Dave_L's Tacoma Occasional

Jan. 11, 2009 at 9:56pm

A TACOMA RENAISSANCE, ca. 1991

Dave L. Dusts-Off an Old Issue of the Seattle Weekly

1991.  The Gulf War begins.  The Warsaw pact is dissolved and the Soviet Union collapses.  Pan Am and Eastern Airlines disappear.  Super Nintendo is released. Names in the news include Kevorkian, Yeltsin Paul Reubens, Bill Clinton (Wikipedia)

April 17, 1991:  The Seattle Weekly features a cover-feature on the Tacoma Renaissance written by Fred Moody.  The article pretty much speaks for itself, then and now. 

 

"Tacoma?  A civic and cultiral mecca?  We didn't believe it either."

 

The fairly-balanced ten-page article is fascinating in the fact that is the Seattle Weekly reporting it with so much ink, and the 1991 perspective is enlightening when read from today's perspective and 18 years of progress (or lack thereof).

On page 40 begins Moody's fascinating take on the then-current state of Tacoma.

 

Of course, it begins with several Tacoma jokes.   It then quotes then Mayor Karen Vialle describing her view of Tacoma: "a view of all that needs to be done."  And Fred Haley (yes, THAT Haley) "It's got nowhere to go but up."  With that out of the way, Moody then leads off with "There are signs now that 'up' is on the immediate horizon."   He sets the stage with facts including how in the prior decade the city grew by 11.5 percent.  The Port is handling seven times the amount of cargo.  Haley is quoted again as saying "There has never been a pulse like this before."

"Artist Antje Kaiser grabbed up a loft-space in a city-sponsored warehouse conversion"

 

The article then describes Old-Town, and highlights McCarver Books and owners Ted and Marie Hong, located next to the Spar:

"Bookstore Owners Ted and Anne Marie Hong said Tacoma needed a mini Elliott Bay Books."

 

Comparing Ted to George Francis Train, it quotes Ted as saying "When you start digging behind Tacoma's image, you find this huge wealth of interests. A lot of Seattle creative people, professional people, are getting priced out of that market and coming down here.  Asarco should be out in a years' time.  It should be a greenbelt all the way from downtown to Point Defiance."

Moody spends a lot of time quoting City Manager Ray Corpuz as he talks about downtown projects, including the Union Station Federal Courthouse, Governor Booth Gardener's budgeting funds for the History Museum, the projected $80 million UW branch campus, the theater district, a new $20 million Pierce Transit hub, a new $138 million highway around the Blair Waterway, $23 million expansion of the Bicentennial Center, the purchasing of $11 million of land on the Thea Foss Waterway.  Corpuz imagines transforming the entire waterfront from downtown to Point Defiance Park, "our own Grand central Park" and a "people place" with carefully-planned mixed-use private and public development. To make the waterfront an asset.

Most fascinating, especially from a "what-if" standpoint, is illustrated on the cover of the issue and the leading pages of the article.  It is a huge wooden pedestrian bridge, made to resemble a railroad trestle.  Designed to extend from the end of 12th Street to the Thea Foss, the bridge was to be funded half with city public-arts money, and half with city public-works money.  The bridge was designed by Russian architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin who came to Tacoma for the Goodwill Arts Festival.  The plans were brought closer to reality by a Seattle design firm, the Buffalo Group.  "Trestle: Ancient, the bridge, when completed, will be an evocative symbol of Tacoma History, of the Tacoma psyche, and of the ingenious, often visionary civic zest that has seized present-day Tacoma" wrote Moody.  Can you imagine if this bridge was built?  Timber columns rising 70 feet, a 30-feet wide deck paved with stone extending 320 feet.  "Fez-topped creatures" guarding the approach.  (One can at least see sketches of the bridge at the Tacoma Art Museum, and Michael Sullivan, instrumental in championing this bridge idea has a huge scale model of the bridge.)

(For you, R.R. and members of C.L.A.W.:)

"Fez-topped creatures guard a jumble of wooden timbers lined with potted firs."

