Underappreciated Tacoma deserves a bigger spotlight

Why does Tacoma exist?

He had never been to Tacoma and was visiting from the Midwest for the wedding of mutual friends. At the reception, I offered to answer any questions he might have about the area.

That was his question: “Why does Tacoma exist?”

I told him the short version of the development of the Port of Tacoma and the link with the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883.

His tone reminded me of the embedded attitude that most Midwesterners have toward the Pacific Northwest; that we are barely, if at all, connected with the “main” part of the continent. We are, after all, largely cut off by physical features like mountains and water, we are distant and, in response, most of us native Northwesterners associate the Midwest with Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon or as “fly-over country.”

You may have noticed that when outsiders (or almost everyone it seems) fly here, they say that they are “landing in Seattle.” Sea-Tac Airport, to most travelers, means the Seattle Airport. Tacoma, indeed, barely exists in the minds of most visitors and pilots – and in most conversations and travel magazines.

There are many reasons for this. Seattle has a long history of taking (or claiming) the best and most creative elements of Tacoma. Seattle is of course far larger, and for much of the rest of the United States, if not the world, the only reason to come to the Pacific Northwest.

Tacoma has a humble, if not thoroughly invisible, presence in the national consciousness. When was the last time you saw Tacoma on a national weather map? Or on the national news?

And how many times has something good happened in Tacoma and the national media told the media it was really Seattle? Joint Base Lewis-McChord is routinely reported to be “near Seattle.”

But contrary to the persistent rumors and the bad press, Tacoma does exist.

Our lack of direct rail connection to Sea-Tac, and the rest of the country, hurts us and keeps us invisible. Even with air travel, as our politicians knew back in 1883, a direct link to the rest of the country is essential.

Our politicians and regional agencies are good at serving their own agendas, or even doing nothing. I have noticed that they can piddle around until the funding and opportunity are gone. And often they need to be shamed into doing the right thing.

If visitors from the many largely indistinguishable and interchangeable Midwestern cities wonder why, or even if, Tacoma exists, perhaps it’s time to make ourselves, or at least our presence, known.

Tacoma is not “The South Sound”; Tacoma is a defined place with a distinct (and fascinating) history.

Perhaps my visitor’s question was not so much “Why does Tacoma exist?” but “Why does Tacoma matter?”

It might not be immediately apparent, but Tacoma has many unique landmarks, views and more than its share of eccentric characters. I have always thought that Tacoma was Washington’s best-kept secret, and perhaps it is, but it is also certainly a great place to live, work and explore.

Tacoma is also, as my friend Art Chantry puts it, the center of the (un)known universe; UFOs were first sighted here, many New Age celebrities had roots here and even rock and roll had some very early surges here (personally I think if “Louie, Louie” can’t be our state song, it should at least be Tacoma’s civic anthem).

But Tacoma, like every city around the country, is primed for future growth, and as our civic leaders knew more than a century ago, a direct, efficient and affordable link to the rest of the country is the foundation of steady and consistent growth and prosperity.

Our current politicians and agencies are making decisions today that will define the Tacoma of tomorrow. Let’s shame them into putting aside the admittedly messy politics and short-term thinking and urge them to work toward a Tacoma to be proud of a generation or two, or three or four from now.