Tacoma sidewalks cement our history

Chuck Kleeberg is one of six Reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Chuck Kleeberg is one of six Reader columnists for The News Tribune. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Thirteen years ago, Tim Olsen wondered how far he would have to walk each day to circumnavigate the world in 20 years.

He did the math. It was only 3.3 miles per day, about an hour, a very doable task. The problem was that he didn’t want to be gone from his family and home for two decades. So he started walking Tacoma. He estimates he’s about 15,000 miles and thirty pairs of REI hiking shoes in.

At first Olsen would venture a half hour from his Fern Hill home and go back. It’s a beautiful part of Tacoma with a rich history, but he got a little bored with it. Today, he has walked every neighborhood. His perspective of Tacoma is different from those who drive or pedal about.

He notices trees, how they stretch to touch each other. He hears birds, including a surprising number of eagles. He finds obscure markers, landmarks and museums.

He collects snippets of conversations. He detects different scents. He gets upset with the way the rest of us treat pedestrians and trees. Most of the time he is in his own head, his boots firmly planted on the sidewalk.

Bless the lowly sidewalk. We take it for granted.

Sidewalks invite healthy behavior. They are the outdoor version of that treadmill in your basement, but without clothes draped everywhere.

They beat the alternatives of walking in the street or slip-sliding a muddy path.

With their concrete cousins, curbs, they protect us from traffic.

Sidewalks are egalitarian. Some of the most exclusive neighborhoods are have-nots and some of the most affordable are haves.

They connect neighbors. My daughter met her first two friends in life, Erin and Jessica, on the sidewalk in front of our house.

They are multi-functional. Kids learn to ride bikes and sell lemonade there. They provide a blank slate for hop-scotchers, tic-tac-toe-ers and artists. The most famous song about sidewalks is true. East side, west side, all around the town, you can trip the light fantastic, you can sing about bridges falling down.

Sidewalks are historic archives.

Look down and you will spot imprints of paws, bird feet, hands, initials, fern fronds, and inspirational messages (e.g. “IMAGINE”), all part of the permanent record.

There are artful mosaics which neighbors installed to repair sidewalks raised by tree roots. There are beautiful tiles where walkways meet the sidewalks. Some corners have street names embedded in them.

The names of proud companies are imprinted in sidewalks installed before the 1950s. Some of them date back to the beginning of the 20th century.

I seek out the “WPA” mark. These were installed around Tacoma in the Great Depression by unemployed people who were happy to get a job from the Federal Works Progress Administration. Someone like my parents, who struggled during that time, built this thing I still use 80 years later. It’s yet another legacy of the Greatest Generation.

But here’s the thing. Tim has noticed that some of this history is being erased. The city is making the sidewalks accessible to pedestrians who have trouble getting over curbs. Expanding the sidewalk-lovers club and helping future me negotiate sidewalks is a noble cause. But it would be nice if each of us preserved the sidewalk record before it is gone, even with a photograph or a rubbing.

Another casualty of the accessibility ramps, Tim has noticed, is that our rare granite curbs are being removed. They could be repurposed. Again, we should not take our infrastructure for granite (sorry).

He thinks we should treat trees and sidewalks as we do historic structures. Best to preserve them, but at the least we should memorialize them.

This may not be the most pressing issue of our times, but I don’t have to walk 15,000 miles to agree with Tim. After all, who knows the city better than a guy who has invested so much sole in Tacoma?

Chuck Kleeberg, a Tacoma resident for most of the last 40 years, recently retired from public service. He’s one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2018. Reach him at chuckkleeberg@gmail.com