Living & Entertainment

Tacoma’s Opera Alley undergoes annual sprucing for block party

Tacoma’s Opera Alley is so short it runs just half a block.

It’s so narrow that its buildings almost lean into one another.

They’re so close, in fact, that strings of decorations could be run out one window into another.

That’s just what Justin Mayfield and his crew will do Saturday when the short span of antique buildings between South Seventh Street and St. Helens Avenue becomes the venue for the annual Downtown Block Party.

Now in its fifth year, the evening celebration of participatory activities, entertainment and food is again about to leave a permanent mark on its surroundings.

“You come here to do stuff, not look at stuff,” Mayfield said. “Though there’s lots to look at.”

Mayfield runs the nonprofit Local Life, a group dedicated to helping neighborhoods become more community-oriented places where people can live, work and play together.

In 2013, when 2,500 people attended the block party, colorful umbrellas were hung on lines across the alley. This year multicolored strings will fan out from windows and across the alley.

Opera Alley has gotten better-looking, building by building, during each year’s block party. Every year a building façade is painted, many with murals. That, in turn, brings in new tenants and inspires building owners to take a new look at their properties.

Earlier this week a volunteer crew was busy painting the alley side of the Rampart/Rampizi building a golden hue. Decorative scroll work was to be added later.

On Saturday, members of the public will be invited to finish the project.

“We want to make a lasting contribution to the alley,” Mayfield said.

Shortly after last year’s block party, Dennis Ellis opened B Sharp Coffee House in a building owned by George and Ruby Chambers. This week Ruby Chambers was in Opera Alley, wearing a paint-splattered shirt and carrying a can of paint.

In September 2015, the Chamberses plan to open a high-end cocktail lounge next to B Sharp.

Called The Press Room, the 140 seat, two-level, 3,800-square-foot club will offer jazz on weekends and pay homage to one of the site’s previous incarnations, The News Tribune’s offices and printing plant.

The Chambers are doing the build-out themselves. Ruby cited Local Life for bringing new energy to the street.

“I don’t think Opera Alley would be as quaint without the murals,” she said.

More than 30 hands-on activities for adults and children will be offered at this year’s block party, Mayfield said. He’s even working on something he called “human foosball.”

An 11-piece salsa band, a DJ and a Louisiana jam band will be among the performers. A fully operable 15-foot-tall marionette will be on site for visitors to amuse themselves with.

Pacific Grill will sponsor a wine and beer garden, and food will be provided by local restaurants and food trucks.

Mayfield doesn’t want to limit the visual improvements to just paint.

He’s looking into adding a decorative entry arch, and Rainier Connect has provided partial funding for a $5,000 lighting system. The lights will be strung across the alley from building to building, much like Saturday’s decorations.

“I think of this as a living room,” Mayfield said. “We want it to feel finished.”