Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spaceworks Tacoma - Activating Space

Activated space.

It’s one of the most important elements of community development and neighborhood revitalization. It’s importance is understood by both high level urban planners and grass roots community organizers. It speaks both to architectural design and the importance of third spaces for people to gather, and it speaks to everything in between.

In Tacoma we have an inventive and robust effort that understands the importance of activated space - it’s called Spaceworks Tacoma.

Spaceworks is a partnership between the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce that is designed to activate empty storefronts and vacant spaces in the city with art and creative enterprise.

Property owners donate their vacant spaces and Spaceworks makes those low-cost temporary spaces available to artists, entrepreneurs, organizations, and community groups who transform those spaces with creative business, art installations, short term community based projects, or pop-up events.

Spaceworks also provides training, professional development and technical assistance to the participants in the program. 

Have you seen a Spaceworks installation around town? Have you visited a Spaceworks business? Have you attended one of a plethora of creative events and parties held in a Spaceworks activated spaces?

If not, what are you waiting for? They are all around you - in the downtown neighborhood, the Hilltop, the 6th Avenue corridor, and throughout the city.

On June 3rd from noon - 1pm, Spaceworks Tacoma will be highlighted in the Walk Tacoma series for 2015. Spaceworks is hosting a free, guided Public Art Walk that will be lead by Public Art Specialist Rebecca Solverson with the City of Tacoma.

This particular art walk will be 1.5 miles and will explore the local public art and murals found throughout the Hilltop neighborhood. The walk will start at People’s Park on S. 9th and MLK Jr. Way.

One of the more whacky and fun projects that Spaceworks will be involved with is in partnership with the Cartoonist League of Absurd Washingtonians (CLAW) and Downtown on the Go (DOTG).

CLAW has their Open Swim event tonight, May 27th, 7:30 pm at King’s Books. DOTG is sponsoring this open swim event by providing ten blank white bike helmets to be drawn on and decorated by attendees.

The plan is to have the decorated helmets serve as a traveling exhibit for DOTG to be orchestrated by Spaceworks. Rumor has it these helmets might end up on the heads of some well known Tacoma personalities during the Downtown to Defiance event in September. Finally, the helmets will be auctioned off and the proceeds split between DOTG and the CLAW Student Scholarship Fund.

Now that is some creative partnership if you ask me.

The thing about activated space - it is both a function of the space itself and the people that populate it. Spaceworks is doing it’s part. Let’s do ours and populate these spaces with our presence and our dollars.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Creative Colloquy - Kicking the Gate Open

In a world full of gate keepers - Jackie Fender, Joshua Swainston, and William Turbyfill have dispatched the guard and kicked the gate wide open.

Together they are the team behind Creative Colloquy (CC), an online literary site that hosts a monthly reading in Tacomas Opera Ally at the B Sharp Coffee House (every last Monday of the month at 7 pm). In addition to the site and the readings, CC has an annual print literary review and a regular podcast that William hosts called LiterallyTacoma. CC primarily focuses on short fiction and novel excerpts, but they also include poetry and other prose.

CC was founded in February of 2014 and their mission is to foster relationships built upon the mutual admiration of the written word and provide a platform to highlight literary talent in the South Sound.

This coming Monday May 25th, I will have the pleasure of emceeing this months reading, along with my fellow co-founder and co-producer of the Drunken Telegraph (DT), Megan Sukys.

I dont know the team at CC all that well.

I have attended a few of the readings, peruse the site regularly to read what local writers are putting out, and of course I bought a copy of this last years literary review, Creative Colloquy - Volume One. Jackie and I have crossed paths in other storytelling and literary circles.

We were grateful when Jackie invited the Drunken Telegraph to host the upcoming show and cross promote our final  Drunken Telegraph show of the season at Studio 3 of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts on June 13 at 7:30 pm.

However, beyond my gratitude lies my admiration for CC and its team. Certainly, we share some things in common - not the least of which is a love for a story well told, albeit our focus is grounded in the oral tradition and theirs in the written word.

However, my admiration doesnt end with CCs fine work of highlighting and promoting storytellers and writers, and in fact is highest as it relates to their commitment to build community.

You see it in that one line of their mission statement - to foster relationships built upon a mutual admiration of the written word.

CC & DT have that in common - its not just about the stories and the writing - its about community and building relationships.

Going back to my opening point, I grow weary of the self appointed or privilege appointed gate keepers of the arts here in Tacoma and elsewhere. They never really grow the arts, they just recycle through the same old manifestations, which rarely serves more then their out of touch donors and their own egos.

This is why CC is so refreshing.

