Tacoma Urbanist

May. 5, 2008 at 12:22am

History Flashback: Tacoma's Shattered Self Esteem

No matter how many historical accounts of Tacoma one reads through, it is still difficult to really ascertain how such a once proud city in first half of the 1900s would one day be nearly abandoned in its entirety by the late 1970s downtown as Stephen Cysewski 1979 photographs document:



Downtown Tacoma 1979.

One has to wonder, on what date was the spirit of Tacoma was so completely broken to cause the near wholescale abandonment of the city's downtown and many neighborhood centers.


UWT : The Campus the Almost Wasn't


An editorial in Lakewood Journal, gives a rare unfiltered look into how Tacoma and downtown specifically was viewed just 17 years ago on February 27, 1991 in an editorial in entitled "Shut Down Campus."

In the editorial, Dell Gibbs argued that the Washington State Legislature should close the University of Washington Campus in Tacoma shortly after it had opened:

And short of building a 12 foot wall around the place (UWT), how is the UW going to turn a large downtown area into a proper learning environment for college students?

If you take a good look at the Pacific Lutheran University or the University of Puget Sound, you'll see that the campuses are designed to be conducive to learning.  The are tranquil places where students can study and learn without the threats and hassles of the outside world.

Tranquil is hardly the term you would use to describe the downtown Tacoma site.  "Urban battle-ground" is a little more accurate.  Oh well, at least they didn't pick the Hilltop site.

Why bother? Downtown Tacoma has been dormant almost as long as Mt. Rainier, and there isn't a good chance either one will wake up soon.

...

But who in their right mind would want to attend such a school in downtown Tacoma, or worse yet, send their children to such a school?

...

The UW Tacoma branch campus could be very beneficial to Pierce County, but if it is located in Downtown Tacoma it is destined for failure.


Here's the original scan of the article:



Scanned article by mikeyernst.

I don't fault Gibbs personally for writing such a article that now seems clearly mistaken.  I think it reflected the view point of many people in Washington at the time: that downtown Tacoma was both uninhabitable and unsalvageable. 

Gibbs seems gleeful is his attack of Tacoma especially Hilltop and downtown and appears genuinely enjoy piling on one disparaging remark after another on Tacoma.

So long as Tacoma was so physically blighted and sociologically dysfunctional, it provided ready contrast for people outside of Tacoma to make themselves feel better about where they lived which they might not of otherwise. "At least we don't live in Tacoma" they could exclaim.

The article was written 17 years ago, yet the low expectations for the city persists.  The pecking order of Tacoma in relation to other Washington cities, with Tacoma being at the bottom, has not been disturbed for 50 years and it is not going to be changed easily.

Although the blighted physical conditions and Tacoma's overabundance of socially dysfunctional problems may be frustrating to deal with, they are all to familiar to Tacomans and may unconsciously provide a perverse sort of comfort.

The low expectations for the city has caused a myriad of problems. As one example, it has allowed a disproportionate number of felons to be placed in the city by the State of Washington with little local resistance over the past 30 years until recently.


Can Tacoma ever change its ways?

There are some recent hopeful indications that the city could break through the paralysis.

City Manager Eric Anderson has pledged to reduce crime by 50 percent in the next 14 months.  Not only a worthy goal but a needed acknowledgment that crime is currently at an unacceptable level in the city as reflected not only in crime statistics but in the recent survey of Tacoma residents.  The first step of obtaining a better condition is to identify the problem.

Second, the city recently voted to award a contract to complete the Broadway LID in downtown Tacoma to address decades of accumulated blight downtown.

To gain another perspective, it is good exercise to occasionally visit other cities with fully functioning downtowns and see block after block of functional retail, businesses at street level.  There, the streets are teeming with people who feel safe for a great many hours in a day on the streets and the condition is seen as acceptable and normal.

comments [9]  |  posted under tacoma

Comments

by scout on 5/5/2008 @ 8:56am
In my opinion you start with the small crimes and violations of city ordinances, it communicates the message that people care about downtown and expect visitors/residents to behave to create a safe environment for everyone.

by NineInchNachos on 5/5/2008 @ 9:23am
i'm just happy Russel is going to stay

by FunkomaVintage on 5/5/2008 @ 10:57am
oh, I just love a LakeHood writer dissing T Town! now that's comedy !!
some people just have no Love no Hope no Vision....oh and maybe Jealousy?
Putting UWT downtown was a brilliant stroke of thinking....we can petri dish an endless supply of MBA's and Urban Planners!

by Erik on 5/5/2008 @ 11:28am
In my opinion you start with the small crimes and violations of city ordinances, it communicates the message that people care about downtown and expect visitors/residents to behave to create a safe environment for everyone.

Yes, that is certainly going to be a necessary step needed to repair the social fabric in some areas.


by Chris.Tacoma on 5/5/2008 @ 12:48pm
"Petri dish an endless supply of MBA's and Urban Planners."

This is a good thing, but it's kind of disconcerting for graduates who want to do urban planning in Tacoma. There's a lot more competition for positions.

by Erik on 5/5/2008 @ 12:52pm
This is a good thing, but it's kind of disconcerting for graduates who want to do urban planning in Tacoma.

Perhaps the city will have some positions available soon for some urban planners who can help Tacoma finally start infilling some of our vacant lots and draft and implement the code required to accomplish the task.


by NineInchNachos on 5/5/2008 @ 1:28pm
good advice from Douglas Rushkoff:



Think small. Buy local. Make friends. Print money. Grow food. Teach children. Learn nutrition. And if you do have money to invest, put it into whatever lets you and your friends do those things. (read more)

by jenyum on 5/5/2008 @ 8:04pm
it is good exercise to occasionally visit other cities with fully functioning downtowns and see block after block of functional retail, businesses at street level. There, the streets are teeming with people who feel safe for a great many hours in a day on the streets and the condition is seen as acceptable and normal.

No need to go to another city. Just take a look at South 38th Street between Pacific and Yakima, especially on the weekends. It made me sad yesterday, to drive back across the Tacoma Ave bridge into downtown and see block after block of empty, devastated buildings.

IMO we should get that streetcar going asap and send it from downtown across to Lincoln, maybe bring some of that great energy across to downtown, and get some businesses with decent hours.

by Erik on 5/5/2008 @ 9:26pm
IMO we should get that streetcar going asap and send it from downtown across to Lincoln, maybe bring some of that great energy across to downtown, and get some businesses with decent hours.

Restoring Tacoma's streetcar system would certainly go towards restoring the city's mixed use centers.