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Tacoma: The Divide of Division Avenue

City of Destiny still adheres to arbitrary divisions set up by its city founders

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Tacoma likes to believe that in the last 20 years it has grown more socially tolerant. The economic downturn has blended many communities in financial equality. The city's numerous festivals have started to resemble a certain 1971 Coco-Cola commercial. And much of the intermediate neighborhoods of the New Tacoma and Central districts have seen astounding renaissance.

Regardless of all our forward thinking, we the citizens of Tacoma, still live with a striking symbol of our disunions. Along the Division Avenue line separates north from south, new from old, affluent from disenfranchised. The image and idea of the divide has grown so much a part of the city we live in that we just accept it.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland describes her experience in realizing the divide. "The first time I traveled north of Division was when my first-grade teacher took me to the Shrine Circus with her family at UPS. After that, a volleyball match against Truman when I was at Gray Jr. High. As a kid, I wasn't aware of social class.  As a teenager, I had friends who went to Wilson and Bellarmine. Visiting some of their homes made me aware of socio-economic differences. We had a nice yard, a picket fence and a garden. They had huge homes with views of the water and large outdoor patios."

The issues involved in socio-economic are not new to our city. For over a hundred years a symbol of our city's disjointed social issues runs the mile stretch that is Division Avenue. This article is about how the people, the real estate market and local government have contributed to this divide.

Dismissing Utopia - A History Lesson

At the founding of Tacoma there was quite a different vision for the city's future. In 1873, Frederick Law Olmstead - famous for designing New York's Central Park - was brought to Tacoma to help make a definitive plan for the city. This plan balanced nature and urban living in a way never seen then or since by the modern world. Think Walt Disney's original plan for EPCOT.

Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; A Half Centure of Activity, Volume 2 by Herbert Hunt describes the plan. "The designer was seeking easy grades and a marvelous beauty. Had the plat (plan) been adopted and followed it would be produced perhaps the most picturesque city on American soil."

The big business of Tacoma in the late 1800s - logging and railroads - torpedoed the plan due to its lack of valuable real estate.  There were not enough corner lots, prized for their commercial and industrial uses.

After Olmstead's dismissal, Col. Isaac Smith proposed a plan of the city in a more business friendly model. Division Avenue was named so because it divided the old part of the city with the new commercial business downtown.

More well off citizens of Tacoma tended to live in the Old Tacoma side: now Old Town, Stadium and North Slope. Living on the north end soon became a symbol of social distinction largely spearheaded by land developer Allen C. Mason

Brian Kamens, supervisor of the Northwest Room at Tacoma Public Library, expands. "Allen Mason was one of the first big developers in town, particularly housing, expensive housing. He had a slogan that all his developments were within sight of the water."

New Tacoma - now Downtown, Hilltop and St Helens neighborhoods - contained cheaper houses that were closer to the labor industries of Tacoma's harbor.

In 1891 the city had grown exponentially and a reworking of the city plan took place. The Tacoma Daily News took it upon itself to devised "THE NEWS PLAN" - to reorganization the city. Shortly after the plan was proposed the city adopted it.  The cities acceptance of the plan recognized and solidified Division Avenue for the physical divide it had become. 

Education and Social Services

Over the decades the social fissuring between the north and south remained relevant in how local government allocated social programs to each neighborhood. In the 1910s Stadium High School served as the only school in the area. South end neighborhoods, which at the time stretched down to Wapato Lake, felt that they were being neglected by the cities governing body. In an attempt to ease transportation issues and provide better educational availability Lincoln Park High School was built in 1917. 

At the time the people living in the north side of Division were those with money.  The south end neighborhoods consisted of working class immigrant alcoves including: Irish, Italians, African Americans, Asians, Swedes and any collection of peoples looking for a better life in the City of Destiny. The disenfranchised south end had little of the money. Ergo they were responsible for less of the cities gross tax revenue and received less local government recognition.

"Lincoln was built specifically to satisfy the south end of town, to show them that they were just as important as the north end. As the south end was getting bigger there was a feeling that the north end was getting all the tax money, the attention," Kamens explains.

Many believe a recent affirmation of the ongoing divide occurred in December of 2010 with the debate and subsequent closures of two public libraries. The Tacoma library budget suffered in the current economic down turn and cuts needed to be made.

A News Tribune article dated Dec. 16,2010 reads, "Before determining which branches to close, trustees considered a host of factors, including circulation figures, location and deferred maintenance costs. Among all city libraries, Swan Creek had the lowest circulation figures and King the fewest patrons."