If you read their publications or come to a reading you will find the words of established and talented local writers - as you should. You will also read and hear the words of emerging writers, of writers who are sharing their work for the first time in a public forum, and yes, sometimes you might hear or read something that you think is really bad.

Perhaps that bad writing will never be any good. Then again, with practice, and with the forum they are provided through CC, perhaps it will get better, and even become great.

Right now I am reading the book The Republic of the Imagination: America in Three Books by the author Azar Nafisi, best known for her book Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Both of Nafisis books are about the power, the necessity, and the subversiveness of literature (and story) to transform peoples lives and to re-imagine and shape the identify of a generation and even a whole culture.

This is why I think the two most important words in CCs mission statement are mutual admiration.

Too often the gate keeper approach to things only allows the ones deemed the most talented to get up close. This isnt just true in the arts.

I think anyone that has lived in Tacoma for a while can attest that part of our problem as a city has been the role of gate keepers who hoard to much of the power within a chosen few and thus stifle the creative imagination of the masses.

Certainly this isnt the only issue, but youd be hard pressed to convince me that it hasnt been part of the problem.

Not every arts based organization can be or needs to be as egalitarian as CC. But, every community needs a few groups like it to create a place not just for the super talented (whatever that means), but for everyone trying to tell a story.

Luckily CC isnt the only group that refuses to play a gate keeper role in Tacoma. We have a lot of community based and in touch artists who are focused on building community and developing artists, wherever they are at in their development.

It is true that the tellers of stories and writers are transformed by the process and practice of sharing their words and stories. Still, the greatest service of stories and literature is to the masses. It is to the admirers. The readers and the hearers - whose imaginations, actions, and trajectory are forever changed by their encounter.

So, I say thank you to Jackie, Joshua, and William. Thank you for not only highlighting and cultivating the literary talent and culture of our city, but thank you for building community and opening your gates to every budding writer and storyteller that risks sharing their words and story with us.

I invite all of you to come out and join us this Monday night, right here in the Theater District of downtown Tacoma

Bring your own stories or just bring your imagination. Bring with you a belief that part of how we build the strong community we all want, is to build on our already vibrant arts community, and most importantly take the time to listen to one another’s stories - perhaps even risking to tell our own.

Monday, May 18, 2015

May Day, Downtown Flower Baskets, and Social Connections

Did you celebrate May Day this year? Odds are that you didn't.

For one, May Day is now associated with not only the Americanized version of an ancient pagan (sometimes Christianized) holiday that is celebrated under many names across the world, but in the late 19th century May Day was also chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day. Since 2006 May Day has been a day of protest in the U.S., largely around immigration reform.

The ancient practice of celebrating May Day is tied the Festival of Flora, honoring the Roman goddess of flowers, also to the Walpurgis Night in Germanic countries, and the Gaelic Beltane celebrations to acknowledge the coming of summer.

I’m not sure I've ever really celebrated May Day. No May baskets and no dancing around the May pole. If anything, I've been more engaged in the more modern expressions of May Day as they relate to worker’s rights and immigration reform. Mostly on May 1st, I’m looking to see how many games out of first place the Mariners are already.

Just after May 1st this year, a friend told me a funny story.

As a family they assembled some May Day baskets and set out to leaving them on their neighbor’s front steps. However, their younger kids got a little confused, and after ringing the door bell, they had a flash back to Halloween and instead of running they just stood there and offered the May basket.

The neighbors were very confused. As their dog was barking crazily, they awkwardly accepted the basket, looking more annoyed then delighted. The parent had to say “It’s a May Basket, you know, for May Day”.

We Americans are prepared for strangers to come to our door on Halloween, but outside of that, the only people who knock randomly on our doors are religious missionaries, occasionally politicians, or someone doing a survey.

In the community organizing work that I do, going door to door is a primary strategy for groups trying to build social cohesion and connections in their neighborhoods. However, it scares a lot of people to begin with. An uninvited knock at the door, is always first met with suspicion and annoyance in most cases. Heck, we are even put out when people we know (family included) drop by unannounced.

As I was thinking about all of this, I began to remember some of the crazy kinds of merriment that have accompanied May Day celebrations all over the world.

They include things like a naked viewing of the sunset followed by a naked procession with torches to a location where a huge party ensues. In all cases, the celebrations are communal in nature – bringing friends together yes, but also strangers - to dance, to sing, to eat and drink, and to take in the beauty of the season.

Just this May Day, my partner Holly celebrated by gathering with friends and strangers and to hula hoop and to dance around a May pole that was lit on fire! Now, that’s the way to do it!

