Impressions of Tacoma from an East Coast Parent

This is part of a longer series of posts I posted in the general college selection forum, where I described several college towns.

Tacoma is only about 45 minutes away from Seattle by car and you can travel between the two cities by public transportation. But Tacoma is an interesting small city in its own right. UPS is nestled between two nice shopping areas: the Proctor District, which appears to be frequented primarily by families, and Sixth Avenue, which appears to be frequented primarily by younger urbanites and is more economically diverse. The UPS admissions office directed us to the Proctor District, which is rather tame. Proctor District highlights include a small movie theater, a Starbucks and the Rosewood Café. To get there you have to walk ten to fifteen minutes north from campus, through a residential area filled with well-maintained century-old houses. Sixth Avenue is about ten minutes south of campus and is a higher energy place than the Proctor District. If you want to find ethnic restaurants, bars, “Legendary Donuts,” a bike mechanic, tattoo parlors or state-approved marijuana dispensaries, head to Sixth Avenue.

Downtown Tacoma is about three miles from campus. It feels like many small cities’ downtowns. There are a couple of nice museums and a couple of nice theaters that attract some concerts and national tours of Broadway shows. The University of Washington (“U Dub”) also has a campus there. (The main U Dub campus is in Seattle.) Downtown Tacoma is not very busy at night, but students might venture there once in a while. My guess is that people who live in or near downtown Tacoma are just as likely to seek out evening entertainment on Sixth Avenue, near UPS.

We had heard some negative comments about Tacoma, but Sasha and I both liked it very much. We were surprised by how much one could get to on foot from UPS’s verdant campus, which doesn’t really feel like an urban campus. I’ve struggled to compare the relationship of Tacoma and Seattle to other pairs of cities. One possible pair is Providence and Boston, but the distance from Tacoma to Seattle is much shorter than from Providence to Boston, and Providence has far more to offer than Tacoma. Another possibility is Newark and New York, but Tacoma is safer and more interesting than Newark, and Tacoma feels more like Stamford or New Haven than Newark. Anyway, Tacoma feels like a part of the Seattle metro area but is still its own city.

We almost fell out of our chairs during the UPS admissions presentation when the admissions staffer declared that only three schools in the entire country are able to offer a complete liberal arts college experience along with a broad urban experience: University of Puget Sound, Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. When we heard that statement, we had just arrived from Oxy the night before and were about to depart for Mac the next day—an itinerary we had chosen precisely because we had reached the same conclusion based on our own research.

As the UPS admissions staffer noted, though, UPS also offers easy access to nature, and in that way is more like some liberal arts colleges in northern New England and other rural locations that are much farther from major cities. As part of UPS’s freshman orientation, in addition to giving new students a few days of training on how to succeed as college students and spending a few days showing the new students around Tacoma, UPS sends all new students on overnight canoe and backpacking trips. The photos from the trips (which can be accessed from the UPS website) are jaw dropping. Incidentally, we were told that the overnight trips are tailored to the students’ individual abilities.

You can get from Tacoma to Seattle by bus, and maybe train, but we didn’t actually try any of the public transportation options. There’s a ferry terminal at Point Defiance Park, which is a huge urban park on the Sound a couple of miles from campus, but I think the ferries go back and forth between Tacoma and Vashon Island rather than directly to Seattle. If you can get to Seattle by ferry, that’s news to me. (Incidentally, the University of Puget Sound is not on the water and is a fairly long walk from the Sound.)

We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to drive between the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (“Sea-Tac”) and Tacoma. The drive took less than half an hour and the roads were not crowded when we were there. Of course, if you’re coming from the East Coast, the flight to Sea-Tac is a long one.

Another extensive, eloquent post from my fellow Logger parent! I like the way you write, and I find nothing to disagree with here. Except for the admission rep’s exclusion of Rhodes College, my alma mater, which I assure you had a wealth of urban delights and perils just outside the campus walls in Memphis, Tennessee.

My impression of Tacoma has improved greatly since my first visit, with my High School Junior in tow. I regarded UPS as a convenient stop between Vancouver and Portland, and the other colleges I was pushing her to attend. After Vancouver, Tacoma looked run-down and dreary… and in that company, it was. But as I explored downtown and the North End, however, the pieces fell into place. What I was seeing was an unspoiled, intact city, preserved from the first half of the 20th Century. One stretch of Pacific Avenue has about 15 landmarked historical buildings, IIRC. It’s as if urban renewal never arrived to demolish the historic fabric of downtown. Unbroken blocks of cute Tudor and Craftsman homes surround the campus. Over a hundred custom, vintage-looking neon signs decorate the restaurants and bars. Why haven’t more movie directors discovered Tacoma? Parts of it look European, parts Midwestern. This could be an Eastern Ohio mill town, until you see the water, which sits a dozen blocks away from campus in three directions.

How has Tacoma been so well preserved? Poverty and pollution have to get some of the credit. Virtually the entire North End residential area is a Superfund site, with soil contaminated by mercury and arsenic from a copper smelter with the world’s tallest smokestack. Tacoma harbor was a lifeless industrial cesspool, and a paper mill contributed to “The Aroma of Tacoma,” a rhyme still recalled on a few stagnant air days. But that was long ago: the mill and the smelter are gone, and that waterfront land is sprouting multi-use projects. The city’s waterfront was cleaned, dredged, rezoned and redeveloped with museums and lofts.

Now, Tacoma is like a sister city to Pittsburgh or Chattanooga, TN- industrial cities that cleaned up their act, rebooted their economies and started showing up in Ten Best lists of sources like Outside Magazine. Being so close to Seattle’s white-hot housing and job market, hasn’t hurt either.

Of south and east Tacoma, I know nothing. A lot of it is military housing with a transient, poor and diverse population. I can only assume it’s a different world over there. But it’s worth noting the two incidents last year when shots were fired on campus, once by an obstinate drunk driver and once by a gang of pickpockets (nobody was hurt).

Do I sound bullish on Tacoma! Yer darn tootin’ I am! If I could get my wife to leave her successful career here in Denver, I’d start packing the boxes today. With the best harbor and the most commanding location on the Sound, they used to call Tacoma,“The City of Destiny.” I think it’s just growing into its big-boy boots now, and finding its destiny.