Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Hilltop Street Fair helps redeem Tacoma’s most maligned neighborhood

Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Those are the words of fictional “Mad Men” ad man Don Draper, of course, but they apply here in Tacoma. Perhaps nowhere more than on Hilltop.

For years there’s been a perception of Hilltop that doesn’t necessarily mesh with the present reality. Largely, it’s perpetuated by people who don’t live in Tacoma — the kind of folks who still get a kick out of making aroma jokes.

Needless to say, it can become irritating.

But it comes from somewhere, mostly the past. There certainly was a time when Hilltop wasn’t safe, when drugs and gangs had their way, and nightly news stories helped spread an image of Hilltop that hangs on even today, long past its expiration date.

As you may know, I recently returned from the Dark Side, having spent the prior three years working in Seattle. My family lived on Hilltop for the duration of that stint, as we do today; I rode the Sounder commuter train to Pioneer Square each morning and returned each night, happy to be back.

The reaction when I would tell people from Seattle that I lived on Hilltop was strangely uniform: big eyes, surprised expressions, questions about violence and crime.

It’s a conversation I grew accustomed to.

And it’s a conversation those who champion Hilltop are desperately trying to change.

This work was on full display Saturday during the second annual Hilltop Street Fair. Though it will take far more than a one-day-a-year festival to turn the page on decades of negative publicity, the celebration and sense of community that carried this year’s festival were impossible to deny.

Event organizer Kristie Worthey, who said she’s lived on Hilltop “off and on” since the 1980s, told me that an estimated 10,000 people visited this year’s street fair, doubling last year’s debut. She said the festival’s mantra is: “Come see Hilltop with fresh eyes.”

When it comes to changing perceptions, what I saw Saturday didn’t hurt. Sometimes in Tacoma we have a tendency to gloss over shortcomings and crown mediocre efforts as something far greater. This was not one of those occasions.

The Hilltop Street Fair, with its music, food and local vibrancy, was legitimately cool.

“Hilltop is where I could afford to live, so I’ve had to make this home. I take a lot of pride in it,” Worthey told me last week as she and an army of more than 50 volunteers put the finishing touches on plans for the event. “I’ve seen a lot of change here.”

“The most common public gathering place in any city is the street; everyone has a chance to interact with each other,” Worthey explained when I asked how a neighborhood gathering could help change people’s impressions. “(It) gets rid of that otherness, and says, ‘Hey, we are this community.’ People outside of Hilltop come here and say, ‘This isn’t the Hilltop that I’ve heard about.’”

Hearing is one thing. Seeing is believing. And while the sense of community that makes Hilltop worth fighting for took center stage Saturday, it’s going to take a few more smart developments, a few less boarded-up windows, and – most importantly — a commitment to health, human services and equity to make the outside world start thinking in a different light.

Ricardo Noguera, Tacoma’s director of community and economic development, said the buildings, at least, are starting to materialize.

“The coming of the Link light rail is exciting and starting to draw more interest from developers, investors and property owners in the Hilltop area,” Noguera told me, in the glass-half-full excitement that comes with his job description. “(Hilltop’s) close proximity to downtown and area hospitals makes it an ideal location for infill residential and mixed-use development.”

Noguera pointed to at least four projects that are underway or will break ground in the next year. The Browne’s Star Grill building will have a mix of first-floor retail and 10 residential units upstairs, all expected to be available by year’s end. Meanwhile, the Tacoma Housing Authority is working on a plan to develop 50 residential mixed-income lofts above retail space at the corner of MLK Way and Earnest S. Brazil Street.

Any change, however, comes at a cost. As any true Hilltopper knows, Morris McCollum’s iconic men’s clothing store, Mr. Mac, now occupies that corner.

Hilltop’s next chapter is still being written. How it will read has yet to be determined.

The Hilltop Street Fair provided legitimate optimism for the future.

Or, as they say, a chance to see Hilltop with fresh eyes.