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The truth about Tacoma: 5 things you might not know

A Tacoma native on the culture, politics and economics of the City of Destiny.


'Nuff said. Credit: Tacoma Public Library.

In Seattle, a city where most people come from somewhere else, origin stories make for reliable cocktail chatter. The California expats have it easy. Everyone’s been to the Golden State, and most people have at least one charming anecdote about excursions to Golden Gate or the Walk of Fame. Likewise, the émigrés from small town America. Everyone loves a good fish-out-of-water story.

But if you’re from a place like Tacoma, which falls somewhere between destination and corn-fed Heartland crossroads, things can get downright sociological. No one has a Tacoma vacation story, and no one really believes Seattle is that big a culture shock for a City of Destiny native. So Tacoma natives get bigger, deeper questions: What is it like to grow up in Tacoma? How does Tacoma see itself? What does Tacoma aspire to be?

Heady stuff for a cocktail party.

I’d like to think I’m qualified to answer. I was weaned on MSM Deli sandwiches and Neko Case albums, and have fallen into Commencement Bay on no fewer than two occasions. Tacoma is a place of totemic comfort for me: I know the city blocks, and notice when they change. I feel a little wistful when a small business closes, even if it’s one I didn’t like. I have an extensive history with Tacoma’s politics and civic life. Tacoma is a place I love and I think about it often.

Here are five things you should know about the singular culture and politics of my hometown, and why I believe that Tacoma, despite all the jokes and put downs, is a very compelling place:

  1. Tacoma is a divided city

I was raised in the North End, which gives me a very specific “Tacoma experience” that is far from universal. Tacoma’s reputation as a scrappy port city has legitimacy. The Port of Tacoma and Joint Base Lewis McChord are critical economic forces, and major sources of blue-collar employment. North of Sixth Avenue – the recently rejuvenated nightlife and small business core – Tacoma is a very different place.

North Enders are largely white-collar, a mix of industrial managers, attorneys, engineers and college professors from the neighboring University of Puget Sound. The North End isn’t necessarily rich, but it wouldn’t be one bit out of place in Seattle. The story is similar in the West End of town, out toward the Narrows Bridge, and also in Northeast Tacoma, a bluffside view neighborhood adjacent to Federal Way.

When you move south of Sixth Avenue, where the easy majority of Tacomans reside, life suddenly becomes much different. This is where the working-class folks make their homes – the service industry workers, crane operators and longshoremen. That is, if they live in the city. Poverty rates in this part of town are 60 percent above the state average; unemployment rates are 40 percent above.

On average, Tacomans south of South 19th Street live on less than half as much as North Enders. (See the map below. Source: American Community Survey, 2006-2010.)

map of Tacoma income

The average North Ender subsists on $40,022 a year, a per-capita income comparable to well-off cities like Seattle. Average income for residents of the suburban West End, Northeast Tacoma and the condo-dwellers of Downtown are comparable. Move south, though, and incomes fall by half. The Hilltop, once a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood, has recently undergone considerable gentrification. But despite the craft cocktail shops and hipster bars, per-capita income there is under $16,000, less than 50 percent above the federal poverty line for an individual.

In Seattle terms, the difference between North Tacoma and the South End is roughly the difference between Ballard and the Rainier Valley. Incomes on the Hilltop are so low that there’s not really even a Seattle analogue. It’s a stark divide, and one that underscores a truth about life in the Gritty City: The level of “grit” varies a hell of a lot depending on your address.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article! No surprise that Ben Anderstone has hit this one out of the park!

demgal88

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I appreciate this article. I settled in Puyallup 6 and a half years ago. We actually prefer going to Tacoma over Seattle to escape the burbs and chain restaurants. We've even considered moving there. But there is so much diversity in Tacoma it can be VERY puzzling to an outsider. It does feel like many cities rolled into one. This really helps explain why. Thanks.

