In the early 1990s, a war raged in Tacoma. Bullets pierced the air. Dozens of bodies fell.
In 1991, the FBI declared Tacoma was the most violent city in the state.
The next year ended with the unrelated shootings of a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old — the 65th and 66th homicides of the year in Pierce County. It was a record.
1993 began with 11 nonfatal drive-by shootings. And that was just on Jan. 1.
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It was about then when Hilltop resident Larry Norman reached a saturation point.
“Enough was enough,” he recalled last week. “Even the gang members and drug dealers had gotten tired of it.”
Norman decided to build a monument to the lives lost.
The city granted a small section of a green space at South 23rd and Alaska streets. Along with 30 other people — including gang members, churchgoers and children — Norman cleared the space and built a small monument just in time for a dedication on May 28, 1993.
There are no names on the monument, just a message: “All lives are precious.”
A NEIGHBORHOOD CHANGED
Neighbors stopped by Norman’s home throughout Saturday afternoon. Many huddled under portable canopies to stay out of the steady drizzling rain.
Many admired a quilt of the monument, meticulously crafted by Norman’s older sister, A’donna Richardson. At the last minute, she added dozens of white and gray birds taking flight through a blue sky.
Lael “Scoot” Nelson bowed his head before the quilt and reflected on the lives lost. He brushed a tear from the corner of his eye and talked about the Hilltop of his youth — before the neighborhood took a bad turn.
“You could walk the streets. You could eat at every dinner table,” Nelson explained. Neighbors looked out for one another and their children.
The violence that rocked the Hilltop robbed children of their mothers and fathers, children of aunts and uncles. It robbed residents of their sense of community and security.
The monument “is for them most of all, for people who kept our community strong” despite the gang wars, Nelson said.
“Now our community is way more diverse … and with so many different cultures,” he observed.
Throughout the afternoon, people walked or drove the short pilgrimage to South 23rd and South Alaska streets. Earlier in the day, someone had placed vases of flowers next to two corners of the stone monument, now flecked with moss after so many years.
Nicole Norman, Larry’s daughter, was 7 years old when the monument was built. She sees parallels between its inscription — All lives are precious — and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The same things happened back then,” she said, referring to police misconduct and brutality, “but we were also killing each other.”
Norman has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Hilltop.
Today he lives just one block south of the house he grew up in on South Ainsworth Avenue.
“Back in the ’70s it was a blast,” he recalled last week.
Norman remembers growing up in a neighborhood where everyone got along, even when desegregation sent kids to schools all over the city.
“Even though we started going to different middle schools and high schools, we all knew each other because we all came from the same neighborhood,” said Norman, now 56.
“People in the community got along, we all helped each other. There was a good relationship with the police department.”
After high school Norman joined the Air Force.
But when he returned in 1989, he found a decidedly different atmosphere.
“Blue, that’s what you started seeing,” Norman said. “You didn’t see red, just blue.”
Blue was associated with the Crips, a rival street gang to the Bloods, who identified themselves with red articles of clothing.
Norman, in his 30s at the time and a Seattle firefighter, wasn’t recruitment material for gangs. But he saw younger people get pulled in to them and the associated drug culture.
“The young people were losing their way,” he said. “They were being sucked into this violent environment.”
Every week saw a shooting or murder, Norman said.
“Those people who didn’t end up dead were in wheelchairs or down at the hospital,” he said.
The monument was a way to get people to pay attention, Norman said.
“ ‘All lives are precious’ started getting people’s attention,” he said.
Norman’s only goal was to slow or even stop the senseless killing.
“At the time there wasn’t any hope for the future,” he said.
But the killings didn’t stop. From 1993 to 2003, Norman said, he attended 23 funerals for people who died from violence.
“The youngest was 11, the oldest was 24,” he said.
Scattered among the bodies were the other lives scarred and ruined by drugs, incarceration and broken homes.
“Those numbers are staggering,” Norman said.
As the years rolled on the tensions became too high, the politics too intense. He felt caught between police, churches and his own neighbors.
“I felt at the time that my presence here was more negative than positive,” he said.
He left for Colorado in 2003 to be closer to family.
THE HILLTOP TODAY
Norman returned to the Hilltop with his teenaged daughter in September 2015.
“It was time to come home,” he said.
He found a dramatically changed neighborhood. New housing replaced dilapidated homes. Streets had been repaired. New faces filled the neighborhood.
Everyone had been telling him the Hilltop had changed. The violence was gone.
“What wasn’t gone, I found, was the number of young people from this community that are up in Remann Hall,” Norman said. “What wasn’t gone were the number of students I see walking around here during the day that are expelled, suspended or just choose not to go to school. What hasn’t changed are the number of addicts I’ve seen that are still here.”
Some of those affected by the problems of the Hilltop in the 1990s now are community advocates like Norman. He calls it, “Come back and give back.”
He also welcomes newcomers.
“You can’t stop people from moving where they want to,” he said.
But he’s concerned about residents who aren’t vested in the neighborhood.
“I don’t need to know any neighbors,” Norman described their attitude. “I don’t need to know what’s happening round here. I just need to put in enough time and equity and sell (the house) for a profit.”
Saturday’s rededication of the 23rd Street memorial was a reminder that a community can achieve a common goal, he said.
“There was a time, in the worst of conditions, when we were able to get solidarity and come together, and we could do it again,” Norman said. “We really need that again right now.”
News Tribune reporter Kate Martin contributed to this report.