Salishan was all about punching despair in the nose in 1997.
The houses, built in a hurry for World War II shipyard workers, were worn out public housing. Tacoma Housing Authority had tried, and failed, to rehab them. The very name was stained by a legacy of drugs, gangs and violence.
But the people who lived there were better than that.
When the Rev. Ron Pierre Vignec introduced the idea of organizing around their strengths, not their weaknesses, they embraced it. They worked with police, Tacoma Housing Authority, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Tacoma Schools and Washington State University Extension Service and built multi-language phone trees, support groups, a residents’ council – and a garden. You could hear every language spoken in Tacoma there as residents grew their own healthy foods. They came to that spot to work toward better lives.
“The City of Tacoma Arts Commission wanted to do public art in the neighborhoods,” said Sue Bernstein, who was running the garden at the time. “Michael Sullivan pushed the idea of Salishan.”
Commission members visited the garden, and wondered how the neighborhood might benefit if residents could come to that spot and relax and visit as well as work. They settled on the idea of a gathering spot.
The city contracted with Milenko Matanovic, founder of The Pomegranate Center, which works with residents to design and build gathering places intended to draw communities together. Matanovic’s team headed down from Issaquah and enlisted Bernstein as community liaison.
She convened conversations with residents, who talked about what they’d like, and how the finished spot would reflect who they are.
They considered incorporating symbols of their international diversity in the design, then settled on themes common to them all – the flowing shapes of growth and continuity.
They talked about materials, and harvested them from Tacoma’s past.
“They went to the City of Tacoma storage area,” Bernstein said. “They got copper from the old Union Station roof, and granite from the station, too. They got cobblestones from North Tacoma.”
They volunteered on the construction crew with the lead artists and craftsmen.
They also got away with an inside joke. One teen had impressed a master stonemason, who shared his passion for pizza. Together, they incorporated pizza slices in the design on one of the pillars.
“When you walk into the center area, there’s a small pillar with pizza slices on it,” Bernstein said. “We call it the Pizza Pillar.”
Bernstein took down the names of all the volunteers, and put them on a plaque at the entrance, across from the one with all the official partners in the project.
The press took note of The Gathering Place and covered it in local, state, national and international media.
For years, it worked as planned, suffering only the occasional carved initials.
Then Tacoma Housing Authority earned the HOPE VI grant that spurred the demolition and reconstruction of Salishan. That cut off easy access to the garden and Gathering Place at East 42nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
The one great, sad truth about Swan Creek Park is that, when it is not used, bad people come, and things happen.
Metal thieves came to The Gathering Place.
They stole the copper roofing, the lights and the wiring. They pried the copper inlay out of the carvings.
Metro Parks will repair The Gathering Place, said Doug Fraser, the parks’ chief planning manager.
“The cobblestones and the roof are good,” he said. “We will bring it back to life.”
It will, he said, still be a place to gather, rest and visit. It may also serve as the park’s trailhead information center.
It will not contain copper.
Here is your Tacoma Quirk challenge for the week:
Turn a metal thief in to law enforcement. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with a case number for verification, and we will give you four excellent tickets to a Tacoma Rainiers game. Tickets include free parking, peanuts, pop and beer.