I stay sane (somewhat) when I travel by walking every morning , no matter what city I am in. Some I visit more often than others. Sometimes there are great gaps between visits and it’s fun to see the changes and evolution, either good or bad, these places go through. This morning it was Tacoma. It was my first time back in almost a year. The changes were evident, and not just because the economy has improved. There were still a number of downtown storefronts that were empty, vacant for what appeared to be some time.

The University of Washington has committed to a campus in the downtown core, with 5,000 students attending. The result is a plethora of shops, restaurants, renovated and re-gentrified downtown urban residential, from old character homes subdivided into suites, to tired and largely uninspiring vanilla apartment buildings with signs advertising, “Completely new interiors!”, to new hip urban lofts over retail. This didn’t all happen in the less than a year since I last took my early morning walk along Broadway Avenue. Clearly.

Last visit I was inspired by the very public display of public outreach the city went to in order to collect input on what to do with the downtown. On the side of an old building were large black chalkboards, inviting residents to complete phrases like, “DOWNTOWN to me is …” and “I live DOWNTOWN because …”. Very cool, and some surprisingly thoughtful input. And gutsy to be that wide open in seeking input.

But back to the empty, distressed retail spaces. They still exist today, but the City of Tacoma has embraced this reality, and rather than hiding from it, or relegating it to some form of expected urban blight, they’ve found a powerful way to celebrate it. There are storefronts turned into art galleries. Large, expansive window displays, spanning near full city blocks, filled with art, sculpture, prints (part of the hipster culture in Tacoma, with a print made for many of the independent bands that are the lifeblood of the region’s local music scene), each one curated and narrated with the care given to the works of the Great Masters. I’m not that awake at 5:30am when I walk, so I found myself working to shake off the grip of the sleepy cobwebs in my brain to enjoy the display.

I saw connections everywhere. The printmaking culture, and the shop advertising barely scented soap, and purveyors of other local handmade goodness. The “green” culture so prevalent in the NW, and the sign in the local brewpub window advertising “Bike to a Business Thursdays” and get 10% off. The slip street with the yoga studio, music store and one of those galleries suggesting you uncork your creativity by sipping wine as you paint, and the name of the street, Opera Alley. By about 20 minutes into my walk I am wide awake and these connections are popping out at me at every turn.

A bus stop-like structure rising from the sidewalk interrupted my pace – the Tollbooth Gallery. Billed as the “World’s (or at least the South Sound’s) Smallest Art Gallery” – put in place with a vision to create site-specific experimental art, it was a simple and brilliant idea. If it can withstand the rains of the Northwest and still function, with both audio and video intact, I’m thinking this has potential everywhere. The exhibit on display today in Tacoma explores the evolution from film to video and celebrates the short format. The film being shown was simply about a stump that washed up on shore in Commencement Bay and the role trees, and pulp and paper have had in the evolution of the Northwest’s identity. 

This act of slowing down, and looking up from the small iPhone screen in my hand at any given moment, made me see the potential for connection, and the power of this simple interactive format, as a way to bring to life the rich traditions and cultures of different communities. Long live independent small-scale public art I say!