Tacoma, Washington: Just the Right Combination of Glitz and Grit

In Tacoma, History and Innovation Blend Seamlessly

Come to Tacoma for beautiful historic landmarks standing right beside newly constructed museums and restaurants. Feel free to wear your best dress or your favorite pair of blue jeans. This city doesn’t ask anyone to put on any airs.

As anybody who has lived in the Puget Sound Basin will attest, Tacoma has a bit of a reputation around these parts. Many see it as the Gotham City of the Pacific Northwest. In that aspect, the city has attained a kind of mythical status, a steam-painted town in a black and white movie that will never be colorized.

Some of this reputation was earned in the city’s past. This place was was built by the blistered hands of longshoreman, fishermen, and the men of the train yard. Later, particularly in the 80s and 90s, the city became synonymous with gang violence.

Those days are gone, though, and downtown Tacoma is a thriving place full of culture and energy.

The rebirth initiated by the construction of the University of Washington, Tacoma’s campus has brought all kinds of worthwhile sites to this city. Yet, underneath these renovations, Tacoma still maintains its gritty character. Amidst the museums and theaters and galleries, there is also the remnant of the industrial heart of this city, still beating, and still beautiful in its rusted, corrugated way.

The City’s Got Soul

This is the kind of city that I appreciate. It’s got its best Sunday dress on, but there’s a bit of dirt underneath those fingernails to show that this place still has a soul. Its daddy didn’t put it through art school. No, it had to work nights at the packing yard to get through.

Stand at the corner of Market and South 11th and you’ll see art murals painted on building fronts, Mount Rainier, and the cranes and boats of a working waterfront, all in one sweep of the eye. Tacoma probably wouldn’t appear in a Beatles song, but it could be the star of a Tom Waits album. Springsteen would appreciate the heart of this place, too, I think.

For all its new culture and energy, Tacoma still is not a city that puts on airs. You can sit in bar and meet real human beings. Far as I’m concerned, it’s got the perfect balance of glamour and grit.

The City’s Better than just Pretty and Nice—It’s Straight Up Poetic

I love this city, and this post comes from the ragged guts of my poetic sensibility, I know. I can’t help it. But there’s a more businesslike introduction to Tacoma, as well, that I wrote for the fantastic folks of Travelicious.

That introduction catalogs all the sites for you potential tourists. It shows you how you can see the Tacoma Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Chihuly Bride of Glass, and the Washington State History Museum all in one day, entirely on foot. The trip would also have you around the shops, restaurants, and taverns that surround the University of Washington, Tacoma campus.

Follow the link below, adventurer, and see what Tacoma has to offer. All poetic sentimentality aside, this is a great city to visit for a day, a weekend, or longer.

Tacoma, Washington: A City Reborn

First Time Elephant Ears

The crew of Portlanders sitting next to me in the bleachers titters at the hokeyness of their first small-town rodeo. Then the bull rages out of the gate in a cyclone of horns and hooves, throws its rider on the second buck and kicks the grounded man square in the chest. The crew grows quiet.

Down in the arena a rodeo clown distracts the beast as attendants rush the shaken competitor to safety. “Damn,” one of the Portlanders finally whispers, to herself as much as to anyone else, “that was intense.” Her companions nod in agreement.

She’s right, of course. It was more intense than I expected it would be, having never been to a rodeo before. That’s not what brought me to Tillamook, though. Not entirely. For me, the attraction was more subtle than that, and perhaps more serious. In a way, it was more about the spectators than about the spectacle.

A person can spend only so many days staring into computer screens before the whole world starts to feel like one dimly lit, claustrophobic little box. That was how I’d been living for months, and it had become downright depressing. Constant connectivity had me feeling completely disconnected. Somewhere along the line, I found myself longing for the kind of small-town community interaction that I’d grown up with, the kind that seemed to have gone extinct over the last twenty years.

So, at 5:30 on a June morning, I started the 150-mile drive south to Tillamook, Oregon. I didn’t need to leave that early for the rodeo, but the June Dairy Parade started at 10:30, and I had no intention of missing it. It was the thing that had caught my eye more than the rodeo itself. In its 59th year, the parade represented a touchstone to the past and the kind of Americana that my flabby, office-cubicle spirit sorely needed.