It has all reminded me that the most important thing in community development work is social connection. As much as people talk about the freeze in the Northwest, certainly more so in Seattle then Tacoma, we have so many opportunities in these coming months to thaw and connect with one another. In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about and highlighting many of those opportunities.

It’s always this time of year that I notice the flower baskets go up in downtown Tacoma. The BIA (in partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma), does their version of May baskets and the floral hues and shapes add to the life and color of our downtown corridor.

So maybe you don’t do May baskets, but you also don’t have to wait for the festivals and events that others plan to connect with your neighbors – you can do your own thing.

I was reminded of the housewarming party we threw in a communal living home we used to live in. Sure, we invited our friends, but we also invited all of our neighbors, and our friends invited some of their friends.

What ensued was an amazing party and a group of diverse people gathered, who didn't even realize all of the connections they had. You might realize that the people living around you, are more curious about you then you realize, and having and exploring the curiosity we have about one another is key to building community.

We just moved into a new place a few months back. We haven’t even really met all of the folks who live in our building. Our plan is to throw a little happy hour and dessert and to invite all of the folks in our building. Sure, my social anxiety kicks in a little bit, but my curiosity and my belief that knowing these folks (even a little bit) will add to the quality of life for all of us – wins out.

May baskets are great. Dancing around a May pole that is lit on fire sounds exotic and exciting. The summer festivals around Tacoma are a treat. The flower baskets in downtown add to my aesthetic pleasure of the community.

As the poet Mary Oliver says “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it”. That is true, beauty often begets more beauty. Like the writer and ever quotable G.K. Chesterton said, “People didn't love Rome because she was beautiful, she was beautiful because people loved her.”

Still, beauty is even more beautiful when we celebrate it with new friends - with one who was once a stranger, but is no longer so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Improvements Coming for the Historic Winthrop Hotel & the Annual Urban Studies Lecture at UW Tacoma

It is Historic Preservation Month and one of Tacoma’s historic buildings, the Winthrop Hotel, has a new owner which promises a host of improvements and restorations for the interior and exterior of the property.

The Winthrop was purchased from the local development company Prium by a California based company called Redwood Housing Partners LLC.

The Winthrop has been a hot topic of conversation over the past 10 years and even before then.

The rise and fall of Prium has been well documented, but needless to say the plans for restoring the Winthrop with luxury condos never materialized. Part of that plan was initially the displacement of the current residents to new low income apartments to be built at another location.

That idea was met with significant resistance from many affordable housing advocates and community activists concerned with gentrification and displacement; not to mention the residents themselves.

What ended up happening was nothing. The building continued being operated as low income apartments and in the midst of Prium’s financial floundering and eventual bankruptcy, the building fell into even worse disrepair with extensive deferred maintenance piling up over time.

According to reports from The News Tribune the new owners paid $8.5 million for the 1925 property, with a commitment of up to $6.8 million in improvements that have already been permitted, with even more permits in the works for an undisclosed amount.

Current improvement needs and plans include repair of elevators, extensive window repair, repairing water damage, roofing, and improved AA accessibility – to name just a few. According to reports the company plans to continue to provide low income apartments and at this point has no plans to utilize the crystal ball room or the top floor penthouse.

Often what one finds at the intersection of historic preservation of buildings being used for affordable housing is a broader conversation about maintenance and repair costs and ideal usage that will maximize the quality of life for the residents and the broader community.

In the work I do as a consultant in neighborhood revitalization, I have seen many great examples of creative uses of historic properties to provide both affordable housing as well as broader community services – both private and public.

One can imagine a scenario at the Winthrop that would include repairs, cleaning, and design upgrades for retail storefront uses. There are several public spaces within the Winthrop that could be re-imagined for uses that would serve the broader downtown community, as well as the residents – certainly the ball room is at the top of the list.

Upgrades to benefit the residents themselves have already been announced including a technology area and fitness center. These kinds of mixed and public uses of a property can go a long way towards combating the stigma that many people have about low income housing. Of course – attentive, committed, and collaborative management is always a key in creating a healthy and safe environment for residents and in creating broader community trust.

I am always an advocate for local ownership whenever possible, but in this case it seems the most committed investor was from the outside. We will have to wait and see whether they can combat the concerns (often warranted) that come when an owner is outside of the community.

Will they be good neighbors? Will they be able to invest (not just monetarily) adequately despite the proximity issue? Will they find a way to have an attentive and active presence? The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but in the short term they are willing to invest in significant improvements in the property itself, which benefits residents and the broader community as a whole.

If this kind of thing interests you, and I hope it does. You might want to check out a lecture that is happening tonight at 6 pm at William W. Phillip Hall on the UW Tacoma Campus located at 1918 Pacific Avenue.

