'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:
- 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.)
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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