The other side of the argument stated in a Dec. 15, 2010 News Tribune article, "Trustee Julio Quan, who said the city's low-income communities need and depend on public libraries the most, suggested if forced to make a choice, he'd close the Wheelock Library in the city's more affluent North End."

Mayor Strickland breaks down the library issue form an administrative point of view. "There is sometimes the perception that the North End has better services or 'gets more of.' Not necessarily. Some believe that the south end and east side got the shaft when two libraries closed this year. In reality, there are more libraries south than north of Division Avenue."   

In the end both the Martin Luther King Jr. and Swan Creek library branches, lower tax income communities, were closed. To be fair, out of the original 10 library locations, eight were south of the Division line.

Proportioning of public services and social programs has continued to be suspiciously uneven in other areas as well. Other notable closures south of Division Avenue include: Gault Middle School, McKinley Elementary, as well as The South End and Eastside locations of Boys and Girls Club.

Neighborhood Pride

All the neighborhoods around Tacoma have a distinguishing unique flavor. Proctor District has its art festival, farmers markets and the chocolate festival. The West End Neighborhood has Point Defiance and all that it includes. New Tacoma has its waterfront.

There is something to be said for community solidarity. But at what point does solidarity become exclusionary? Certain neighborhoods maintain a level of prestige weather from a nefarious past or a snooty residential make-up.

Immediately south of Division, The Hilltop neighborhood might have a clearer sense of identity than any other area. Where some of Tacoma's residents take the disunion for granted, others find power in the definition it provides.  Almost in spite of the Division Avenue line, Hilltop has used the power of street names to maintain solidarity within the community.

In 1993 K Street was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way from 26th Street on its south edge to Division Avenue on its north. On either side MLK Way remains the original K Street.

Amy Potter, a local schoolteacher and co-founder of, enlightens what the streets of hilltop mean to the people. "The MLK corridor can be considered the heart of Hilltop. It is where the community comes together to meet, celebrate, protest, march. ..."

Another example of this is when a section of 12th Street was renamed in memory of Rev. Earnest S. Brazill, a longtime pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church.

"Earnest S. Brazill Street reminds us that when somebody from Hilltop does something great for our community, or stands out in some way, they are not forgotten," comments Potter.

Ultimately the division of north and south has actually helped form a stronger core in the Hilltop neighborhood.  Though many residents do not see Division Avenue for its namesake the repercussions are felt both good and bad.

Potter adds, "Boundaries such as Division, don't feel like they're in our minds to keep people out, but to define a place that has such a rich past, give us space."

Property Lines

Mayor Strickland poses the question: "Can the name of a street have an impact on a community? Perhaps. Would property values south of Division be different if the street had been named Unity Avenue?"

The real estate market in Tacoma today is very similar to the where it was when Tacoma began in the 1890s. The north end houses due to waterfront and demand tend to be ridiculously high in price compared to similar counterparts with a south address. 

Marguerite Giguere of Windermere Professional Partners and the voice of Get Real Tacoma, provided some numbers to illustrate. Taking into account the last 365 days of home sales Giguere compares the areas of North K Street and South MLK Way exactly one half mile away from the dividing line. This example only takes into account single-family homes. Neither area has particularly great views. The public schools encompassed are comparable, if not the same. The proximity to public parks, retail areas and nightlife are all equal.

For houses north of the Division line Giguere says, "The average price per square foot in your neighborhood is $124.96. The average house spends 117 days on the market and sells for 98.25 percent of its listed price."

As for the south side, "The average price per square foot around South MLK Way is $76.81. The average house spends 152 days on the market - over a month longer - and sells for 97.52 percent of the final list price."

Giguere also adds, "If you go 10 blocks in each direction of Division, you'll find that the houses are the same age, the lot sizes are about the same, etc."

So if that is the case, why is the average price per square foot differing $50 in less than a mile?  In answer to Mayor Strickland's question, the stigma of the north and south divide continues to shape where we live as it has since 1900. 

What does it all mean?

Gloria Martin of the Southern Kitchen Restaurant offers a ray of hope. "You can see that the so called divide is erased when you visit Wright Park since the new playground was built. The park is probably the most diverse and truly reflects what our society should represent. Here, every social-economic strata and race is represented. This is where there is no divide."

In conclusion, we have only achieved minor advances as a city. In some cases our Division Avenue has brought neighborhood solidarity. In other cases, lower property values. For those living near the line we are confronted with it every day and because of such have grown apathetic. It is our indifference to the divide that keeps it strong. We are blissfully happy to continue the status quo. The symbol of our separatism still holds the power it did at its inception.  We, as the citizens of the City of Destiny, still adhere to arbitrary divisions set up by our city founders.

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