With grain from the American Midwest, to natural gas from Canada to vehicles from Asia, goods, ideas and cultural forces make their way in, out and through Tacoma on a constant basis.

And, like our weather, nothing stays long.

And, of course, like the snow on our mountains (that does stick around for a while) some influences linger and make their presence known in barely noticeable ways.

Every area and region has its hazards; from floods to hurricanes, every neighborhood if not entire nation, is vulnerable to natural forces that threaten life and livelihoods.

As seems to be the case in every other arena, the Puget Sound region is in a class of its own.

Other areas might have hurricane “seasons” or a “tornado alley” or even more common flood zones, but we have something entirely different; earthquakes.

As we all know, earthquakes can emerge any time — or in any place — or at any intensity.

And, even though, some of us do our best to “prepare” for earthquakes, there is absolutely nothing to do to prevent them.

And, of course, we all know, as part of our regional DNA, that we can expect what many of us call “The Big One” — the earthquake that will demolish much of what generations have built here. And, as we all know and live with, when it comes to “The Big One” it is a question of when, not if.

And we get smaller quakes almost every day somewhere in the region. Most are barely noted, but even at a small scale, there is no sensation quite like having the earth itself quiver and shake under our feet — or even overhead.

This potential shudder, or even collapse, is metaphorically hard-wired into most of us — and, I would argue, contributes to a one of a kind improvisational/entrepreneurial attitude and outlook expressed in all kinds of ways through food, music, sport and just about everything else.

Many cities have an architectural monument as their universally recognized icon or tribute. From the Eiffel Tower to Seattle’s Space Needle, every city has its unique and memorable marker. Tacoma’s unofficial mascot and icon is the octopus. Often seen on shirts and posters, the octopus, as mysterious and unphotogenic as it might be, is the perfect incarnation of Tacoma.

My one suggestion about the visual representations often seen is that each of the eight arms of the octopus should be holding some kind of tool or device; that would capture the essence of Tacoma’s “make-do” ethic.

We in Tacoma seem to specialize in the impossible and unlikely, the not-popular, and even the cobbled together and improvised. From music to inventions or fashion statements, we in Tacoma rarely go for the packaged or predictable. Or what everyone else is doing.

We’ll take the eccentric and rejected almost any time. And not only will we take it, we will embrace it and make it our own — and once in a while, the larger world (often personified as Seattle) will take it, claim it and put their own stamp of approval on it.

We in Tacoma may not “make it big” but we will, often literally, “make” it here — and in our own way.

The rest of the world may not “understand” or know us, (as they might presume to know or understand Seattle) and we may not even adequately understand or know ourselves, but that just might be our defining essence.

Tacoma is, by nature and by culture, in flux, not what it was five years ago, or what it will be five years from now, and not the same in this neighborhood or that one. In fact you could argue that there is no “unified theory” or identity of Tacoma.

And that just might be the best definition of all.