There is no better place to begin the ten-stop love tour of Tacoma’s East Side than Antojo’s, and no better guide than Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell.
“What?” I hear fans of Fergie’s and other long-time restaurants demanding. “Does perseverance not count? Does history mean nothing? Why pick a new joint?”
Of course long-term investment, often against the odds of declining safety, increasing poverty and changing demographics, matters. Those establishments anchored the proud working-class neighborhoods as gangs and drugs battered them. That Tacoma tenacity earned enduring loyalty to businesses, families, even institutions from police to schools to the Tacoma Housing Authority. And it made that element of the East Side the first thing we love.
1.) ♥ The fabric of the East Side is as tough as denim, or those plaid school uniforms. It has always topped the list of what we love about the East Side.
2.) ♥ Meanwhile, Antojo’s is evidence of a new economic energy that’s drawing in customers from beyond the border of Pacific Avenue. Campbell loves the authentic Mexican food and the ambiance that can put Tacoma Power linemen next to a mariachi band waiting in line to order the enchimal special. Success in that section of the little strip mall at East 38th Street and McKinley Avenue has led to the redevelopment of the other two into a slick retro burger joint, with a coffee bar, frozen yogurt and TVs that got a workout during the World Cup. Just down McKinley Avenue, Top of Tacoma continues to draw a hipper clientele to an energized evening-into-night life.
3.) ♥ ”We’re starting to see the economic stability for businesses to not just survive, but thrive,” Campbell said.
That’s happening even in the most unlikely places – old schools and, with the right buyer, a police station.
When Tacoma Public Schools sold the decommissioned Rogers Elementary School to a church that intended to use it for homeless services, the neighbors objected. They and the church resorted to civil discourse. The church saved the building by putting a roof on it, and dropped what it conceded were good plans in the wrong place. A Bellevue woman has bought Rogers and intends to develop it into a boarding school, specializing in immersion courses in American culture and language for older students.
The plan fits the zoning and will bring affluent students to enjoy the view, and spend money in the neighborhood. As metal thieves have stripped most everything of value from the building, the project also will create reconstruction jobs.
4.) ♥ Campbell sees more of that sprouting up along Pacific Avenue if Pierce County demolishes the old Puget Sound Hospital and builds consolidated county offices on the site. It’ll be a huge economic engine, from construction through occupancy, even for the east side of Pacific.
“That could be 1,000 living-wage jobs,” he said.
5.) ♥ Should some of the people with those jobs want to live close to work, East Side still has spaces for new homes, and old homes ripe for revival.
Young families are buying homes left empty by foreclosure. Developers are building on large tracts and picking up smaller pockets of land.
“On the East Side, we have in the neighborhood of 500 new homes,” Campbell noted. “A lot of private developers are seeing the East Side as the place to build. It has spectacular views, access and a great built environment.”
6.) ♥ And, of course, there is the big miracle that is the new Salishan. Tacoma Housing Authority first built the partnerships to cut crime and build a sense of community in the old, worn-out Salishan. Then, when it won the federal Hope VI funds to redevelop it, it included privately owned homes in the mix. The project attracted a Community Health Care clinic and programs for low-income families to learn and earn their way to independence.
Tacoma Housing Authority invited police to help develop an anti-crime culture backed up by the threat of eviction. Crime rates throughout the East Side have dropped, Campbell said. So has gang tagging.
The housing authority partnered with schools and parks to include whole families in recreation and education. It is one of the agencies involved in developing a new community center near Salishan and First Creek Middle School. Metro Parks Tacoma hopes to build a resource equivalent to South Tacoma’s STAR Center, tailored to the East Side.
7.) ♥ Metro Parks has tied some of the development of Swan Creek Park to Salishan with the rebirth of one of Tacoma’s oldest, and most diverse, community gardens.
Meanwhile, it’s giving Facebook users the chance to gloat over claims that Seattle has plans for the nation’s first food forest. Let the nyah nyahs begin. Volunteers are already installing Swan Creek’s food forest.
It’s not too far from the city’s first mountain bike trail, a regional resource built, in large part by volunteers, including veterans.
8.) ♥ Metro Parks has sorted the confusion out of two of its most prominent properties on McKinley Hill. Until March, one was named McKinley Park, the other, McKinley Playfield. For decades, it didn’t matter much, because McKinley Park, stretching down the hill to Interstate 5, was a crime-rich wasteland. Then residents, led by Larry Scheidt and his family, set up Friends of McKinley Park and set about reclaiming it. Its steep trails and meadows are so well used, that occasionally people call for help from first responders. McKinley Playfield is also a busy spot, with its sprayground, playfields and shelters. Callers were confusing the two.
Metro Parks solved the problem, and honored stalwart East Siders Ben and Reba Verlo in March, when, in a sensible, sensitive fix, it renamed the playgrounds Verlo Playfield.
9.) ♥ Metro Parks has worked through all the lawyers’ concerns, and figured out how to allow volunteers to do the hard work in spaces it doesn’t have the resources to develop and maintain. It is blueberry season, and the best place to see how that turned is Charlotte’s Blueberry Park, south of East 'D' and 72nd streets. The late and missed Charlotte Valbert found the remnants of an old blueberry farm and organized the volunteers who reclaimed and maintain the 10 acres of bushes.
Everyone is welcome to pick fruit for free, and one of the beauties of the park is the fact that, since the bushes are so tall, pickers can’t see the people in the next row. But they can hear conversations in all the languages spoken in Tacoma.
10.) ♥ And that brings us to the 10th and ever-fresh thing the East Side offers so generously, and that we love.
“We have a strong sense of tradition and history and tremendous diversity,” Campbell said. “It’s a diversity that builds itself by not dividing itself. We have huge diversity, amazing diversity, with so many wonderful stories.”