The truth about Tacoma: 5 things you might not know

In 1909, this Tacoma promotion was displayed at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Credit: Tacoma Public Library


'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.

2. That divide? It’s not just socioeconomic; it’s cultural and political too.

As far as politics go, Tacoma is a one-party town. In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a lopsided margin of 67 percent to 30 percent. While that’s nowhere near the Seattle split (83 percent to 14 percent), it’s enough to ensure that there’s no foothold for Republicans. They can win County Council races outside of the city, and an occasional non-partisan battle, but the GOP is effectively shut out of most contests

In my recent coverage of Seattle, I argued that partisanship is oftentimes a poor proxy for ideology. This is even truer in Tacoma than King County. Look at social issue votes, particularly ones like same-sex marriage where class and education are nearly as important as political partisanship.

The top map below shows results from the 2012 Presidential election; on the bottom map are the results for Referendum 74, which affirmed marriage rights for same-sex couples. Dark blue areas in the top map show Obama support; on the bottom map, dark blue represents support for same-sex marriage.


The map on the left shows Obama vs. Romney (blue vs. red) results. The righthand map shows Referendum 74 Approved vs. Rejected (blue vs. red). Source: Precinct results, 2012 General Election, Pierce County Auditor

As you can see, there’s a lot more red on the bottom (same-sex marriage) map. That’s because there’s a lot more same-sex opponents in Tacoma than there are Republicans: Mitt Romney received 30 percent of Tacoma’s vote, but 42 percent of voters rejected gay marriage.

Now take a look at this map below, which compares Obama’s performance to Referendum 74’s. The darker the red, the more Obama outperformed R-74. There are also some blue precincts, where same-sex marriage actually outperformed the Democratic ticket.

map of Tacoma
Referendum 74 vs. Barack Obama: Red precincts delivered stronger
margins to Obama; blue precincts delivered stronger margins to same-sex marriage.

Notice the pattern? In the relatively affluent North End, support for same-sex marriage was nearly at parity with support for Obama. However, in the more working class South and East there was considerable dissent among Democratic voters on the issue. In one East Tacoma precinct, Obama won by 44 percentage points, while same-sex marriage lost by 12. At least 39 percent of Obama voters in that precinct did not vote for same-sex marriage!

Tacoma may be staunchly Democratic, but it is not politically homogenous. Just as the city is divided economically, so it is also divided along cultural lines. North of Sixth Avenue, affluent liberals emphasize social justice and a secular vision of liberalism. South of Sixth Avenue, the Dem base – more racially diverse, churched and economically disadvantaged  – tilts left on social welfare issues, and displays some big ambivalence on cultural issues.
 

3. Tacoma is politically polite … usually.

Like many cities, Tacoma has a bit of a checkered political past. In 1951, a state legislative committee found “widespread vice and official corruption.” The resulting reforms cleaned up Tacoma politics significantly, but isolated events continued to foster citizen distrust. In 1986, the long-term County Auditor Dick Greco was successfully prosecuted for accepting kickbacks. In 2003, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife in a murder-suicide. The ensuing revelations spurred the resignation of the City Manager and an FBI probe that ensnared officials in the Tacoma Police Department, local government and the business community. Ten years later, the Brame incident still echoes politically, and institutional trust remains tenuous. 

Considering that tenuous trust, it’s truly impressive how pleasant Tacoma civic life is. Nowadays, political races are remarkably cordial. Negative campaigns are uncommon. Municipal races are often non-competitive or attract only token opposition. Last year, incumbent Mayor Marilyn Strickland ran unopposed despite the fact that voters, in the same election and by a resounding margin, defeated Proposition 1, an emergency road repair levy, which had been advanced by Strickland and other elected officials. Dissatisfaction in Tacoma is common, but anger is relatively unusual, and politically organized anger downright rare. In small-city politics, familiarity can breed contempt, but it also keeps things relatively genial.

Tacoma’s erstwhile political machine, which used to thrive in union-heavy South Tacoma, has also largely been dismantled. The city has had districted elections for a long time, but it doesn’t exhibit any symptoms of parochial ward politics. In fact, most voters probably couldn’t identify their City Council district if they tried. Other than occasional kerfuffles over underserved areas, such as with the recent link light rail expansion vote, Tacoma’s political conflicts rarely seem like zero-sum resource fights.

This is not to say that Tacomans are politically content. In addition to the heavy rejection of the recent road repair measure, the Tacoma metro area recently saw the failure of two transit measures, although the city itself approved both by modest margins. Tacomans are certainly dissatisfied with the state of local infrastructure (especially roads), but they aren’t champing at the bit to levy additional taxes as a way to fix the problem. This feeling has occasionally extended to public servants. Long-brewing dissatisfaction with the School Board relegated one then-incumbent school board member to fourth-place in the 2009 Primary election. That’s the sort of disappointing finish that usually follows an indictment.

