While on a bike ride across the Narrows bridge this morning my eyes drifted up from the pavement to a sign on the eastern shoreline. It was one I’ve seen hundreds of times and it read, “Tacoma – All American City” (or something like that – my brain was in vapor lock). For some reason I always failed to notice that there were numbers underneath those words: “1998 1984 1956″.
Instead of thinking, “Wow, Tacoma was an All American City three times?” I actually thought, “Wow, Tacoma was an All American City only three times in the last 56 years and it was worth mentioning on a sign?”
That question might make an outsider wonder if Tacomans are really that uncomfortable with their own image. The other possibility, which is my belief, is that Tacoma’s elected officials and administrators suffer from regional low self-esteem.
This municipal insecurity is obvious to me, a California transplant who found Tacoma by traveling back down the yellow brick road from the Emerald City. That was in 1994 when I left a police agency up north and came down to work for the Tacoma force. I was well aware of the city’s reputation for crime (local comedians joked that “911″ was Tacoma’s area code), but instead I found T-Town to be a vibrant, waterfront city blessed with light traffic and cool restaurants, cursed with image problems and huge potholes, and populated by people with plenty of attitude.
Shortly after my arrival I noticed a the slogan, “City of Destiny” popping up on signs. Tacoma was first given this title in 1887 when it seemed destined to be the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad. That terminus ultimately went to Seattle, a slight to Tacoma that was painfully relived when the Frank Russell Company fled north two years ago. If Tacoma is indeed the City of Destiny, these benchmarks forecast a future of mediocrity with a chance of obscurity.
More recently there was an attempt to align Tacoma’s image with emerging technology companies, the Internet and all things digital: “Tacoma – America’s Most Wired City”. I can’t speak about the city’s computerized infrastructure or its destiny to rule the wireless world, but after reading this slogan I felt like making some strong coffee…you know, just to do my part.
Half my brain was thinking about this puzzle as I rolled through Tacoma’s streets on my bike. The other half of my brain was busy with the tasks of avoiding cars, dodging pedestrians walking ten abreast on a bike path, and riding offroad over potholes larger than any other city could claim (Destined, All American, Wired or otherwise).
When I got home I sat down to check my email where I made an amusingly ironic discovery. I had received an invite to a comedy event benefiting the YWCA (shameless plug for my favorite non-profit) at a venue named in dubious honor of T-Town: Grit City Comedy. The location was serendipity itself: 445 Tacoma Ave. That, I thought, was more like it.
Enough of those other slogans. It really doesn’t matter if “All American City” is an award (which we’ve earned 3 times out of at least 56), if “City of Destiny” is a historical (or historically inaccurate) label, or if “America’s Most Wired City” is a public relations gimmick. It’s not the public relations firms, city officials or even Tacoma’s self-appointed ambassadors who decide the identity of a city.
In the end it’s the people who live there who choose their own identity. They like Grit City, and so do I.