Drive the length of South Tacoma Way and it doesn’t look much different than the forgotten corners of any modern city.
You’ll find a collection of auto dealers, pockets of impersonal industrial buildings and short stretches of brick buildings that progress has forgotten. There’s not much foot traffic, and few homes.
But South Tacoma Way was once the busiest thoroughfare in Tacoma.
The bustling district developed a pragmatic identity rooted in the blue-collar railroad workers who lived and worked there – as well as offbeat diversions to attract the attention of many others who passed through on their way to Seattle or Olympia.
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But, like many roads in cities across the country, when malls and interstate highways moved in and suburbs became the new home for the American dream, South Tacoma Way lost part of its utility. By the time the railroad left, the road was reeling from the loss of its commercial identity.
That could have been the end of the story. South Tacoma Way could have languished and died. It didn’t. The evidence is in the mom-and-pop shops passed down from generation to generation, the strong sense of community and the welcoming atmosphere for newcomers that has fostered a thriving international district.
Jasveer Singh moved to California from India in 1987 and got a job with a pizza chain.
“I was a good pizza maker,” Singh said. He transferred to the Lakewood branch after five years.
When a restaurant owner in the B&I shopping center told him she was struggling, Singh decided to try his hand at the business.
Within two years of opening Taz Pizza, the business was a success. He decided to sell it and open another business, India Bazaar, just across the way.
At his new store, in a spacious corner of the B&I near the food court, Singh sells Indian food, clothing, jewelry, videos and music.
“I feel it’s my home over here because everybody knows me and I feel more easy,” he said. “This is the very approachable place.”
Before the thoroughfare was South Tacoma Way, it was a single-track dirt trail through an area American Indians called “cack hund,” or “elk trap.”
But the Northern Pacific Railroad, in its race to build a transcontinental railroad, changed the fate of the street. First, in 1873, the company decided Tacoma was the perfect terminus for its transcontinental ambitions. Later, in 1890, it decided South Tacoma Way was an ideal place to build engine shops.
Brick makers and builders were brought in to build the shops. Thousands of laborers were hired to keep cars in tip-top shape and the railroad running. Restaurants, saloons and shops opened to accommodate the needs of the ballooning population.
“It was kind of a diverse group of ethnic groups,” said Dave Burns, a South Tacoma Way native and historian.
The diversity can still be seen today, both in the robust international district and in the details of some historic homes, which men built after a hard day’s work. The work ethic earned the area the nickname “the city built by twilight.”
But still, the road didn’t have a name. Or at least not a permanent one.
The business that purchased the first land on the road called it Excelsior, an esoteric form of a Latin word that meant “onward and upward.”
The post office and Northern Pacific called it Edison, in hopes of capitalizing on the American inventor’s luck.
The smart-mouths in Tacoma who looked down on the blue-collar hub near a swamp called it “wildcat,” a common term of the time to describe land that would never amount to anything.
But the residents wanted none of those: They called it South Tacoma Way, simple and to the point.
With the rail shops built and the street named, South Tacoma Way was set on its road to prosperity.
“In the early days, they repaired just about every railroad (car) that broke down west of the Mississippi,” said Brian Kamens, who’s worked in the Northwest Room of the Tacoma Public Library for 25 years, and has taken a particular interest in South Tacoma Way.
Not only was it a bustling railroad hub, but it also became the nexus of the South Sound, connecting Tacoma to Lakewood, Steilacoom and Olympia. The traffic meant more eateries and roadside oddities: a coffee-pot-shaped restaurant, a castle-shaped toy store, chicken dinner restaurants and dance halls.
It also meant more bars, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the wives and the employers of the town.
Determined to set men on the right track, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union opened a reading room, which became the first branch of the Tacoma Public Library. A businessman tied to Northern Pacific opened a bank, at 5446 South Tacoma Way, to encourage the men to deposit their funds, rather than spend them.
“It worked, for a while,” Kamens said with a laugh.
Richard Charette’s parents moved to Tacoma in 1944, when he was 5 or 6 years old.
“I can remember when South Tacoma was a hustle-bustle little community,” he said.
After a stint in the military, Charette moved back in 1957. He’s been there for the last 50 years.
“I’m not a roamer,” he said.
After Charette had been retired from the painting business for about eight years, his wife, Carol, convinced him to try the bar business. Five years ago, the two bought Opal Tavern, a staple of South Tacoma Way since at least the 1930s.
Charette and his wife open the joint to a coffee crowd of regulars every morning.
“This place has traditionally opened at 6 o’clock every morning six days a week,” he said. “If I didn’t open at 6 o’clock, I’d get some turned noses.”
Charette thinks about retiring again, maybe moving to Mexico, where there aren’t so many rainy days. But for now, he’s content.
By the 1940s, South Tacoma Way was abuzz with business and progress.
“The fact that South Tacoma’s ‘ship has come in,’ and that business growth has been remarkable is but half the story,” proclaimed one article in an August 1941 article in The Tacoma Times.
The other half of the story was in the culture. Steve’s Gay 90s, which opened as Steve’s Tavern in 1941, was the epitome of South Tacoma Way’s quirky charm. The 1890s-themed restaurant had a faux front painted barnyard red, checkered tile floors, cable car booths and can-can girls.