As part of the UW Tacoma’s Annual Urban Studies Lecture Series, Dr. Edward Goetz from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota will be delivering a lecture based on his new book entitled New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing.

Dr. Goetz is the Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and co-Director of the University-Metropolitan Consortium. He is a leading national expert on housing policy and planning, neighborhood revitalization, and the politics of urban and regional planning.

In his lecture tonight, Dr. Goetz will offer critical analysis of the nationwide effort to dismantle public housing, and will show how it is related to pressures for gentrification and the enduring influence of race in American cities.

The work of neighborhood revitalization is complex. Here we are with the news of a historic property whose current primary usage is low income housing.  Just down the street in the same downtown neighborhood will be a robust discussion about what one expert is saying about issues that have and certainly will influence the future of the Winthrop and the future development and revitalization of downtown Tacoma as a whole.

Seems like a good way to spend a Tuesday evening in Tacoma during Historic Preservation month, don’t you think? I hope some of you can take the time to engage in the learning and exchange of ideas – adding your voice to the public discourse on these important topics.

Tonight’s lecture is FREE, but registration is required. Register now!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Historic Preservation Month in Downtown Tacoma & the Proliferation of Awareness

A few years back I noticed a trend.

What I noticed was the awareness and advocacy tactic of establishing various months, weeks, or days set aside to celebrate and educate around a particular interest or issue of importance.

You know, like its Bike Month in May.  It was National Poetry Month in April. June will be National Safety Month, which seems a broad category, and leaves me with visions of a promotional campaign that involves people dancing in hard hats and bright orange vests to one of my favorite 80’s jams Safety Dance by Men Without Hats.

It can be easy to poke fun at some of these. At its worst, it can be like the greeting card industry and its proliferation of ridiculous holidays for the purpose of creating pounds of floral colored and sentimental garbage.

I feel bad for some months that are so overrun with holidays and causes that they seem weary. Take poor February for instance. I mean, she is already often quite a dreary month around these parts. She is also the shortest month and yet we have crammed so much responsibility into her small arms.

Beyond the obvious celebrations in February which include Black History Month, Valentine’s Day, and President’s Day – other monthly observances include:  International Hoof-Care Month, Marijuana Awareness Month, Pull Your Sofa Off The Wall Month, Return Shopping Carts to Supermarket Month, and Spunky Old Broads Month.

A few of my favorite weekly and daily observances in February include:  Just Say No to Power Point Week, Shower with a Friend Day, Blame Someone Else Day, Cow Milked While Flying in an Airplane Day, and International Sword Swallowers Day.

However, once we put down the low hanging fruit and stop throwing it, I have to admit that many of these awareness observances have led to important education and advocacy around significant issues.

Well, whatever you think of these awareness observances, they are here to stay. Bike Month is off to a great start and you may or may not know that this month is also National Historic Preservation Month.

National Historic Preservation Month was established in 1973, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in order to promote historic preservation and community pride in local heritage sites.

This May, the theme for Tacoma's Historic Preservation Month is I Heart Tacoma: Celebrate Tacoma's Unique Cultural Heritage.

The City of Tacoma's Historic Preservation Office and many local partners, have worked together to create a month-long calendar of events that highlight the different aspects of Tacoma's historic resources and heritage community.  You can see the menu of activities that are happening here:

The first of these events is the Amazing Preservation Race, which takes place this Saturday May 9 at 11 am in downtown Tacoma. The race begins at Tollefson Plaza and ends at Wright Park. Teams of up to four people will learn about Tacoma's cultural and historic resources as they complete family-friendly challenges throughout downtown Tacoma! For more information or to register go here:

Sometimes historical preservation can be a controversial subject. As a community development and neighborhood revitalization consultant, I deal with these conversations and tensions often. What I can say is that historical preservation is an important part of the cultural and aesthetic landscape of vibrant cities. However, preservation needs to be balanced with other concerns as well.

Creative adaptive uses are an important part of the equation, but sometimes the expenses of adapting for new uses or just making a space safe, requires that we face the reality that not every structure can be preserved.

We are always balancing progress and preservation it seems. But, I don’t think the two have to be mutually exclusive and there are plenty of examples of progress that include the preservation and celebration of the art and history of old structures.

Identifiable and iconic structures are a part of how we create a sense of place and a unique identity for a community, but they aren't the only consideration. I’d argue the most important way we create a sense of place is through the people that inhabit those spaces - who work, live, and play in those spaces.

Whenever we put bricks and mortar ahead of preserving and developing the quality of life for residents, we lose site of the initial intent behind a structures construction in the first place and the efforts to preserve them. For me, the debate is embedded in that tension. Well-meaning and articulate people alike can often disagree within the debate, but I believe that is the kind of civil discourse that is the foundation of a strong community.

