The icons that are the essence of Tacoma are slipping away

December 16, 2012 

Many unlikely characters and architectural wonders have passed through Tacoma.

Darren McGavin (star of “The Christmas Story”), Buck Owens, Richard Brautigan, Neko Case, Curt Cobain and even Tom Waits have called Tacoma home.

Did you know that Whitworth College (currently in Spokane) originated in Tacoma? Or that the Mars candy company (and the world famous Milky Way candy bar) started here? And what would the world be without Almond Roca?

Yes, it all started here in Tacoma.

I love Tacoma for its eccentricities and shadows, its vistas and historical marvels.

Some Tacoma neighborhoods remind me of Bedford Falls (from “It’s a Wonderful Life”), while others remind me of “Blade Runner,” “Mad Max” or even “The Stepford Wives.”

I particularly like the random, unique places (with clientele as memorable as their history or design) that have emerged like mushrooms in the neglected corners of our city. The Java Jive, a Rastafarian vegan cafe and the Grand Cinema all make their own statement of who and what Tacoma is and has been.

But what baffles me about Tacoma is our resolute march towards sameness – our determination to demolish, bury or pave over every unique, odd and marvelous attribute of Tacoma’s character and history.

Tacoma’s uniqueness surges and shines through. The Chinese tunnels, the underground Turkish baths downtown, the glorious stone Pierce County Courthouse (demolished in 1959), the original Goddess of Commerce statue, the “Student Prince” Heidelberg Beer frieze and the surreal icons from Never Never Land – mementoes of Tacoma’s identity – have disappeared, been scrapped or locked away in some anonymous storage site like treasures from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Most cities honor their eccentricities and even offer tours of their exotic sites, architecture and hidden catacombs. Maybe it’s our “City of Destiny” persona we feel compelled to live up to, but we forget, in our haste to pave and obliterate, that our destiny is in our past as much as our future.

We have our irreplaceable and spectacular treasures, from the Casablanca Apartments, to the restored Elks building on Broadway, the Point Defiance Pagoda and the remarkable 1910 stable/public works building (at South 23rd and C streets), the colored glass-blocked sidewalks on some downtown sidewalks, among many others, but they are fragile and face an uncertain future.

Whether it is the latest trend in urban renewal or natural catastrophe (like the storm that destroyed the original Narrows Bridge), our buildings are vulnerable to the whims of nature, fashion and finance. Tacoma needs something like a self-guided tour map of what is, or used to be, on the corners we hurry by and rarely notice.

Who knew, for example, that Tacoma’s first public library was nowhere near downtown?

Tacoma is packed with resources any other city would be proud of. Who even remembers the Bayside Trail? With majestic views of the bay, the port and Mount Rainier, and immediately accessible to the downtown core, this woodsy trail could be a destination-worthy central city park. But it has been fenced off for years – if not decades.

Any other city would drool at the prospect of a series of waterfront parks over 10 miles long. What does Tacoma do?

It’s all too obvious when you drive through Schuster Parkway; fabulous vistas are punctuated by industrial wastelands.

If we don’t pay attention to the gems among us, when we aren’t looking, the Java Jive, the Pythian Temple and Old City Hall could be the next blank space in Tacoma’s history, the next Luzon that doesn’t even leave a shadow.

M. “Morf” Morford of Tacoma is a former reader columnist. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.

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