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Buckley Gulch: No Man’s Land

To hike from one end of Buckley Gulch to the other takes wading boots, determination and some courage.

It might also help to have a big stick.

Not only will you get deeper and deeper into boggy wetland and thick overgrowth, you’ll also eventually make it upstream to the Yakima Avenue and North 21st Street bridges — the playground of graffitists, drug users and the homeless.

Some locals like it that way. Others want to restore the gulch and open it up with a trail, similar to what has happened in Puget Gulch.

In the meantime, it’s a no-man’s land that hovers between scary and beautiful.

Buckley — sometimes known by other names, such as Old Town Gulch — is the gulch that no longer reaches Puget Sound. In 1864, when first settler Job Carr staked a claim and pitched a cabin on the edge of Commencement Bay, Buckley Creek offered him easy fresh water and fish.

Over the next few decades, saw mills moved in to make a killing on Tacoma’s spruce and cedar forests. The creek provided clean steam and a pond for the Dickman mill at the creek’s mouth, and fed Fuller Water Works at North 26th and Carr streets, functional until 1940.

In 1925, Ruston Way — the street that skirts the waterfront — was built on wooden beams and fill scooped from the nearby bluff.

“That was probably when the stream was cut off from the Sound,” said photographic historian Ron Karabaich, who grew up making dams and forts in Buckley Gulch 60-odd years ago and still lives on its edge.

Now, Old Town Park sits between North 29th and 30th streets, exactly where the gulch’s mouth ought to be.

In the little meadow of Ursich Park, what looks like someone’s extended back yard is the beginning of a gulch — or rather, two.

One extends to the east, a narrow cliff of trees between Carr and Orchard streets. Privately owned, the gulch’s presence is audible from almost every backyard on Carr Street as a gurgling stream that cascades through just-visible duck ponds and waterfalls.

The other finger of gulch is longer and traversible, at least for a while.

Crossing and recrossing the tumbling, clear stream, the path gets narrower and more tangled with native berries. Expensive houses are perched some 170 feet up on the edge.

A deer carcass, dragged along the path and crawling with maggots, offers evidence of a coyote that neighborhood groups have been warning pet owners about.

Squirrels dart unafraid; rumors abound that rats also love the thick undergrowth. Birds call constantly. Deer wander all around. A field of sharp-tasting watercress grows in the flowing, sandy-bottomed stream.

A car tire is so covered in lush moss that it looks part of the ecosystem.

Most noticeable of all is the quiet. Aside from occasional planes overhead, the bottom of Buckley Gulch seems a thousand miles from anywhere. Even orientation is gone as streets and maps become useless so far down.

“This was a wonderful place to grow up as a kid,” said Karabaich, who also ventured into Garfield Gulch just a few blocks east.

“There are so many little springs — water everywhere. We’d throw mud at each other, dam up the water and float our boats in there, build camps out of scrap lumber and tear them down.”

Kids still play in the gulches.

Christina Seeburger, whose house sits between the two fingers of the gulch, said her three boys played and rode mountain bikes down in it regularly without fear.

“When they were little, I would accompany them, but I only once saw a stranger coming out of there,” she said.

“Every summer we’d just go down there, play paintball and stuff,” said her son Chris, who just graduated from Bellarmine High School. “There used to be a vine we could swing on.”

As you get closer to the footbridge over Yakima Avenue — built by early developer Allen Mason for the Proctor streetcar in the 1890s and now closed to cars for safety — things get stranger.

Two plastic chairs sit, vacation style, by a stagnant pond where the stream is blocked. Sewer caps stand like sentinels.

Someone’s built a treehouse with a “no trespassing” sign. Someone else has built a tree platform with fern fronds hanging from the roofline like a shrine. “Stay high” is spray-painted across the entrance.

Under the Yakima bridge is more graffiti, with spray cans placed in an equally spray-painted garbage bin. Plenty more trash is around. People throw everything from bottles to bicycles off the bridge, locals say. And there’s a lingering smell of marijuana.

This is all private property, unlike the first few acres near Ursich Park. A city easement along the bottom allows for occasional clean-up, but it’s clearly not used much. Ivy that covers many of the trees will eventually bring them down if it’s not cleared away.

Forty years ago, a young girl named Maria Corsi was stabbed to death with a pitchfork right here. It still feels a little haunted.

Under the historic 21st Street Bridge, things get nasty: a fireplace, rank-smelling mattresses and clothes, a tent, drug debris.

“We’ve had police with tracking dogs through here, two of our cars broken into, stuff stolen from the back,” said Bill Blaszak, who has lived in a house next to the bridge for 37 years.

He repeatedly warns kids he sees going down that way to be careful.

“There’s always been people under the bridge. A lot of drugs, a lot of sex,” he said. “We hear it continuously. The police are always very responsive.”

