The Notes of Spanish Steps

Downtown Tacoma’s Spanish Steps weren’t supposed to be like this: toppled and smashed decorative urns; columns broken as the result of a driver who lost control of his vehicle and drove down the steps; during a neighborhood clean-up earlier this month, volunteers removed crushed 40-ounce beer cans and dirty syringes from bushes that surround the steps.

The Spanish Steps were built in 1916, and modeled after its famed namesake — “Piazza di Spagna” — in Rome. They are located within the Old City Hall Historic District — an area listed on local, state, and national historic registers — and adjacent to the former Elks Lodge. In the 1950s, the steps started to degrade. Shoddy patchwork, deferred maintenance, and vandalism contributed to its continued decline.

That could change.

According to City of Tacoma engineer Darius Thompson, the Spanish Steps are in store for a $1.3 million rehabilitation. Bids will be advertised Oct. 13 and awarded in January 2010. Construction is expected to be completed in early-April 2010, according to Thompson. Similarly, the Elks Building is on track to be renovated into a McMenamins brewpub. Last week, City Council agreed to buy vacant land north of the Elks Building and work with a developer on a project that would bring a parking garage, grocery store, and housing to the site.

Meanwhile, anyone who has visited the Spanish Steps in recent weeks might have noticed a curious feature: an array of messages scrawled on the concrete. At first glance, it is nothing more than graffiti. But a closer inspection shows these messages say much about the lost or hidden nature of the steps.

Is it art? Is it a cry for help?

It’s hard to tell.

One note scrawled in black marker and reads, “Tacoma has you and me, with our memories seeping at the seams.” Another message is spray-painted yellow: “Art Lives in T-Town.” In case you forgot the Spanish Steps can be seedy after nightfall, one message provides a quick reminder: “You Just Entered the Junkie Zone.” Finally, two columns convey a rock-bottom message: “Unwanted. Unloved.”


This is one of many personal notes scrawled on the surfaces of downtown Tacoma's 1916 Spanish Steps (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
This is one of many personal notes scrawled on the surfaces of downtown Tacoma’s 1916 Spanish Steps (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)