Jpete001

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 12:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's derision towards Tacoma is borne out of fear. The fear that Tacoma will rise again and challenge Seattle's comfortable position of Supreme Overlord of the Puget Sound region, if not the entire state. It's not rational, but it's true. Throughout history, victors mock the vanquished as a form of whistling past the graveyard. In Britain today, everyone makes Nazi jokes about Germans. Even teenagers. Britain won the war but lost their empire, and they're still nervous that an imperial Germany will rise again. It's the same thing at work with Seattle and Tacoma. Hell, the only reason that the celebrated Smith Tower has that spindly spire on it is to make it taller than Tacoma's National Real Estate Building (then the tallest west of the Mississippi).

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh yea. That's the ticket! Fear and loathing of Tacoma. Up next North Bend!

Treker

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I worked in Tacoma for a while. Awful commute (this was decades after intercity rail service was trashed and before it was reconstituted). I like the feel of the place, more than my similarly sized home town Spokane.

Unlike Seattle Tacomans appear to have largely given up on their frenetic late-Nineteenth Century boosterism and are not trying to GROW into a world class city. Good for them. Thanks for another good piece of demographic analysis.

louploup

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 5:51 p.m. Inappropriate

With one exception, Mr. Anderstone's essay is an accurate, welcome and long-overdue portrait of Tacoma.

Alas that one exception is a falsehood so grave it not only misrepresents Tacoma but in its magnitude and significance is both breathtaking and perplexing: Mr. Anderstone's dead-wrong assertion that “Tacoma voters have...torpedoed two transit measures.”

Yes, the proposals were rejected – but not by Tacomans.

Indeed, if Mr. Anderstone is the expert voter-analyst he claims to be, surely he knows the two Pierce Transit propositions in question – one on a special election ballot in 2011, the other on the general election ballot in 2012 – were approved by substantial majorities inside the Tacoma city limits.

The 2012 results show Tacomans voted by 55 percent to save Pierce Transit and protect its mostly low-income riders from further service reductions. In that same election, pro-transit voters also won, albeit by smaller percentages, in the adjacent towns of Lakewood and Steilacoom.

While I no longer have the 2011 figures – and I do not have time today to recalculate them from the precinct-by-precinct data available from the Pierce County Auditor – Tacoma and Lakewood also supported Pierce Transit, though (typical of special elections), the 2011 voter turnout was depressingly small.

But in each election – despite the substantial support for transit inside the Tacoma city limits and in the two smaller towns – the measures were beaten by the rabidly reactionary voters who rule the remainder of the Pierce Transit service area.

Significant too is the fact neither the 2011 proposal nor its 2012 counterpart would have expanded bus service. Each would merely have restored it to the barely adequate level that, by 2012, had already been slashed 43 percent. The necessary sales-tax increase would have been tiny – .03 percent or three pennies on a $10 purchase.

But even that paltry sum was too much for the dominantly white, comparatively wealthy suburban voters outside the Tacoma city limits – where a "transit is welfare" meme inflamed the transit controversy into racial and class hatred that was expressed as venomous resentment of transit users. In those realms – a red-zone of Rush Limbaugh bigotry and Glenn Beck paranoia – the measures were overwhelmingly rejected.

The suburban anti-transit vote in 2012 was 56 percent. In many precincts it exceeded 60 percent. Even so, the 2012 measure's final official anti-transit margin was only 704 votes.

Significantly – proof positive the vote was both a classic suburbs-versus-city fight and a class-war groundswell indicative of white suburban Washington's shift to the Hard Right – the anti-transit, anti-marriage-equality and Romney-Ryan votes in the suburban precincts were mutually predictive. The voters who were anti-transit voted overwhelmingly for Romney-Ryan and were equally anti-gay.

The results from Tacoma's precincts are significantly different. As Mr. Anderstone correctly noted, even anti-gay-marriage precincts in Tacoma supported President Obama. The same sorts of tabulations, available on a post-2012-election website I can no longer find, showed Tacoma's anti-gay voters were also pro-transit.

Why then Mr. Anderstone's false statement? Since Seattle's so-called progressives seem desperate to deny the ugly reality the white suburbs are becoming hotbeds of reactionary ideology, perhaps that's the reason he chooses not to tell the truth about the Pierce Transit debacle. Perhaps he deems it better to tar Tacoma with an anti-transit brush than to acknowledge the suburbs are now Tea Bag country.

