Historic Eastside tour honors Tacoma's past and future

For more than half a century the Top of Tacoma Bar and Cafe on McKinley Hill has served as social hub for Eastside neighbors. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer
For more than half a century the Top of Tacoma Bar and Cafe on McKinley Hill has served as social hub for Eastside neighbors. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer

As the City of Tacoma makes plans for its future, it’s smart to remember its past.

The city’s Historic Preservation Office is hosting a series of free walking tours throughout the city this spring. The series kicks off Saturday on Tacoma’s Eastside, a part of the city where architectural gems often get overlooked.

Tacoma’s downtown and wealthier North End may lay claim to the largest assemblage of historic public spaces and grand homes, but the Eastside is where you’ll find a solid chunk of Tacoma’s blue-collar foundation.

Sadly, its neighborhoods are associated too often with poverty and crime, a reputation that has eclipsed its historic charms. We’re on board with the city’s pledge to encourage Tacoma to take pride in a place that has, and continues to be, home to men and women who keep local industries humming.

Christopher Staudinger, a Tacoma tour guide and freelance journalist, was recruited to point out the Eastside’s storied past.

We say lace up your comfortable shoes and go.

Sepia-toned photographs and newspaper clippings are no substitute for trudging along tree -lined streets that once housed Tacoma’s first carpenters, craftspeople and railcar repairmen.

As Staudinger says: “They built these beautiful craftsman homes.”

The tour starts in front of the Top of Tacoma Bar & Cafe in the McKinley business district -- a fitting launch point since the bar, through several owners, has served as the community’s social hub since the 1930s.

Participants will also see the 1922 Park Theater, now empty, but once upon a time it played speakeasy films complete with pipe organ.

And thanks to a partnership between the city and the University of Washington Tacoma, the tour will also feature some new information compiled by UW research students.

But don’t expect this two-hour tour to be dry in any sense. (Weather forecast indicates waterproof attire may be necessary). Staudinger is the founder of Pretty Gritty Tours and knows how to combine historic detail with entertaining palaver.

Speaking of Tacoma grit, you’ll find plenty of it here, the most recent proof being a contemporary grassroots effort: the $29 million, 55,000-square-foot Eastside Community Center set to open later this year.

For decades, it seems, the neighborhood has been described as “transitioning.” Perhaps this new attention to historic significance may be a sign of even better things to come.

Preserving cultural landmarks and rescuing old homes from demolition have practical and economic consequences. Restoration projects are strong incentives for businesses, developers and families to see a neighborhood as a potential place to put down roots.

The decreasing volume of affordable housing in Pierce County would suggest change is inevitable.

While we don’t expect a sudden invasion of hipsters followed by eclectic restaurants and specialty shops, we look at the gentrification that’s already transforming downtown and parts of Hilltop and wonder if the Eastside could be next.

In the meantime, highlighting this neighborhood’s historic character gives Eastside residents a connection to their past while reminding all of Tacoma of its great working-class legacy.

Eastside Tacoma walking tour

When: Saturday, 1-3 p.m.

Where: In front of Top of Tacoma Bar & Cafe, 3529 E McKinley Ave

More information: Go online to cityoftacoma.org and search walking tours.