Once again, Seattle garbles Tacoma story
KATHLEEN MERRYMAN; THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Published: February 10th, 2007 01:00 AM
Tacomans aren’t shy about pointing out what’s wrong with their town.
Witness the recent city survey that showed dissatisfaction with crime, blight and choppy sidewalks and streets.
No howls of foul there.
But “Hilltop Blues,” an opinion piece by L.D. Kirshenbaum in Sunday’s Seattle Times, has residents, merchants and activists steamed.
Tacomans prefer their criticism reality-based.
Here’s the scenario Kirshenbaum laid out for Seattle readers: Foot traffic and business are down on the “once-vibrant” stretch of Martin Luther King Way near the vacant Browne’s Star Grill. In its rush to gentrification, city government has unleashed inspection teams on property “deemed unworthy.”
She fell for the story that cops refused to help Browne’s Star Grill’s owners get rid of drug and gang activity. She believed an auto repair shop owner who said the task force “came in like the whole gestapo.” She quoted an absentee landlord who “watched helplessly” when inspectors cut power to his building because of code violations. She described those businesses as the city’s lifeblood.
She painted a picture of government rolling over hapless residents. She warned that, if this cleanup, crime fighting and development keep on, Tacoma will lose its character and become “somewhat ghastly.” Tacoma is fortunate, she lectures, that for so long there was no money to raze its “old vaudeville theaters and modest Craftsman houses.”
Speaking of money, she noted that Tacoma “claims to be comfortable with its working-class roots,” but that “it looks like that sentiment isn’t sticking” because the percentage of low-income residents has fallen over the past five years.
Oops. Our bad.
Big surprise here: Kirshenbaum is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle. She’s a drop-in critic who remained conveniently ignorant of the community history and neighborhood-building that blast her thesis to bits.
She needs a remedial course in Tacoma. Just the facts, ma’am.
Let’s start with that “once-vibrant” MLK Way business district.
Ron Johnson has spent all his 75 years involved with the family’s Johnson Candy Co. at 924 Martin Luther King Jr. The last time life on the street was vibrant, he said, was before the 1980s and ’90s, when street drunks and gang members took it over. He’s delighted with the responsive and helpful police now.
Marieva Riche, who has worked the candy counter for 20 years, is glad Browne’s is gone. “They had their chance over a period of years,” she said of the owners. “I think the city was wise to shut it down.”
Felix Flannigan, executive director of the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association, never saw a “vibrant past.”
“It was in really bad shape,” he said of the street in 1990. “I have seen nothing but progress being made. There were 400 vacant units on the Hilltop, and gangs had control. More than 50 percent of the commercial buildings were empty.”
He is furious that Kirshenbaum ignored the achievements of activists, agencies and the city in reviving the Hilltop. Me, too.
I’d bet Kirshenbaum $5 she can’t tell the difference between market-rate homes, rehabbed public housing, subsidized rental and ownership housing, and luxury condos. I’d bet she can’t tell which homes were renovated with private money and which were fixed up through volunteer efforts. The Hilltop has the most diverse housing stock in the city and is proud of it.
Rich, poor and working-class residents enlisted the city to pioneer the Alcohol Impact Area. They persuaded the city to shame irresponsible property owners via the Dirty Dozen on the city’s Web site. They begged the city to close Browne’s and other businesses that blight the neighborhood.
They know the difference between the city’s lifeblood and a stream of toxic waste. They know the difference, too, between “vaudeville theaters” and the strip joints that added up to block after block of seedy reasons to get out of downtown before sunset.
They don’t miss them any more than we miss Browne’s.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677