Communities, for the most part, are made up of people.
On Friday, we were reminded that communities also are made up of buildings.
The awful fire at the pagoda at Point Defiance Park was the talk of the town. The news brought people to tears. Even firefighters at the scene hugged one another.
Within minutes of our news post online, readers commented as if someone had died:
• “This is so sad.”
• “What a huge loss for the community!”
• “What terrible news!”
For decades, the pagoda has been a part of our most significant family events – weddings, funerals, anniversaries, reunions. Its graceful roof line frames countless pictures of brides and grooms, of dances with daughters, of long-lost relatives.
The pagoda fire was the talk of the newsroom Friday, as well. As journalists, our job is to document the news event. As members of this community, we were saddened right along with our readers.
At times like this, I’m glad we’ve held tight to the old-fashioned notion that to cover a community, you must live in it.
It wasn’t always that way. Years ago, many of our staff members, including top editors, lived in Seattle or other places north. That didn’t make them bad people, but it made them outsiders to news events that struck at the heartstrings of people here. Mercenary journalism doesn’t get you the same kind of news coverage.
As we’ve hired people over the past dozen years, we’ve told them they must live in our coverage area. We tell them we think it’s important that their kids go to school with our readers’ kids, that they shop at the same grocery stores and commute on Interstate 5 alongside our readers. We think that leads us to write stories our readers care about, because we care about them, too.
Many applicants are surprised. We’ve lost good journalists who refused to live here. That’s OK with us. We’re looking for journalists who care about this community enough to call it home.
When you fill a newsroom with those people, it’s an easy call for them to order extra space in Saturday’s paper for additional stories about the pagoda fire. They want to include historical pictures because they remember as children stepping off the bus at the pagoda on their way to the Point Defiance Zoo. They think to ask readers to share wedding pictures from the pagoda because they’ve attended weddings there, too.
“I’d guess most of us have fond memories of good times in that beautiful structure,” one reader commented. I’d guess.
Even before the fire, we’d been working on a number of stories about iconic buildings in Tacoma. The Cheney Stadium remodel has prompted both watchdog news stories and celebratory features about opening day. Union Station turns 100 next month, and we’re planning a historical look back at its place in Tacoma’s history – as an icon of our city’s railroad-related roots and a symbol of the downtown renaissance in the 1990s. We’re working on a piece about the Tacoma Art Museum’s humble roots on the occasion of its 75th birthday. And we continue to update readers about the McMenamin brothers’ grand plans for the old former Elks Lodge.
Too many building stories? Given the positive reader reaction every time we roll one out, we don’t think so. These buildings tell the story of our community and of the people in it. Of us.
On Friday morning, after I saw our breaking-news alert about the pagoda fire, I looked back through my photo album and landed on a picture taken on an unseasonably warm September evening in 2009. It’s of me dancing with my son under twinkling lights hung from the pagoda’s dark rafters. He was wearing the tuxedo – minus the jacket – he’d been married in just an hour before.
I love the pagoda, too. She’s a part of our community and to an extent my family.
Alongside the rest of our community, I’m pulling for her quick recovery.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434