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Google Tacoma and you will get more links to pickup trucks than to the “City of Destiny.” If you Google “should I move to tacoma”, you won’t find many Facebook-worthy vacation stories, get ready instead for “crime-choked”, “a branding problem” and “a place no one would choose.” Tacoma has long been called “the Armpit of Puget Sound” (“a block of Velveeta in every refrigerator”) by its neighbors to the North and South.
People driving from sophisticated Seattle to quirky Portland, stuck in the Fife/Tacoma Dome/JBLM traffic, become intimately familiar with each Tacoma roadside attraction: car lots, RV dealerships, the psychedelic Emerald Queen Casino digital billboard, $1 Chinese food near the army base and the infamous (let’s get out before the shooting starts) Tacoma Mall. But if travelers would just bail and exit the I-5, they could see the Lemay Car Museum, the Tacoma Glass Museum, the Chihuly Glass Bridge, the Washington State History Museum, the Port of Tacoma, the Theatre District and the Stadium District.
Tacoma Glass Museum and Chihuly Glass Bridge
Port of Tacoma
Stadium District—the elegant and the authentic
W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory
St. Patrick’s Church
The Ansonia Condominiums
Tacoma was once home to the ASARCO Smelter and still tolerates Simpson’s paper mill, both companies responsible for “The Aroma of Tacoma.” (Bruce Springsteen was said to have left town early during a concert stop, due to the overwhelming odor). In 1972, studies found that on Vashon Island, a ten minute ferry ride from ASARCO, the arsenic level in children’s urine was 15 times higher than what was considered safe. Each spring, county health officials advised island gardeners to plant only root vegetables and to avoid growing anything above ground. In 1986 after 100 years of operation, ASARCO was permanently closed and the decades-long project to remove toxic waste and soil from the surrounding area began.
Now, whether The Aroma’s upgrade from toxic stench to occasional unpleasant odor softened the general opinion of Tacoma or whether it’s due to the fact that Seattle and Portland are too full, too expensive, and just too keen on themselves. Grit City, with its urban living and affordable rent, is becoming a cool kid. When we moved here in 2006, neighborhood dining options were limited to a bad Mexican restaurant and The Harvester, known for its patty melt. Opened in the last three years and within walking distance, are Indo (Southeast Asian street food), Shake, Shake, Shake (top notch burgers and fries), the Art House Cafe (always order the breakfast pizza), The Copper Door (16 craft beers on tap), and the Rhein Haus (lines so long we can’t get in).
To balance the new and spiff with the old and worn, there are the classics: the Parkway Tavern (opened in 1935), Doyle’s Irish pub (get your soccer on here), the Red Hot (great dogs and suds in a divey bar), the Frisko Freeze (1950s drive-thru burgers), Dorky’s Arcade (beer and pinball in the Theater District) and much, much more.
6th Avenue neighborhood businesses
Tacoma has a vibrant, flourishing street art community. The Tacoma Murals Project, a collaboration between local artists and community service groups, is responsible for bringing 27 murals into the city’s urban landscape.
Anyways it took a while, but when someone asks me where I’m from, I no longer say “near Seattle.” I’m proud to nestle here in the armpit, on Commencement Bay, among beautiful old houses, near Hilltop, in urban-living-with-affordable-rent, scrappy Tacoma; but now I’m afraid that the secret will get out—as Neko Case sang, “Hope they don’t find you, Tacoma.”
Now if they would just do something about the potholes.
So, here’s what we do with our block of Velveeta.
- 1/2 lb. ground beef
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2 diced jalapeño
- 2 tsp. Lawry’s Taco seasoning
- 16 oz. Velveeta
- 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chili
- 1/2 teaspoon bottled chipotle sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 2 oz. grated Cotije cheese
Brown hamburger, half of the raw diced onion, and the diced jalapeños in a skillet. Add taco seasoning.