The year was 1943 and Tacoma’s Salishan housing project had just been built as part of the industrial miracle that won World War II for the Allies. After the war, the housing project served those with low incomes, many of whom were immigrants and returning veterans. Approximately 880 units were available.
Since its inception, many passionate community leaders, including myself, have tried to provoke changes in Salishan, a diverse community. The residents themselves endeavored to make their community a better place.
But as the years went on, Salishan attracted all sorts of crime and became the eyesore of Tacoma.
Salishan got my attention in 1967. That was the year I developed an unquenchable thirst and passion to understand my purpose in life. I joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America).
I trained in San Diego and South Central Los Angeles, the epicenter of the Black Panther movement. The Black Power sentiments of ”Burn, baby, burn” and ”I’m black and I’m proud” were still ringing in my ears when I was sent to Tacoma.
When I arrived at the Eastside Salishan housing community with all the “swag” and attire of a newly minted Black Panther, the youth of Salishan looked at me as if I was a fish out of water, and indeed I was.
All decked out with my black leather jacket and wild “afro” hairdo, I came to serve, but many of the youth had never even seen an “afro” up close before.
Within a week of my arrival, I began to survey the cultural landscape and saw the vast multicultural differences. I knew that in order to make a positive impact at Salishan, I had to quickly adopt a new set of lenses and language. I had to transform from Black Panther to Pink Panther.
With the assistance of a small core group of youth, and with the help of families, we started an investigation and found two major needs: a recreation center for youth and a low-cost grocery store for families.
Together we made it happen. Not only did we find a place for kids to gather and play games, we started an outpatient substance abuse program and a place for alternative schooling.
The Eastside Co-op Buyer’s Club gave Salishan another option to the nearby Piggly Wiggly, a grocery store known for increasing its prices around the first of the month. The Buyer’s Club was run by Salishan volunteers, and we were able to purchase food wholesale and procure fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers.
Salishan has produced many amazing success stories in the decades since I arrived, and many wouldn’t have happened without Joyce A. Barr.
She grew up in Salishan and is the community’s true success story. After attending Pacific Lutheran University, she went on to earn master’s degrees from Harvard and the National Defense University at Fort McNair. PLU awarded her an honorary doctorate and she has been recognized as a distinguished alumna.
When I think of all the wonderful experiences I’ve had during my 50-plus year career, I am most proud of knowing people like Barr, who cared enough to make a difference in their communities. I also take some pride in the transformation of Salishan. It was there I found my life’s purpose of serving others.
Thanks to residents, volunteers and public and private funding, the old eyesore of Salishan is now a part of Tacoma’s history. A new Salishan has risen to become the “Eyes of Hope” for the city, a beacon for the world to see.
Bob Penton of South Hill has served as both pastor and community organizer in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood for 52 years. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at Robert.Penton68@gmail.com