Perhaps too he wants to avoid the related but mostly suppressed story of how PT has done a 180-degree policy shift and is now punishing the pro-transit cities while rewarding the anti-transit suburbs.

The punishment takes the form of keeping intra-city service severely downsized while dramatically increasing suburban service. Though there's been no restoration of intra-city service – nor is any contemplated in the foreseeable future – the anti-transit suburbs have already gotten three new bus routes since the first of this year.

Most of this new service benefits commuters – people who, unlike nearly half of PT's intra-city ridership – have enough money to own and operate motor vehicles. In other words, PT is short-changing the urban poor, who have no means of transport save buses, while pandering to the auto-centric suburbanites, who have cars and trucks galore.

Thus – Mr. Anderstone please take note – are the suburban, Ayn-Rand-minded barbarians mercilessly laying siege to urbanites who despite ideological differences remain nominally united under a Democratic Party banner. One can only wonder if the recent anti-Metro-Transit vote is the beginning of a similar assault on Seattle.

(Disclosure: I am an expatriate New Yorker who has lived in Tacoma twice – 1978-1982 during my years as a working journalist here and again in semi-retirement since 2004. Obviously, I am fond of the so-called “gritty city,” mostly because I find native-born Tacomans to be infinitely more welcoming than native-born Seattlites. The latter in my experience yet retain the closeted bigotry and malicious xenophobia for which they are deservedly notorious – a mindset immortalized in the 1980s by a Seattle t-shirt that read, “If God Is On Our Side, Why Is There A Tacoma?”)

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 10:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey Loren,

This was an editing error on my part. I lived in Tacoma during both campaigns and know both measures passed the City of Tacoma. My brain didn't quite make it to my fingers when writing that one sentence. I asked the editors to change it to "Tacoma-area," but that's still too vague, and I'll ask them to update it to be explicit.

For the record, the 2011 vote passed Tacoma 19,993 to 16,095 (55.40%) and the 2012 vote passed Tacoma 42,365 to 34,732 (54.95%).

You can always drop me an email (contact information at the bottom) if something doesn't look right.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 12:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, Benjamin, obviously I drew the wrong conclusions from the mistake, which means I owe you a public apology for my erroneous speculation – and yes, I am intimately familiar with how an editing error can monkeywrench an otherwise sparkling piece. (Though at the various newspapers I served during my half-century before the masthead, we never said "monkeywrench"; we used a two-word term of art that began with an "f" and ended with a "p.")

Meanwhile I surely wish you or some other member of the present-day local working press would report on Pierce Transit's new pro-suburbanite, anti-urbanite expansion policy. (I've written about it a couple of times in my blog, Outside Agitator's Notebook, internationalizing the story by hanging it on the peg of class warfare, but then my readers are mostly on the East Coast and in Europe.)

That said, let me say again I'm sorry I behaved like a simpleton by reading way too much into a simple mistake. The story is otherwise the best, most accurate piece on Tacoma I've ever seen anywhere – and obviously I've lived here long enough to have a real appreciation of this place and its people. In fact, though it surely sounds like the old cliché, three of my closest friends are Tacomans. And during the last couple of years or so, I've finally begun to think of Tacoma as home -- precisely why I was almost as outraged by the mistake as I am by how the Ayn Rand suburbanites are maliciously denying us bus service we desperately need.

Hence I'll apologize once more for over-reacting. Please pass the crow.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 7:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Your highlight of the divide between north and south Tacoma is a good point, one that is often over-looked when discussing Tacoma. I lived in T-town for 5 years and was very active in local politics. One thing you didn't point out is the anti-democratic system of government in Tacoma with the unelected City Manager (and his minions) running things while the Mayor and Council are mostly powerless. It alienates a lot of folks when they talk to the Mayor or city council and all they get is hand-wringing and empty promises, since all the power lies in an unelected person.

