25 Things we love about Tacoma

Most of us called the City of Destiny home for four years (nearly half of Puget Sound alumni still do), and during that time we got to know the town like a favorite professor whose quirky character always made lessons interesting.

In the winter issue of Arches we asked which of the old teacher’s personality traits you recall most fondly. Here’s what you said, in no particular order.

1. The Blue Mouse
It’s odd that there are so few movie houses in a city of distinct neighborhoods like Tacoma. (Bookstores, too, but that’s another matter.) The Blue Mouse fills the niche as Proctor’s anti-multiplex. Its 1923 Craftsman architecture is so North End, its running-mouse neon sign a wonder, its prices student friendly, and what alum hasn’t jumped up and done the Time Warp on Rocky Horror night?

2. A working waterfront
Toyota named a pickup truck after us for a reason, ya know.

3. Snake Lake
This aptly named serpentine wetland is our choice for a quick fix of Mother Nature. We love the idea of a 54-acre nature preserve smack in the middle of suburbia, with mature Madrona everywhere.

4. The Mountain
Many have tried to articulate the attachment people around here feel for their guardian volcano. We think Northwest author Bruce Barcott did it better than anyone when he wrote:

“On clear winter days the Olympic and Cascade mountains flank the trough of Puget Sound like a fence of white-capped waves. We’ve got mountains like Iowa’s got flat. And yet the local vernacular admits only one ‘Mountain,’ and when Rainier rises we tell each other, ‘The Mountain is out.’ Mount Rainier is at once the most public symbol of the Pacific Northwest and its most sacred private icon. A friend once disclosed that she says a prayer whenever she sees it. … Like rain and rivers and trees, the mountain is a continuous presence in our lives, but in our psychological landscape it occupies a place separate and greater than the forests and falling water. We look at Rainier and feel love for a mountain, if such a thing is possible. The mountain inspires in us a feeling akin to spiritual awe: reverence, adoration, humility. We look at Rainier and regard the vastness of God; yet we look at it and claim it as our own.” — From The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, Sasquatch Books, 1997.

5. Traffic
Never mind I-5. For now at least we rejoice in un-Seattle-like downtown driving.

6. Not using umbrellas
Why cover up? It’s not rain, it’s winter’s sacrament.

7. The Tacoma Dome
When Seattle imploded the Kingdome and replaced it with a couple of high-priced glamourdromes, our UFO-like bulge at the head of Commencement Bay suddenly became distinctive, but, like its host city, still sensibly practical. The weather in the Northwest being what it is, the people need a giant cavern like this to house high school football championships and monster truck races and RV shows. And so what if the T-Dome isn’t exactly Gucci; this photo proves that in the right light anything can look good.

8. Almond Roca
In 1923 the Brown and Haley candy makers developed a recipe for a log-shaped confection with a buttercrunch center and a coat of chocolate and diced almonds. Presto! Almond Roca was born and a city had its sweet-tooth signature. The company is still family-owned; Anne Haley ’68 is chair of the Board of Directors. (In the name of accuracy in reporting, the editors thought it their duty to personally research this entry by visiting the Brown and Haley factory store on 26th Street. That we’re pretty fond of Mountain Bars, especially the peanut butter ones, had nothing to do with it.)

9. Octopuses of unusual size
We only have arms for you, big fellas. The waters off Titlow Beach are a favorite hangout for Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus population. The wiggly creatures are the largest octopuses in the world and can weigh several hundred pounds. They seem to be especially fond of the nooks and crannies in and around the underwater remains of Galloping Gertie.

10. Dale Chihuly
Most everyone knows that Chihuly is widely regarded as having almost single-handedly made glass an accepted medium for serious art, but few know about the 1963 Puget Sound alumnus’s Tacoma roots. Here’s some of what he told Arches in 2000:

“I was born Sept. 20, 1941, in Tacoma General Hospital. We lived on South 11th and Lawrence, less than a mile from the university. About a block from there is Franklin Elementary School, where I started kindergarten and grade school. In 1950 we moved into a house at North 33rd and Mason Street. I had a lot of jobs in Tacoma, starting with mowing lawns when I was about 11. Then I was a busboy. I worked at Bernie’s men’s store down on Broadway selling clothes. When I was 16 they let me into the meat cutters union. I went to work at the Hygrade meatpacking plant. While in school I could work in the summers and at night. I think I got $2.80 an hour in 1958, which was a good wage.”

