Tacoma’s identity problem: Reflections from UWT students

What do students think of the city of Tacoma?

It is grey most days here, today as I write this, is just like any other. I can see the copper roof of Union Station from my seat in class in the Birmingham Hay & Seed building. Chihuly glass dances on the ceiling of the rotunda.  

Reed and Stem designed many great buildings during the 1900s, like King Street Station in Seattle or Grand Central Station in New York, but something about Tacoma’s first green dome, and the way it carves out of the hill like a manufactured mountain, makes it stand out to me over the rest. Few of the buildings on Pacific Avenue have changed over the past decades, only what is inside them.  

During the first weeks of the fall quarter, I have been going around campus to ask other students what their thoughts of Tacoma are, in an attempt to gauge overall opinion.  

One student asked me if it always looked like this, gesturing out the window to Pac Ave, the stream of cars coming and going, 

Grey and relatively empty? Sadly, yes. There are stores and restaurants, but where are all the people? Tacoma seems nice to most students that I asked, they just don’t know what to do or where to go.  

Some students mentioned safety as a concern. Things they have heard from friends or family or worse, on the news. Other students described Tacoma as a little “ghetto.”   

Harsh as it might seem to some, it is a feeling undeniably shared by many. Tacoma has an identity crisis. There is crime here, just as there is in every city, but that feeling of security varies wildly from person to person and often reaches exaggerated extremes.  

It is a combination built to struggle. A commuter school with declining enrollment, a block stretch of twentieth-century brick buildings, a copper-tipped station standing along the water, and one screeching shiny train to bring people in.  

Brick building in downtown Tacoma. | Photo by Benjamin Fredell

And take people away.  

It starts with you and me. Find events to attend, they are out there. Go for a walk in Wright Park or Ruston Way, smile at someone on the street if they pass by, say good morning if you want extra points. Understand that most people here won’t do the same, I know from experience.  

Tacoma seems to be a victim of othering. It happens to many places in our region. Parts of Kent or Auburn get coded as unsafe or ghetto because of a school, or a news story, or a demographic. When I attended Kent Meridian High School the narrative surrounding my time there was shrouded in safety discussions and whispers of gang violence.  

The same patterns have emerged during my time at UW Tacoma. A city with a similar image problem. The othering of a city, the discomfort of unfamiliarity. I know that many students dream of the emerald city, I for one did the same, but sometimes it’s almost like you can feel it walking around Tacoma. Does anyone want to be here?  

I know I still do, and I hope you do too.  

Tacoma has its faults and its flaws, just like any other city, but sometimes you get out of it what you put in. Otherwise, a city is just a concrete street with pretty buildings.