Lesson: Don’t believe everything you read.
Except this story I’m about to tell. You can believe it.
At the annual meeting today for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, guest speaker Steven Little encouraged Tacoma to embrace its differences, its history, and its grittiness.
Little concluded his presentation by telling the audience of more than 500 local people to remember that being known as the “Grit City” doesn’t actually have anything to do with our industrial past. He then cited an essay published last December in local arts magazine Post Defiance. It purported to share the “true origin” of the moniker: The city’s love of grits, the cornmeal porridge, dating back to 1921 and a massive holiday street party that featured cauldrons of grits for to serve the public.
“All of that is fabricated. All the photos are doctored,” Post Defiance editor Dan Rahe told me this afternoon. “There are a few historians quoted and all of them are fictitious. The names are past members of Iron Maiden.”
The intent of the piece was not to be disrespectful, Rahe said – in fact, the four editors of the nonprofit magazine and its contributors formed the magazine to show the depth and sophistication of Tacoma’s arts and culture beyond its “beer-and-a-shot” reputation.
“We were sitting around in an editor’s meeting and wanted to do something festive, but we wanted to work in a history angle because we’re all pretty nerdy about Tacoma history,” Rahe said. “All of us, we don’t like the moniker ‘Grit City’ that much. We feel like it’s overused.
“After a couple of beers it made sense to combine all three of those things into one, so we all chipped in on the article and just got carried away,” he said.
The city has called itself Grit City only since 2003, when the TNT’s Peter Callaghan wrote a column pointing out that writers from Seattle and beyond often use the term derisively, but that the dictionary definition is brave and plucky, and that’s fine with him. Local business owner Sonja Silver ran with it, producing the “Gritty Tacoman” T-shirts that she still sells.
The re-appropriation of “grit” took off, with organizations and events taking on the name. Recently some people in the community echoed Rahe’s thoughts about the phrase, suggesting it might be time for the city to move on. Silver, a third-generation proud Tacoman, disagrees.
“If you look up the definition of gritty, it’s pretty cool,” she said. “If you think it’s negative, you don’t get the joke.”
Rahe said he wasn’t sure what to think about his magazine’s satirical piece being taken as fact.
“That’s something I’m wrestling with in the past fifteen minutes since I first heard about this,” he said. “We certainly didn’t plan to mislead or make light of the city’s history in any way. If anything we wanted to steer people toward the real history.”
The magazine added a footnote to the online story this afternoon: “All historical information represented in this article is less fact and more the collective imagination of the Post Defiance editorial board. (Although Bing Crosby’s great grandfather was in fact a Puget Sound area miller!)”
As for the Chamber’s guest speaker, Little — who hails from North Carolina where grits are a staple — was a good sport when I told him that the piece he cited was fake.
“That’s so funny! They were so specific!” he said. “My idea was, embrace the gritty. That’s good. I was trying to soften it. It’s a positive.”
I told him about the Iron Maiden members-turned-historians.
“I’m not a metal guy, or I would have caught it. If they had used punk rock references, I would have caught it!”
My colleague C.R. Roberts was inspired to write his own alternative history:
The term “grit city” derives from the name of Pierce County pioneer Herman Gritte, a Dutchman who emigrated to work at the invitation and insistence of Puyallup resident Ezra Meeker.
Following his work with hops – an industry that collapsed soon after his arrival – Gritte, based on a plot of land in what is now Northeast Tacoma, became a grower and broker of tulip bulbs.
Following the collapse of that industry, the overly stressed Gritte was wrongfully accused of bludgeoning a local daffodil grower. Imprisoned at McNeil Island Penitentiary, Gritte later escaped and after three years in hiding in the Chinese Tunnels was exonerated of the charges following the deathbed confession of the real killer.
Gritte and his wife, Darlene, lived out their lives selling gingerbread from a cabin near Point Defiance.
How about you, readers? What is your Legend of Grit? Post a comment, or email me, and we’ll publish a few.