First impressions of Tacoma

In my last post I whined a bit about the downside of business travel. In spite of days usually spent in conference rooms, when sent somewhere new on business one still has an opportunity to form some initial impressions of the place. Thankfully, Tacoma has a lot to recommend it. When I think of the places I have had to travel on someone else’s dime, Tacoma ranks in the top ten percent.

Tacoma of course is across the bay from its much bigger twin Seattle. My wife and I visited Seattle in 2010, but never quite got around to seeing Tacoma. While considerably smaller than Seattle, Tacoma in many ways is better. For one thing, at least when the weather clears it has one heck of a view. Mount Rainier forms a huge, hulking and looming presence to the southeast. You almost wonder if it might tip over it is so huge. It looks magnificent and it is more than a little bit terrifying when you realize that underneath it lurks a volcano. Thankfully it hasn’t had a major eruption in five thousand years, and the last time volcanic activity was noted on the mountain was in 1894. Still, the mind has to wonder, what if it erupted? The answer is clear when you see how near it is: there would be a whole lot of devastation. Tacoma could be buried, probably not in lava, but more likely by ash and clogged waterways. When you see it from Tacoma, you have no doubt that it has earned its place as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, simply because it is located too close to populated places. The right volcanic activity, say something similar to what happened to its nearby cousin Mount St. Helens in 1980, would be cataclysmic to nearby communities and perhaps Tacoma as well.

If cataclysmic volcanic activity is unlikely enough not to deter you from living here, consider the Tacoma Fault just north of the city. Fortunately, that particular fault has not shifted in a millennium, but the whole region is full of faults, which means you would be living in one of the most earthquake prone spots in the country. Unlike the recent earthquake we experienced in Washington, D.C., walking around downtown Tacoma makes you feel like these buildings are built to handle most anything. The hotel I am sleeping in, the upscale Hotel Murano in downtown Tacoma, looks like it should fall over but once inside it feels unusually solid and anchored. Things would shake in a major earthquake but it’s unlikely it would experience any major damage.

The thing is in spite of the nearby volcanoes and earthquakes, Tacoma is a neat city, the sort of place I’d kind of like to live if I could talk my wife into it. It is a lot like San Francisco, just much cleaner and much richer overall. Its only streetcars consist of a short light rail line going through the downtown area, but its hills are quite steep. Walking around downtown is like working out on a Stairmaster. Tacoma residents have plenty of incentive to make sure their car brakes aren’t worn because you really, really need to stop at that red light otherwise the results will not be pretty. Brake shops must do a hustling business around here. Take a bus or a car into the hills and you have pleasant old fashioned neighborhoods with plenty of Mom and Pop businesses and pedestrian-friendly stores hugging main streets, but few Walmarts, at least not unless you get out near the highways. Then there is the view: of its rivers, of the many tributaries to the sound, the mountain and the towering pine trees.

It’s also a prosperous place, full of the coffee shops that made Seattle famous, brew pubs (it seems that most restaurants have to brew their own), lots of ethnic restaurants and people who look if not wealthy then seemingly better off than most. At least in the downtown area there are few homeless, and the streets feel safe to walk at night. There is a heavy Asian influence as you might expect, but also it is more white that most cities on the west coast. African Americans are few and far between in Tacoma. I haven’t checked real estate prices, but the area feels quite pricey.

The Hotel Murano that my group is staying at is an example of Tacoma at its best: a gorgeous, upscale and classy place, with a day spa downstairs, art everywhere and exhibits on every floor (all done in glass, doubtless to complement the nearby Museum of Glass), superfast elevators that somehow don’t leave your stomach feeling like it has dropped and young looking bellhops surreally smiling who can’t wait to open the door for you.

Tacoma also has the required university, the required touristy things to do (with the Museum of Glass just a few blocks away), and the required light rail. Traffic can be a bear outside the city, but it is not bad inside of it. The plentiful buses and metered parking makes it quite pedestrian friendly. In short, it has almost all of the things to admire about a city with few of the downsides. It’s a neat place to visit, and would be a neat place to live, just as long as Mount Rainier does not blow.

Speaking of things blowing, I blow out of here early Friday on a 7 AM flight. To bed.

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