Proud to live, play and shop on Tacoma's Hilltop
Tacoma’s Hilltop is, once again, Hilltop.
It has, officially, stopped being Upper Tacoma. The City Council has recognized it. The former Upper Tacoma Business Association is buying new stationery. New Hilltop Business District banners are hanging from light poles along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
In the don’t-go-there 1980s, Hilltop was a dangerous place. A hapless bystander could get high-speed lead poisoning there, due to the gangs. Thanks to the drug trade, untended auto sound systems tended to fade away.
By the 1990s, anyone – and we are including people from Denmark – who could hum the “Cops” theme song knew Hilltop as a place of slick darkness pierced only by emergency lights and sirens.
Residents joined the cops who served there and revolted against their drug overlords. They formed the Hilltop Action Coalition and Safe Streets, and ratted out bad guys to police community liaison officers. They shut down nuisance businesses, including Browne’s Star Grill.
Responsible business owners supported the crime fighting and hung on, thanks to persistence, quality and rebranding: They began referring to the neighborhood as “Upper Tacoma.”
It was a sort of witness protection program for the shopping district.
The plan was to lull potential customers into thinking they weren’t, in the pursuit of a sporty hat, stepping into the jaws of death. They were going to safe, bland Upper Tacoma, not the notorious Hilltop.
Fashion merchandising legend Mr. Mac, or, as his driver’s license says, Morris McCollum, remembers it all.
“We had so much drug dealing and newspaper writing that people said, ‘I don’t want to go up to Hilltop. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous. I’m not sending my wife up there.’” McCollum said.
Diana Zook of Pacific Motor Inc. still gets that.
“We struggle with trying to make people feel like they’re safe,” she said. “Most of the time people don’t mention it. I get occasionally, ‘Oh, is it safe to come down there?’ People still have it in the back of their minds that it’s a bad area.”
She’s getting used to the idea of being boldly Hilltop again, even though she tells her customers the same happy news Mr. Mac relays to his.
“We used to be the worst district in Tacoma,” he says. “Now we’re the best.”
When Upper Tacoma Business Association president Eric Crittendon broached the idea of letting Hilltop be Hilltop again, McCollum backed him.
They see Hilltop’s commercial corridor on the cusp of hip grit with great pho, legendary candy, world-class martinis and a story as big as the world.
The old K Street, now MLK Way, was, in the first half of the last century, Tacoma’s second-busiest commercial area, behind the downtown. All of the city’s immigrant waves have washed over it.
That history belongs to Hilltop, not Upper Tacoma. Now the future can, too.
It has St. Joseph and Tacoma General hospitals inching toward the middle from their opposite ends of MLK Way, and it has Community Health Care’s new clinic shovel-ready in their path. It has a new barbecue joint, big housing bargains, and low crime.
“We know it’s changed, and we are proud of the name,” Crittendon said. “At conferences, when I had to say I was from Upper Tacoma, people wouldn’t know where that was.
“Everybody knows where Hilltop is, no matter where you go. Everybody knows because of the bad image. That gives me that opportunity to say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the city. You can’t have that discussion about Upper Tacoma.”
That discussion, he said, is a powerful selling point. By the time he’s through with it, his listeners know all about how Hilltop people won the war on gangs, and remain vigilant. They know about full parks, safe sidewalks, rehabbed homes, innovative city and school policies, new parks and old parks and home-made parks.
“It’s all part of its history,” Crittendon said. “Now everything can align on the groups’ names and websites and Facebook pages. We want to create a whole Hilltop brand and market it.”
They started with the business association members OKing the change, and the City Council making the new old Hilltop district official.
The new logo and banners are a start, plus bike racks. Once you’re up the hill, he pointed out, it’s a flat ride across it.
Next year, street flowers will follow, with more murals and music, perhaps the sale that will put a legit business in the old Browne’s building.
“I’m considering a ‘Buy Hilltop’ summit for investors who’ll renovate historic buildings and bring in coffee shops, shoe stores, maybe a Radio Shack and restaurants,” Crittendon said.
Maybe a garden store.
Maybe a deli.
Maybe, said Mr. Mac, a good, old-fashioned Hilltop breakfast place.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677