11. Point Defiance
What can we say? A treasure that turned 100 last year. Among urban parks in the U.S., only New York’s Central Park is bigger. In beauty, it rivals Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. And only a hop and a skip and the No. 11 bus from campus.

12. Green gulches
Most are too steep to walk in, let alone build on, but--our good luck--that's why they've been preserved. They remain a series of tiny, impromptu rain forests, like a string of emeralds around the crowded neighborhoods, leading down to water's edge.

13. The Swiss
Tin ceilings, a garage door that opens to bring the street inside on summer days, and art everywhere, including a fortune in Chihuly Venetians decorating the bar. We hope that as UW Tacoma continues its expansion up the bluff that The Swiss will be spared.

14. Museum of Glass Hotshop
When construction began on the Museum of Glass, we couldn’t help wondering what the architects were thinking with the upside down ice cream cone that is the Hotshop. Then we got it that the shape mimics a sawdust furnace, a common structure in the Northwest back when nearly every town had a sawmill. How perfect that, as hard-working lower Pacific Avenue evolves into a museum district, its burly old character is preserved in design features like this.

15. The theater district
How cool is it to have not one but two restored pre-1920s vaudeville houses downtown? Why, you can almost see Klondike Kate leaving whiskered old miners drop-jawed with her flame dance.

16. Bing Crosby
Whether it’s winter or not, we think of “White Christmas” every time we pass his old house on J Street.

17. The Ventures
Formed here in the late ’50s after buying guitars at a local pawn shop, the titans of tremolo released “Walk Don’t Run” on a record label launched by guitarist Don Wilson’s mother. Tacomans take it personally that after 90 million records sold worldwide the band’s still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

18. Ghost signs
“The ghosts hide in plain sight everywhere here,” wrote the News Tribune’s Jen Graves in December. “On an hourlong walk downtown, I count at least 28. … They were put up, mostly between 1900 and 1940, by a nearly extinct class of hardscrabble sign-painters called ‘wall dogs.’”

19. Neko Case
She grew up in Tacoma and still thinks of it as home. Her musical style can’t be categorized—country/punk is the best we can come up with—but her heartfelt “Thrice All American” ought to be the official city anthem. In it she sings: “Well I don’t make it home much. I sadly neglect you. But that’s how you like it, away from the world. God bless California, make way for the Wal-Mart. I hope they don’t find you, Tacoma.” To which we say, right on.

20. Cheney Stadium
We can’t think of a cozier ballpark—the small foul territory means the box seats are practically on the base paths—and ya gotta love those old-fashioned erector-set light towers. Bleacher seats are still a student-friendly $5, and for that, over the years, UPS baseball junkies have watched the likes of Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez up-close and personal.

21. The B&I
When you needed an obscure item for your dorm room—say, a lava lamp—and couldn’t find one for sale anywhere, you knew the B&I would have it. Now more of an indoor flea market than the “World Famous B&I Circus Store” of days gone by, the south Tacoma landmark nevertheless endures. We’re sure glad that Ivan the gorilla got sprung from that concrete room for a nice, cushy zoo.

22. The Narrows Bridge
Apart from its stunning visual appeal, the big bridge has a number of other notable characteristics, such as the thrill of driving across it during a southerly gale, steering wheel cocked into the wind to compensate for the blustery force, and just when you think you’ve got the angle right you hit the lee of the tower, necessitating frantic compensation so as not to angle into oncoming traffic.

23. Frisko Freeze
The menu has barely changed in 55 years, much to the delight of generations of UPS students requiring midnight sustenance. One Logger with fond memories: Former UPS Professor of Business and Leadership Bill Baarsma ’64, who, we are proud to note, was reelected mayor of Tacoma by a large margin in November.

24. Ruston Way
Once, a district of rotting piers and smelter’s detritus. Now, the Venice Beach of south Puget Sound. Cruising, anyone? (Oh. Right. That’s not allowed.)

25. Stadium High School
Few cities can claim a public school that was originally planned as a tourist hotel. The Brown Castle, which in its early days was a de facto prep school for Puget Sound, is just finishing up a $99.5 million renovation. It will reopen in September of 2006 on its 100th birthday.