“When I was a kid, I thought I was a big shot when we went to dinner there,” said Larry Kilen, who grew up in the area. “Besides that, they had the girls dance. It was pretty neat.”
An everyday shopping trip might involve a stop at the B&I Circus Store, which opened in 1946. The flea market and arcade was the perfect place for a kid to spend the day.
“Tony, my brother, and I would go over the railroad tracks behind South Tacoma Way, and walk up and down looking for bottles,” said John Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive who grew up on the road. “We’d walk from 54th and South Tacoma Way on the train tracks all the way down to the B&I. We’d turn them in for money, then buy as much candy as we could,” he said. Their afternoons were spent enjoying the fruits of their labor with friends at South Park.
Ladenburg remembered South Tacoma as an open place.
“It’s always been an atmosphere of acceptance,” he said. “It wasn’t an area where you had racial problems.”
But it wasn’t ideal.
“Between the hardworking guys and hard-drinking guys, trouble would break out,” Ladenburg said. “There were knife fights and even gunfights at times. That was kind of the community and you accepted it.”
At the same time, the community was fighting its violent image with beauty.
In 1959, the business district bought a water truck to care for the 200 hanging flower baskets added to the road as part of a city beautification project.
“Shop in Growing South Tacoma!” was painted on the side, and the beautification committee chair told the newspaper that if other areas caught the similar pride, “Tacoma will certainly be a city to be proud of.”
In the early 1960s, Kilen, now 62, was going to barber school on South Tacoma Way.
He’d returned from fighting in Vietnam injured, and knew his career possibilities were limited. His uncle was a barber, so he thought he’d give it a try.
He worked for 20 years as a barber until he bought a shop on the road. He’s owned Larry’s Barbershop for two decades.
Walking into his two-seat shop is like stepping back in time. It’s decorated with mainly historical black-and-white photos of Tacoma, along with a few new ones. Propped beside a mirror is a picture of Kilen in the alley behind the barber school he attended on South Tacoma Way.
Although retirement is around the corner, Kilen said he looks forward to the Sounder train breathing new life into South Tacoma Way.
“That was supposed to be here two years ago,” he said. “That’s taking a little more time.”
South Tacoma Way’s prosperity hit a snag in 1965.
The Tacoma Mall opened, drawing customers from the long commercial corridor to the modern indoor shopping center.
Later that year, the final onramp to Interstate 5 opened, meaning it was no longer necessary to travel between Olympia and Seattle by using South Tacoma Way.
“I-5 kind of killed it and the mall kind of helped put another dagger into it,” said area historian Burns.
The final blow came in 1973, when Northern Pacific merged with Burlington Northern.
“That was the end of the car shops. They were torn down in 1975,” said librarian Kamens. “It was definitely a big blow. You could say it was really kind of a company town.”
Shops – including Steve’s Gay 90s – closed, crime became a concern and shop owners did what they could to stay in business.
But an area with as much community pride as South Tacoma Way wouldn’t stay down long.
By 1976, right after the rail shops his grandfather helped build had been torn down, Ladenburg and his childhood friend Tony Haselman had graduated from law school. They decided they preferred South Tacoma over downtown, so they opened up shop on the thoroughfare.
“It was still a working-class neighborhood and a working-class business district,” Ladenburg said. “But there were 11 taverns in the two-block area.”
Ladenburg and Haselman were used to the taverns and the occasional crime, but it was the vacant storefronts they couldn’t stand.
“We were kind of upset that things were being allowed to stagnate,” said Ladenburg.
As resident Fred Neibaur put it in a 1980 article that appeared in The News Tribune: “A lot of money has been spent to rebuild downtown Tacoma. Not a nickel has been spent here. It’s our turn.”
Several business owners formed the South Tacoma Way Business District Association with the goal of turning things around. It worked, at first. Members pitched in money and the association secured grants to modernize the streets and add trees and flowers. With such early promise, hopes were high.
“The South Tacoma businessmen hope the district eventually would be comparable to the planned and coordinated business districts in Port Orchard, Leavenworth or Winthrop,” said the same newspaper article.
The sidewalks, trees and flowers went in. By 1986, Ladenburg said only 5 percent of the storefronts were empty.
But South Tacoma Way never became the next Leavenworth, Port Orchard or Winthrop.
Crime persisted. Big-box stores opened throughout Tacoma, drawing more families away from shopping along the road.
And a city with a “gritty” reputation thought of more reasons to distance itself from its working-class pocket.
“It’s kind of a misunderstood and overlooked community,” said Darlyne Reiter, who wrote a book about South Tacoma that was just released (“South Tacoma,” Arcadia Publishing, $19.99).
To the people whose identity was rooted in South Tacoma Way, it almost didn’t matter that their time in the spotlight was over.
Larry Kilen’s barbershop stays busy. The Opal still has a daily coffee crowd of regulars starting at 6 a.m. And the residents keep fighting for their community.
“It has a lot of promise to return to kind of an active, vibrant business district and neighborhood,” said Connie Ladenburg, a member of the Tacoma City Council.
Ladenburg said she sees South Tacoma Way as the next area to “explode” with development, similar to Sixth Avenue and downtown. The eventual arrival of the Sounder train will bring the area more traffic and boost its cache, she said.
“It was a railroad hub back in the day,” said Ladenburg. “That’s why that community developed is because of the railroad. Now we’re bringing the railroad back. It’s come full circle.”
Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8658