If you can’t make it out to the Amazing Preservation Race this Saturday, I encourage you as you ride your bike around Tacoma this month, to take time to notice and appreciate some of our historic structures. I have worked with many folks on the Landmarks Commission and within the historical preservation efforts in Tacoma – they've done some good work and there is more good work to do.

Oh, also, I look forward to celebrating National Hoof Month with you all next February!

Friday, May 01, 2015

May is Bike Month in Downtown Tacoma - Love Your Mother

It was September 26th 1983 and all of my closest buddies were gathered at our small apartment for my 9th birthday party.

After returning home from some miniature golf, eating pizza, cake, and ice cream – it was time for presents. I had finished opening the various gifts from my friends when my mom directed me outside to the courtyard for my last present.

When I walked out the door, there she was, leaning on her black kick stand - the BMX bike I had been longing for.

Her chrome body glistened in the sunshine and the smell of new rubber tires filled the air. She looked like a bumble bee space ship, with her black and yellow checkered pads and grips, and her bright yellow mag wheels that made it look like I was riding on two fiery sun discs, as I pedaled at top speed on the cooling dark pavement of our street.

I loved that bike. I rode her to school, I flew her over jumps at the BMX track and learned to do some tricks on her, and I rode her all about town – she was a ticket to more freedom and mobility and she made me look good doing it.

Haven’t we all had a bike we've loved? Almost every game of name the best present you've ever received – includes a shiny new bike. For most of us, learning to ride a bike is a moment only overshadowed by learning to walk – it is a rite of passage.

I’ll be honest – I’m not much of a bike rider anymore. Like most teenagers, I turned my attention to the car, which I perceived gave me even more freedom and mobility, with air conditioning and without all of the butt sweat. Plus, at the time I was sure that all red blooded American boys were supposed to lose their virginity in the back seat of a car at a drive-in-movie – I mean nothing says romance like that, right?

Well, a whole new bike revolution has developed these many years later. Bikes aren't just for kids. Bikes aren't just for serious competitive cyclists or extreme sports enthusiasts. Bikes aren't something you settle for because you can’t afford a car. Bikes are something you choose, because well, we can’t afford not to.

The month of May is National Bike Month and all about downtown Tacoma (and Tacoma at large) people are celebrating and advocating for bike riding. They are advocating for bikes as a means of commuting to work, bikes for everyday transportation, bikes for a healthy body, and bikes for pleasure and connecting with your neighbors.

For the second year, the Harmon Brewing Company and Downtown On the Go bring you an I Bike Tacoma beer for the month of May to celebrate all people on bikes in Tacoma-Pierce County. The beer, the Harmon’s seasonal Honey Blonde, will be available at the Harmon Restaurant, Tap Room, The Hub, and The Hub Gig Harbor throughout May. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit bike events and promotions in Tacoma.

The 7th Annual Bike Swap kicks off Bike Month this Saturday at University of Puget Sound from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. followed by the Hub’s Annual Pray for Sun Party at 6 p.m.

Bike Month is a national celebration and in Tacoma-Pierce County, bicycle-related activities and events are planned for people of all ages and skill levels. In downtown we’ll be celebrating with commuter stations, bike trains, Bike to Market Day and the annual Commuter Challenge. See the Downtown On the Go Facebook page for more info.

New this year is the Bike Everywhere Challenge. Residents are invited to incorporate bicycling into their everyday transportation routines and to log their trips at, where they will be entered to win a number of exciting prizes. 

To learn more about events in your area during Tacoma-Pierce County’s Bike Month, visit

I have a nearly five month old son. He hasn't even learned to walk yet, but a few years following, there will be another rite of passage when we teach him to ride a bike. His mother loves to ride and already has plans for strapping him on with her this summer as she bikes about the city. I’ll break down and a grab a bike myself (probably at the Bike Swap), because I don’t want to miss those memories.

Sure, most of the time – I’d rather walk. I like to feel my feet on the ground more than the wind in my hair. But, I’m grateful for all of you bike riders and in particular for your commitment which creates a better quality of life for all of us.

I remember how much I loved my mother that day she gave me that bumble bee BMX. I hugged her long and hard that night before I went to bed and said, "Thank you for my bike, I love it. It’s the best gift you've ever given me.”

We celebrate a lot of things with Bike Month and I think
it is appropriate that it falls in the month of May when we also celebrate Mother’s Day, because one of the most important things we do with this celebration is hug our mother (Earth) - long and hard, and say thank you, and we love you.