Colin DeForrest, the city’s homeless services manager, recently cleared a three-tent encampment from under the 21st Street bridge — an event that happens two or three times a year in Buckley and Puget gulches, six times in Garfield.

“The challenge with the gulches is (when) they don’t see a lot of foot traffic, positive community activity,” he said.

The same conclusion has been reached by Steve Hale, who lives between Buckley and Garfield gulches, runs the Old Town neighborhood Block Watch, and volunteers at the local police substation.

He blames Buckley’s condition on a lack of citizen coordination.

“All open space requires volunteer stewards and a group or two to adopt it and make it thrive,” Hale said. “I have no doubt that some of our petty and not-so-petty crime is committed by people who use the open spaces as cover and concealment.”

For Hale and a few other neighbors, the solution is to restore Buckley and open it as a public trail, like Puget Gulch or the more recently restored First Creek.

The more people use such a trail, the argument goes, the safer it is for everyone.

“When you see people jogging alone or walking with strollers and dogs, you know you are on the right track,” he said.

Some neighbors say crime is not a problem.

“You could leave a $100 bill on the windshield, and it’d be there in the morning,” said Dan Elliott, who grew up on Rosemount Way on Buckley’s western side and whose parents still live there.

“My brother and I used to go down there all the time making treehouses, playing games. … It was always a peaceful place.”

But creating a trail in Buckley would take the cooperation of a dozen or so landowners along the upper reaches. Many of them bought adjoining parcels to keep their property boundaries wild and free of development.

“I wouldn’t want a trail,” said Blaszak, who occasionally goes down the gulch to cut back overgrowth and ivy. “I think there should be green space. A trail would impact the deer and other animals.”

“We see so many here,” added Blaszak’s wife, Eileen. “Squirrels, raccoons, possums, hawks, owls, herons, Western tanagers, hummingbirds. With the trees and wilderness, you always feel like you’re on vacation.”

The Blaszaks also contend that opening a trail would make it easier for criminals and the homeless to use the gulch.

“That’s what happened in Garfield Gulch,” Blaszak said.

Development also can present a challenge to creating a nature trail in Buckley gulch.

The property next to the Blaszaks once was forest; four years ago, it was converted to a four-story condominium that still stands empty, its apartments accessible only by steep stairs.

In January, property owners Jeff and Sarah McInnis began planning for housing on their West Road gulch parcel near the Yakima bridge: three single-family houses on a slope covered with 100-foot-tall firs and ferns.

“It’s a really neat little wooded setting (for houses),” said Jeff McInnis, who’s lived on Buckley for 15 years. He built the treehouse, his son built the smaller platform, and all his kids play in the gulch.

Building houses in the gulch would improve things there, he said.

“If you put people in the gulch, they can take care of their own area,” he said. “The more people we can get living in there, it’ll improve. If it’s ignored, it’ll get rough and wild.”

Others oppose development in the area.

“There are plenty of places to build — I don’t know why people have to disturb the gulch,” said Alice Schaffer, who lives nearby.

Rick Rosenbladt, Fircrest’s city manager and a Buckley property owner, would like the gulch left as it is. “If everything gets developed away,” he said, “there’s nothing left.”

One issue with building on the slope of the gulch is its stability. Like all of Tacoma’s gulches, the city has classified Buckley as unstable because of its steep sides.

No one has studied the geological stability of the gulches, said Layne Alfonso with the local offices of GeoEngineers. Assessments are done case by case as owners build.

McInnis believes his section is stable enough to build the three houses.

Renee Paine, whose house faces the proposed development across the Yakima bridge, disagrees. “This gulch is dirt. It sloughs,” she said. “My house is constantly moving down toward the gulch.”

Paine, who has lived on Buckley for 46 years, noted that a lot of the gulch has been filled and built on. She opposes the McGinnis’ project and wants to keep the gulch green for both people and wildlife.

She said she’d be happy to collaborate with the city to restore Buckley to a public nature preserve.

“It’s a beautiful place that makes Tacoma livable,” she said. “People want beauty around them.”

Buckley’s far upper end shows how neighbors can partner to make a gulch safe and beautiful.

That end has no through access — just south of 21st Street, the gulch is filled and blocked by North Oakes Street — but it continues deep and untouched to its head on North 16th Street.

A few years ago, residents built native and community vegetable gardens over the top of the gulch. It’s a tranquil public space that’s a world away from the wilderness under the bridges.

“There’s a great opportunity there,” said Joe Brady, manager of natural resources at Metro Parks. “It would be great to connect that neighborhood to Old Town and the waterfront.”

“I would like to see people that live along the gulch — especially the ones that have been victims (of crime) — take ownership of the place, get organized, get support from the city,” said Hale. “Trim it, make a 6-foot-wide trail, a place that people want to use. Right now, it’s a no man’s land.”

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