At Fergie’s on the Ave, every bar stool in the lounge is full at 1 p.m. on a Friday. The establishment at 3504 McKinley Ave. E. in Tacoma attracts a friendly neighborhood crowd of middle-age regulars.
They were surprised to hear that their McKinley Hill neighborhood was named one of America’s “Best Old House Neighborhoods” in the March issue of This Old House magazine, which came out Friday.
“The rest of the country must really suck,” said longtime McKinley Hill resident Paul Robinson, sparking a round of laughter at the bar. “We didn’t know it was that bad out there.”
The self-deprecating jokes gave way to reminiscing as the patrons recalled how the neighborhood used to be. The talk turned into a game of one-upmanship about details of local history. What emerged from the banter was a picture of a close-knit community with blue-collar roots.
“It’s been a sleeper neighborhood; then people discovered, hell, this is a nice place to be,” Robinson said.
In its write-up on McKinley Hill, the magazine cites the area’s well-built, turn-of-the-century homes at relatively low prices compared with those in the rest of the Puget Sound region.
“The neighborhood went into urban decline in the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s now gaining favor among young families and singles looking for an older city neighborhood,” the magazine says.
The area has a lot of potential and is fortunate to have retained so many of its older structures, said Sharon Winters, board president of the nonprofit preservation group Historic Tacoma.
“There’s a strong sense of place, which is something I believe more people are looking for,” she said.
Families who have lived in McKinley Hill for generations have welcomed Hispanic and Asian immigrants, neighbors said.
“Everybody seems to get along,” said Nora Lea from behind the bar at Fergie’s.
Across the street from Fergie’s is the Tacoma Christian Center. A VFW Hall sits in the heart of McKinley Avenue’s commercial district. South of there is Siemreap Market, which advertises “Authentic Asian Deli” in English, Spanish and Cambodian. Just north of 38th Street is Teresita’s Mexican Bakery.
The area hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn. Some storefronts are empty. Parky’s Tavern closed. At East 34th Street and McKinley, Neighborhood Coffee House & Espresso was a symbol of neighborhood revitalization when it opened in February 2008. It’s been closed about a year. Jason Krough and Kim Ramsauer have plans to reopen the Craftsman-style house as a coffee shop this spring.
“We’ve watched this neighborhood for about four years, and it’s gotten a lot better,” Krough said Saturday. “It has that up-and-coming feel, and we wanted to get in on the ground floor.”
McKinley Park was redeveloped with updated walking trails, modern Kompan playground equipment and a skate park. Road construction that has closed the 34th Street Bridge since last summer appears complete – all that remains is a chain-link fence that keeps it blocked. The rumor mill at Fergie’s said it would open this week.
Neighbors mention a desire for a grocery store and a bank within walking distance.
“It’s getting better,” Gerri Razor said at Fergie’s, as she boasted of her contributions to neighborhood improvement. “Thank God for people like us.”
CHANGING FOR THE BETTER
Longtime residents talk of positive changes in the past 10 years, especially a decline in crime. The area isn’t perfect, they say, but it’s become better.
“A lot of it is because the neighborhood pulled together,” Ron McPherson, 47, said Friday on his front porch at East 34th and I streets. He has lived there seven years. The house was his girlfriend’s childhood home; she later bought it from her parents.
When McPherson moved in, people sold crack cocaine next to children who played on his front sidewalk, he said. One night he took a trash bag out to his back alley and a prostitute was engaged in unsavory activities.
Frustrated neighbors banded together to make things better. Merchants met with homeowners to find solutions, such as cleanup days and more lights. Activist groups formed. In the summer, there are block parties and a street festival. City of Tacoma programs and the Tacoma police supported the efforts.
“They’re Johnny on the spot,” McPherson said of police. “One call, and they’re there. They come in silent. They know the neighborhood and they know what to expect. They’re just cleaning up the garbage.”
“The community made the drug dealers aware that this is not the place to do it,” McPherson said. “They go somewhere else – and that’s not our problem.”
Residents have started to take better care of their homes. Neighbor groups have worked with apartment owners to attract quality tenants.
McPherson points to Top of Tacoma Bar and Cafe, which opened in October 2007, as a sign of progress.
“Things are changing,” McPherson said.
Old-timers remember the bar as Harry’s Place, before the new owners remodeled the building and named it Top of Tacoma, a homey hangout that caters to a younger crowd.
“They turned it into a yuppie kind of place,” Robinson said Friday afternoon at Fergie’s.
Over at Top of Tacoma, bartender Bonnie Mooney, 24, has a tattoo that spans the top of her chest that says “True Love.”
“We’re far from yuppie,” she said, “but we’re yuppie to them.”
Kali Kucera owns the Historic Holgerson House, an 1890 Folk Victorian at 618 E. 35th St. The Web site for This Old House featured his home in its story about McKinley Hill. Kucera, 45, has lived in the house since 2000.
“I loved the quality of life and laid-back simplicity that’s on McKinley,” he said. “When you’re up that high, you get a different sense. It’s not congested; it’s nice and quiet.”
Across the street from Kucera’s house is the Kalevaria United Methodist Church, formerly Trinity UMC. Historic Tacoma, which played a consulting role in the building’s rehabilitation, touts it as a preservation success story. The nonprofit worked with the congregation, Methodist offices in Seattle and McKinley residents to save the dilapidated building, which was built from 1913 to 1915.
‘CREATING A VILLAGE’
“Compared to 10 years ago when I moved in, we didn’t have as vibrant of an activist community,” Kucera said. “Today it’s one of the best places to be in Tacoma in terms of the community, how it binds together to work together on projects. We’re really creating a village.”
From the This Old House perspective, it’s the up-and-coming aspect of the neighborhood that made it worth highlighting. It has close access to Interstate 5 and the Tacoma Dome Station’s trains, buses and light rail. Depending on which side of Strawberry Hill you’re on, McKinley’s views span the Puyallup River Valley, Mount Rainier, Commencement Bay and downtown Tacoma, backed by the Olympic Mountains.
Then there are the houses – Craftsmans, Cape Cods, American Foursquares and Tudor Revivals in the $150,000 to $290,000 range, according to This Old House.
“One of the great things about historic neighborhoods is the variety of housing stock, which ensures diversity of residents; there’s a range of housing prices with modest, typically later houses, interspersed with larger residences,” said Winters, of Historic Tacoma. “McKinley Hill definitely offers affordable housing in solid, well-built homes.”
Cole Cosgrove: 253-597-8267