I got there early and found the town still sleeping, empty foldout chairs lining the sidewalks along the parade route. I parked my car on a backstreet and headed towards the center of town where I found the Coliseum movie theater’s marquis looking like a beacon shining from the shores of the 1950s, calling me back to a time I never experienced and yet often miss. All of downtown Tillamook, really, looks like a place preserved in amber.

A gentleman in good blue jeans and a Vietnam veteran’s hat talked to me for a good five minutes about where to get breakfast and about some of the town’s latest news. He made it clear he was in no hurry at all. And why should he be on a summer Saturday?

Most of the seats were filled at the Dutch Mill Café when I walked inside. People flowed in and out of the door as I sat drinking coffee. Some of them ordered food. Others just stopped for a few minutes to talk about the parade or about their farms. They all seemed to know each other’s names. My eggs over-medium were perfect.

Spectators started filling the streets about half an hour before the parade. I finished my coffee and went out to join them. The event was delayed because a car that had been left in the middle of the route had to be towed. Signs had been posted for multiple nights warning drivers about leaving their cars, one of the organizers told me with a shake of her head.

Nobody seemed to mind the delay. The weather was perfect, and people just milled around talking and laughing. When it finally did get rolling, it was even better than I could have imagined.

Fire trucks and convertible cars. Synchronized dancers and bands playing on hay bales stacked atop flatbed truck trailers. The theme was “An Udder Day in Paradise,” and the floats were decorated accordingly, often with hilarious results. Kids scrambled amongst each other to gather the candy and cheese packets thrown out to them by the handful. I managed to snatch up a couple pieces from the frenzy and still get my arm back intact.

Parade participants called out to friends and family who clapped and cheered them on in return. I turned to a woman I’d previously exchanged pleasantries with and said, “Wow, it’s hard to find stuff like this, these days.”

“Well,” she said, “Tillamook is about fifty years behind the times.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

She thinks a moment before laughing. “Well, I guess it’s a bit of both.”

She knew better than me, of course. It was her town, and I was just a visitor. Nothing is perfect. Stare too long at paradise and you will begin to see the flaws. But the experience was exactly what I’d been needing, and I left the parade feeling a warm buzz.

With a couple hours before the rodeo I went to the Blue Heron French Cheese Company because I liked the look of the building. Kids squealed nervously as they fed goats and mules by hand in the yard while, inside, two musicians entertained wine tasters with a soulful rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”

With a stomach full of fancy cheeses I went to the Tillamook Air Museum and checked out Aero Spacelines’ Mini-Guppy which, contrary to its name, is absolutely enormous.

Standing behind the cockpit and looking out through the windows of the plane built in 1949, I absorbed that singular feeling that comes from being immersed in the past. What’s the proper name for that sensation?

It’s a kind of sublimity, nostalgia mingled with trepidation, the feeling of being planted firmly in the ground, the sensation of temporal roots growing from the bottom of our feet and anchoring deep into something vaster than we can comprehend. It’s the comfort of realizing we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and it’s the fear of becoming lost and forgotten in the immensity of that boundless continuum, all of it exhilarating in its silent, subtle way.

I arrived at rodeo just before the start of events and found a seat in the bleachers. Before things kicked off I watched a little girl, maybe five-years-old, take her first, tentative bite of an elephant ear. Her eyes lit up like pinball machines when it hit her mouth, and her family broke up laughing.

The competitors paced around each other in the chutes, eyes focused upon their ropes, saddles, and horses, triple- and quadruple-checking everything before it was their turn to perform. They paid for a slot in the competition, money slapped down for a chance to win glory and prizes.

By the time the crew of Portlanders climbed into the stands beside me, I’d already found everything I’d gone to Tillamook to find. The world is much wider than a computer screen, and runs a whole hell of a lot deeper. The places we came from are never as far away as they seem. And those rumors of the death of the quaintness of small-town America? Well, they’ve been greatly exaggerated.

The Portlanders grow quiet as the next rider hustles up to try his luck. I hold my breath in anticipation right along with them. I might have come for something different, but dudes mounting monstrous, pissed-off bulls just to see how long they can last before being flung to the ground and possibly kicked in the chest? Yea, that’s pretty cool, too.

Exploring the mighty Pacific Northwest