Pioneers flooding to the area from “back East” some 150 years ago would likely find it odd that they were transported to the modern day to find Seattle is the dominant city in the region and not the “City of Destiny.”
Tacoma was well established as a town on the move while Seattleites were living in tents and logging the woods overlooking Elliott Bay.
The city’s future as “the city” of the region was all but assured with the coming of the transcontinental railroad to Tacoma’s waterfront. But fate and politics intervened. Seattle boomed. Tacoma lumbered.
Tacoma is now largely overshadowed by its neighbor when it comes to its image around the world. Few local folks can describe their hometown to outsiders without saying “just south of Seattle.” This despite having a host of nationally ranked museums and car collections, a bustling shipping industry and landmark parks. Life is what it is.
But facts don’t have to make their way into the local psyche. Just because people around the world might think of us as a little sibling of Seattle, we don’t have to live that nickname. We can define ourselves as we see us, not as others do.
But that takes a vision, something Tacoma isn’t particularly good at crafting. Decades of trying to define and then redefine the city has created a hodgepodge of messages and half-completed efforts. Remember the “Tacoma Renaissance,” which promoted downtown as a “24-hour” community while downtown residents complained about the nightclub noise? And then there was “America’s No. 1 Wired City,” which came at a time when other cities were already wireless.
Ask the city’s movers and shakers about what their visions of Tacoma are, and those dreams of the city’s future will vary with each person. But that isn’t necessarily bad. Some folks will say Tacoma is “livable.” Others will say “cultural.” Others will say “diverse.” And yet others will say “gritty.”
Tacoma is all those and yet not exclusively any of those. And it never will be. It is a complex city. The trick now is to massage those complexities into a singular narrative of what Tacoma is to present that “Tacoma” to the world.
University of Washington-Tacoma’s Urban Studies Department hosted the fifth annual urban branding forum on Feb. 21 to aid that effort by gathering community members to help define Tacoma through its past, present and future.
Without a vision of what Tacoma should be, it will only create a future of lost opportunities and muddled identities that will continue to translate into Tacoma being a sibling of its neighbor to the north.
The above opinion represents the view of Tacoma Weekly's editorial board.