 

"The scale and energy of the current Tacoma Renaissance is an almost incomprehensible combination of pent-up frustration, civic vision, careful planning, political clout, an unprecedented spirit of cooperation among public and private-sector elements, and public and private largess." explains Moody.   Ray Corpuz again: "I think we're finally realizing we can be a Tacoma and be successful."  Corpuz points to the settlement of a long-standing claim of tideflat lands with The Puyallup Tribe as a nexus of the current leadership and community that hadn't existed before.  

Manager of the city planning department's Cultural Resources Division, Michael Sullivan gets the spotlight and is described as an "unlikely galvanizing force," and in many people's opinions, the man behind the renaissance, the "soft-spoken" man with an "owlish gaze" (Michael, you owe me one for not including your 1991 photo!) was clearly a good orator then, as he is now.  The article quotes Sullivan as explaining, "I think it's just a different time and a different attitude..."  Sullivan credits Norm, Dicks and House Majority Leader Brian Ebersole and the Executive Council of Tacoma, and arts commission chair, Bob Slaton.  Moody quotes him further, "I don't know how to explain it, exactly.  I think there's a sense of comfortableness here now, with being sort of a second city....Our asset is that we are a traditional, mature city, with traditional buildings."  What an important point, then and now.  Sullivan respects the role of architecture in a city, and the article explains how he recognizes that Tacoma is an "absolutely a child of the railroad."  Quoted further, he says, "So Union Station perhaps means more to our city than just a nice building.  There's an essence to our spirit, sort of a symbolic hearts there.  As long as that thing sat there  languishing, it was always a barometer, or a bellwether of rotten times.  And now that it's coming back to life, you can see things happening around it."  Perhaps our Union Station is the Elks Lodge or the Winthrop. 

David Allen of Cornerstone Development, who helped build several downtown Tacoma buildings and tried to acquire more, says in the article, "We had hoped that that project would create a critical mass.  Well, it didn't happen."  Moody writes, "Like Morgan, Allen fears that the current city facelift may yet be another civic delusion....It is as if he is talking not about ascension in status, but a decline -- from a city that once saw itself as competitive with Seattle to one that is reduced to competing with Spanaway."  (Ouch!)  Moody also quotes a more optimistic Allen: "We're working on a plan for Northwest Waters, an aquarium on the Thea Foss.  It'll be a $30 million to $45 million project.  I think in one or two years we'll see a train from the waterfront to Mount Rainer.  There's quite a lot of interested by operators and the city already owns the line."

The article brings us back to ground with a certain amount of old-Tacoma skepticism.  Murray Morgan himself is quoted as saying about the rebirth of Tacoma, "I guess I'd be uncertain about it.  I've been through three or four Tacoma renaissances in my lifetime."   Moody closes his article by saying, "For now, the Tacoma renaissance is an artistic declaration of its leaders' faith in the city's future, a bet that Tacoma has finally made the right choice at the right time."

How certain are you about this Tacoma renaissance?   Is this time the right time?

comments [3]  |  posted under Corpuz, History, Michel Sullivan, Tacoma Union Station, Tacome, Trestle: Ancient, Vialle

Comments

by morgan on 1/12/2009 @ 10:51am
Wow- neat post! I can't believe the article is from 1991 - 18 years ago! It could have been written last year.

I wish they would have built that bridge. Talk about a landmark!

My concern is of course with the current economy. I would hate to see the gains of the past few years slip back into the disinvestment that occurred during the 70s and 80s. We need to keep our eyes on the horizon and aggressively keep moving toward it. We can't afford to sit around and wait for the economy to pick back up.

I'm curious though what happened to David Allen, Karen Vialle, and other Tacoma cheerleaders of the past. Are they still around? How come we don't hear from them anymore?

by NineInchNachos on 1/12/2009 @ 6:49pm
"Fez-topped creatures guard a jumble of wooden timbers lined with potted firs"

Very Edward Gorey

by Erik on 1/12/2009 @ 7:44pm
Incredible post Dave. Nice work!

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Dave L. dusts-off his stash of Tacoma-related stuff to share.

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