Symbols pave the path


Tacoma is one of those lucky cities, young enough to start feeling old: the kind of place where stuff lasts longer, ages slower, holds the years better. The city looks worse for wear but doesn’t crack. Behind that gentrifacted storefront is a quick-and-dirty shed that’s a hundred years old. Some of the very best things to ever happen to Tacoma had already come and gone before that shed was built. The city’s fortunes have always been indexed to current events, but not in ways you’d expect. Good news: the Northern Pacific Railroad. And bad news: gold in the Yukon. An accumulation of events, great and terrible in turn, and you can feel all of them in the soft tile and brick underfoot.

This city isn’t finished yet. I could tell you about the close of the century, how things got a little worse, but then started to turn around; nineteenth and twentieth centuries both. For a dude from Michigan — a state that’s been doomed to inexorable decline for an entire lifetime, at least — it is an ongoing relief to be here. Every good thing in Michigan (“back home”) was only good because it used to be a lot better. But, Tacoma: wait for an uncloudy day and walk a few blocks, to the top of the hill, see mountains in three directions. When it rains it never stops. Neither do the ships rolling in and out of Commencement Bay. Better coffee than Portland, more serious about its beer (and less serious about everything else) than Seattle. A ceiling of clouds, each stretching from white to that heavy gray, beneath the biggest bluest sky you’ve ever seen.