Sunday, January 29, 2012

Big Hearts in Tacoma

In 1988, while working with the Washington State Centennial Commission on international participation in the state’s 100thbirthday celebration, I found myself in a van heading out of Tacoma with three Sumo performers and the Vice-President of the Japan Sumo Association.

The non-profit I worked for was trying to lure the Sumo Association to the state for a tournament and we were in Tacoma looking at the Tacoma Dome as a possible venue. After the tour, there was a civic lunch and an exchange of gifts.

During the lunch, I noticed that the performers spent a fair amount of time looking out over the tide flats at the paper mill, the Asarco Smelter and all the other industrial activity that then filled up the space where the Puyallup River met Commencement Bay. I would later learn that to them, it was a familiar sight. Many Sumo performers come from rural communities in the north where logging and paper mills are familiar sights and they often appreciate the industrial grit of a city more than its glitter.

As we merged onto I-5, one of them, who had not spoken a word on the trip, put his enormous fist to his chest and declared:

“Tacoma people. Big heart.”

Actually, he was more right than he knew. The individuals who inhabited that place for thousands of years, the Puyallup people, to whom the tide flats were a front porch, were known among other tribes for their hospitality and generosity. An early history of Tacoma has it that a translation of the name “Puyallup” meant “add more.” The Puyallups were known to share generously the many benefits of living where they were. They had a spring just to the west of today’s Murray Morgan bridge that was known by native travelers throughout Puget Sound. Its Puyallup word translated to “the best tasting water.”

After many centuries, settlers began coming to the south sound first to Nisqually in the 1830s where the Hudson’s Bay Company established a settlement with the hope of keeping the southern boundary of their British interests at the Columbia River. Later Steillicoom was founded by American interests and became the safe place settlers came to when the 1855 conflicts between several tribes and settlers got bloody. It was where Leschi, the great Nisqually chief was tried and hanged. Tacoma pursued its now familiar industrial strategies right at its beginnings – first a sawmill, then coal, timber and then the Northern Pacific’s historic decision to locate the western terminus of the transcontinental railway on the deep waters of Commencement Bay.  

The cultural strains between settler and native were evident right away. Herbert Hunt’s 1916 history, “Tacoma, Its History and Its Builders” describes the Puyallup practice of wrapping their dead in cedar bark that was then tightly tied with cedar rope. This package was then placed in the limbs of trees growing on a spit of land not far from where today’s Interurban Bridge crosses the Puyallup River. They were then left, the Puyallups only caring for the spirit, to coyotes, wolves and birds, who strewed the ground with bones and torn cedar. The Puyallup name for the place was “Sblook” and they called the river there“missing the nose.” Mostly, the spring floods would disperse what had fallen from the trees.

Flats in 1953
Tacoma Library
There is a strange parallel between the early Puyallup tribe's apparent indifference to a lifeless body and the early industrial society’s view in Tacoma that the best thing to do with what is used up is to throw it in the water or let it sink into the ground. The flats had become, at the peak of Tacoma’s industrial enterprise, a smoking, stinking, enveloping thing. Municipal and industrial garbage was burning in several places in the estuary. A coal gasification plant stripped BTUs from coal in a process that produced a gelatinous toxic goo that was then heaped in piles and mixed with ash and other materials for fill.

The Smelter in 1953
Tacoma Library
Around the turn of the century, 22 saw mills were working around Commencement Bay and the waterways were crowded with floating logs. The big Simpson paper plant began operating in the late twenties, its Kraft Process digesters producing the aroma part of the old Tacoma narrative. Grain sheds and sawmills spread along Rustin Way heading west until the Tacoma Smelter came into view, its nearly 600 foot tall stack the dominant feature of the northwest side of the Bay. In operation since the 1890s, it first made lead and then turned more to copper, operating until 1992. It shoved the slag residue from its smelting processes into the bay for nearly a 100 years, creating land forms reused by the Tacoma Yacht Club today for moorage.

Hollywood on the Tideflats
Tacoma Library
The Great Depression saw people began to creep out onto the flats to live. Surrounded by the garbage dump, Carsten’s meatpacking house at 1623 “J” and the gas plant, the shacks, made of reclaimed wood, became home to between 1500 to 3000 people and was as a tough a place to grow up as there could be. The City of Tacoma declared the area a public nuisance, pulled the buildings down and burned them in 1952.

The stretch of waterway from the Puyallup "Sblook" to the amazing Point Defiance Park runs along a shoreline a little more than six miles and is the focus of a multi-generational effort to reclaim it as the centerpiece of this terrific and resilient city.

The ability to even conceive of such a project comes from the ultimate cooperation of the Puyallups and the settlers. In the 1980s, a land settlement with them removed the question of who owns what and opened the doors to ideas and money.

