6: Situating the Secondary City: Uneven Development and Regional Gentrification in Tacoma, WA

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In 2017, a local reporter opened a story on the ongoing construction boom in Tacoma, Washington, with the observation that ‘Tacoma learned long ago that it will always be second to Seattle, but the city is now embracing that as a positive. The money the city is leveraging from all the action in Seattle is a vital part of Tacoma’s game plan.’ The reporter noted how local officials had for some time been preparing for the building boom with an array of public projects intended to attract developers to the city. Tacoma Economic Development Director Ricardo Noguera described the city’s enthusiasm for riding Seattle’s economic coat-tails, highlighting how residents priced out of Seattle and the surrounding suburbs were joining new arrivals to the region in moving to Tacoma. Characterizing 2017 as ‘the year of the crane’, Noguera outlined the city’s development philosophy: ‘I can’t compete with Goliath … [instead] it’s feeding off of the beast. Seattle-Bellevue is the beast’ (Sullivan, 2017).

This brief news story is telling both for the way it presents Seattle as central to the economic and policy options facing Tacoma and for how this relationship is simultaneously depicted in strongly optimistic and pessimistic terms. Behind this tension is a long history of anxiety that Tacoma has already lost out or is about to be bypassed by some new wave of regional development. Much of this history, both real and imagined, is best understood through the lens of Tacoma’s ‘secondary’ status relative to Seattle, which dates back to the late 19th century.

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