But Tacoma politics are generally polite; incumbents rarely break a sweat. There are several possible interpretations for this surprising friendliness. One is that Tacoma is attitudinally gentrifying toward the sort of hyper-dialectical “Seattle process,” deferring change until we achieve either universal satisfaction or universal exhaustion. Another interpretation is that Tacomans don’t mind a little grit. In fact, when it comes to infrastructure, a little dissatisfaction is perfectly fine. 

This is probably a little fanciful, but it’s also true: Tacomans don’t like potholes, but they also resent the implication that their city requires a massive overhaul. Locals don’t want Tacoma to be a world-class urban utopia if “world-class urban utopia” looks anything like South Lake Union. This attitude means the city’s political class gets treated with a bit of deference. Politicians aren’t expected to exude focus group-tested gloss. They’re expected to be approachable and grounded. In a town that struggles with institutional trust, personal trust is a valuable and necessary commodity. That lends Tacoma politics a distinctly small-city feel.

4. Tacoma has a branding problem.

When you move to a bigger city, cocktail chatter about your hometown can be awkward. This is especially true for a Tacoman in Seattle. It’s not that Seattleites have an effete, popped-monocle attitude toward the City of Destiny. By and large, they really don’t.  Most Seattleites have moved beyond the early-90’s stereotype of Tacoma as crime-choked and chip-shouldered. They know about the museums, the redevelopment of downtown and Sixth Avenue and the waterfront. In fact, the “enlightened” view of Tacoma in Seattle is more affectionate than derisive.

But there remains a lingering sense that Tacoma is a place no one would choose. Tacoma doesn’t rank toward the top of any objective measures. Sure, we’ve been called America’s most sexually healthy city, its gayest, and, for those who appreciate a little adversity, its most stressed. But a city of 200,000 will inevitably rack up a few of these superlatives over the years.

The other empirics are more mixed: Tacoma is relatively affordable, but not exceptionally so. Our business climate is decent, but operating costs, especially licensing fees, aren’t that low. Tacoma is reasonably walkable and pretty diverse. At Tacoma’s best, it is regionally competitive on the objective metrics. Regionally competitive is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s not much to sell a city on. Tacoma knows this, and has struggled to differentiate itself.

The city has assets, some tangible and others less so: An enviable waterfront with, arguably, more potential than any other in the region; a Downtown that boasts a unique blend of vintage buildings and shiny new museums; civic and cultural communities that are inclusive and enthusiastic, without the nasty tendency to eat their own; a cooperative small business climate.

Articulating these assets is easy. Turning them into a cohesive municipal identity is where the city has stumbled over the years. If Tacoma wants to shake its second-city branding doldrums, it needs a cohesive identity. It needs a civic vision.

5. Tacoma has a strong sense of self.

So far, I’ve painted a pretty dissonant picture of my hometown. It’s a city of stark contrasts in income and political ideology. A city proud of its ongoing renaissance, but wary of becoming polished beyond recognition. A city whose regional branding is a mess, but one that embraces that very messiness.

I’m an analyst by trade, but when spreadsheets and numbers fail, sometimes the best path to insight is a few drinks and a long walk. So, in that spirit, I started my Friday night at the venerable Parkway Tavern, a great place to meet both Tacoma’s movers and shakers, and everyone you went to high school with. From there, I took a boozy walk along Sixth Avenue, and wound up at Bertolino Bros., Tacoma’s 24-hour sit-down coffee shop.

Bertolino’s is one of the best places to experience a microcosm of Tacoma. At 11pm, it’s a mix of students, shift workers, laborers, white collar workers with sleeping problems and twenty-somethings. I’d hoped that hanging out there would provide an epiphany, some sort of pure, distilled “essence of Tacoma” that’s eluded the city’s marketers and boosters.

Two hours in, and with a lower blood-alcohol level, I realized that trying to reduce Tacoma to one “essence” is absurd. What defines a city is its lived feeling; or, in the case of Tacoma, perhaps its lived-in feeling. After a year in Seattle, I have certainly found comfortable local joints with eclectic casts of characters. I haven’t, however, found any place that so effectively brings together all cross-sections of the population the way that many Tacoma institutions do.

Tacoma may have a branding problem, but it doesn’t have a character problem. The city has a strong sense of itself: a proud Second City, divided but not balkanized, gritty but hospitable, off-kilter without pretense. It’s a lived-in, comfortable place brimming with nuance and quirks unlike any other in Puget Sound.

That profile may be a little too wordy for pithy cocktail chatter or advertising brochures, but it makes for an interesting, distinct community, one that continues to fascinate, even for those of us who have called Tacoma our hometown for a lifetime.       

Photo of Ruston Way by Dan Hershman/Flickr.

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