Think of the waterfront as five different pieces, all in different stages of readiness to support activities designed to enrich the lives of people. They share common sets of physical challenges – a railroad runs all along the shoreline, a freeway cuts along the downtown connection to the water for nearly half the distance of the shoreline and always the challenge of making safe some remarkably dirty places.

The first section extends from just above the City Waterway, now named after Thea Foss, the woman who started one of the great maritime companies in the region, a rectangle of water running along Dock Street and passing in front of the Museum of Glass, the lovely tribute to the art of Dale Chihuly and the Northwest glass artists he inspired. This section provides a passage over the freeway and the railroad, the crossing lined with the lovely creatures invented by a Tacoma son, to an esplanade along the waterway where the scheme creates a new node of housing along the water. The cost of clean up here was approximately $100 million.

The second part is the Schuster Parkway section that starts at the west end of downtown and confronts elevated roadways, a grain terminal, two large Marine Administration (more in a later post) ships moored along the way.  While clumsy and difficult, this section has wonderful walking connections through a ravine to the uplands in Tacoma’s lovely North end. It is politically and physically challenging and remains a broken link in the ribbon of park along the water.

The gateway to the third section is the new Chinese Reconciliation Park that opened late last year as a recognition of the cold, calculated expulsion of 600 immigrant Chinese in 1885. This section, running for 1.5 miles, was the first of Tacoma’s industrial districts and was clogged with grain warehouses, sawmills, chemical plants, meatpacking and took up nearly all of the water access.
As those businesses closed, were abandoned and some destroyed by fire, the city gradually bought up the land. By the 1970s, driven by the state’s new shorelines law and armed with its ownership, the city was talking with its citizens about what should happen and how. By 1981 there was a plan and in 1984 a reality that merges a destination restaurant district with the pathways necessary to burn off all the calories you might take on there. The success of this district, known as Old Town, sparked considerable energy from civic minded Tacomans. In 1988, the City Club of Tacoma published a proposal calling for a Dome to Point Defiance linear park that would be competitive with the great waterfronts of the world. They wanted a museum at its heart though they had no idea that four years later the President of the University of Puget Sound and Dale Chihuly started talking about this really cool idea for one.

The fourth part, the land sitting in the curious little municipality of Rustin, was home to the Tacoma Smelter. It began in 1896 and was operated by Asarco between 1905 and 1992.  The clean up there was an even greater challenge, especially for its proposed uses – housing, shopping, theaters, a hotel. 
Developers of such places need to have the ability to see beyond the pollution in front of them to the water and the landforms beyond, the patience to clean it up, a good relationship with their financial people and be a little bit crazy.  Mike Cohen and his son, Loren, have those characteristics and have finished several new houses on the uplands and started the first two buildings down below, one a 44 unit condo and the other a larger rental building. The Puyallup word for the Point Rustin geography is “sheltered place,” where a canoe could get out of the wind and the whitecaps. Their land along the water will form the link to the fifth part of the waterfront, Point Defiance.  

The park is a powerful connection back to the American entrance in the 19th century version of the space race in our time, only this race would tell who who would become the great power in the Pacific.  Captain Charles Wilkes saw this point of land in 1841 as a great military asset, lording over the navigation routes in Puget Sound. He had a much better knack for names than Vancouver did, although Vancouver beat Wilkes to this spot by 50 years. Vancouver was mostly names of people -- Rainier, Puget, Hood -- Wilkes was action or commentary -- Port Defiance, Commencement Bay, Gig Harbor. It became a federal reservation until it was released to Tacoma as a park by President Cleveland in 1888, the year before statehood. It is also a connection to a network of trails and roads reminiscent of Seattle’s Discovery Park but with better water access. Discovery Park's Zoo draws two million people a year.

In addition to the physical issues of development, there are economic issues. At both ends – at the Thea Foss waterway and down to the Cohens' Point Rustin -- the housing market creates a hard slog through a slow absorption rate. The Esplanade Condos had sold just ten of its 162 units by 2009 and its bank foreclosed on the $75 million project. On Saturday, January 28th, 2012, a banner exclaimed that 50% were now sold. Rentals or combinations of rental and condo appear to be doing better, as at Thea’s Landing, though it still is a buyer’s market.

Another economic issue is that much of the clean up and much of the infrastructure has been borne by the public. Few municipalities have shown the guts that Tacoma showed in stepping up to the costs of clean up at Thea Foss Waterway. There is a well-trod route of lawsuits, delays and settlements, but the city’s leadership opted for the a path featuring the longer term and its citizens will ultimately benefit from their belief that clean up is more than about money.  Half the money for clean up at Thea Foss came from an increase in surface water management rates.

The Museum of Glass is largely private funding, perhaps $60 million for the structure, a donation of $9 million in art from Chihuly and $11 million for parking by the city. Other developments along the route are a similar mix of public and private funds.  The ultimate financial total will be impressive, costing more money and taking far more time than the best estimates and carrying enough risk to keep this town's big heart beating very fast for a long time.


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