The reason Tacoma politics are so NICE is because most people running are not that partisan. They might have a (D) next to their name, but very, very few of them are actual partisans or have any interest in being partisan. By and large they are content to be policy wonks, technocrats or just be part of the system.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 6:07 a.m. Inappropriate

well-played, Ben. great balance of data and experience.

kenmiller

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Of course, that the Smell by the Bay no longer stinks helps, but the stigma still lingers, as well as the lead, arsenic, and other toxic effluents in the soils. The clean-up will likely also linger for decades.

That district elections might lead to voters knowing and caring less about civic affairs could be a disquieting harbinger for Seattle.

Seattle-like development likely won't reach Tacoma and environs until light rail links the two burgs (and the same for Everett). Yeah, the rents might be lower in Tacoma, but the jobs are fewer and pay less.

On the other hand, with artists, writers, and other creative types being increasingly priced out of Seattle, the prospects for a Tacoma cultural renaissance seems that much less unlikely.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Kind of reminds me of Seattle that I chose to move to in the 1970s. Sigh.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

The North/South End divide is a bit murkier than it seems. My dad would ONLY live in the North End, but not one of our addresses fell into the "white collar", UPS professor demographic. I grew up in Ruston for one thing, and otherwise between Gove and Stevens, N 30th to 45th. With the exception of the dive of a triplex in Ruston, it wasn't shabby, very Leave It To Beaver, but there are South End neighborhoods that are more affluent than that. Just saying. However, it is true that, even among us blue collar families, that "prestige" of living in 98407 meant something. Yes, I've moved away you may say (but I'll be back!), and yet, other than many fewer empty lots filled with blackberry bushes and wild rhubarb and a few more cute boutiques in the Proctor District, it's pretty much the same old North End it's been for the past 45 years. Except for Old Town and the neighborhoods between I Street and Commencement Bay, it's pretty average when it comes to income distribution.

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

OH MY --great article -probably is accurate in some politcal nonsense sort of way!!! OBVIOUSLY you are well suited to NOT live in T-Town. I am really glad all that pretentiousness stays in Seattle!!! YES the cultural distance is FAR between our two cities-- thank GOD-- we have smog-- you have smug-- i will take ours over yours ANY DAY. I chose to move back to Tacoma -- not even to the NorthEnd -actually EastSide (SHocking!!!) over 30 different languages here on the EastSide --a little dangerous- a little out of the lines - but culture rich and real life people LIVING real life-- not all that booJee Seattle nonsense --
There is a GREAT movie about a Tacoma Band - Girl Trouble- i pasted the trailer -- it's starts like this "Where are we going?" NO WHERE- "where is no where?" TACOMA -- two last words-- FUCK YOU & thanks- oh that's three-- but i am from Tacoma - what do you expect
http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=strictly+sacred+girl+trouble&FORM;=VIRE3#view=detail∣=755DA9A8F76A63CE964A755DA9A8F76A63CE964A

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 4:48 p.m. Inappropriate

oops wrong link lol https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLu61lv8g7Y#t=12

Posted Sat, Jun 21, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Enjoyed reading this but was left dissatisfied by the choices of the Parkway and Bertolino's as the two places to capture Tacoma, so to say. They draw similar crowds, and while full of PLU and UPS graduates, don't do the city justice as far as diversity goes. There's a reason you could walk from one to the other.

Posted Sat, Jun 21, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

So how come a Sound Transit "Join the Conversation" flyer just came in the mail that shows 2040 Seattle with a 28% population increase, 2040 Tacoma with a 60% population increase, and 2040 Everett with a 74% population increase? Seattle —only for swells and workforce winners of the subsidized housing lottery, Everett for what is left of Boeing workers, Tacoma for everyone else?

afreeman

Posted Mon, Jun 30, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle has run out of geography. Only place to go is up.
Everett and Tacoma have plenty of square mileage to spread out.

JimBow

Posted Sat, Jun 21, 5:18 p.m. Inappropriate

I grew up in Kitsap, attended PLU, departed to L.A. County on graduation day and then back a decade later (almost a decade ago now) to settle less than a mile from the line (so odd to see so clearly represented on the satellite views in Google map) between Federal Way and N.E. Tacoma (and TPU provides our water), . I've never really "understood" Tacoma. This article helped a lot. Thanks.

tvjames

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