Opinion Columns & Blogs

In Tacoma, beauty is hidden in plain sight

The News Tribune’s series on Tacoma’s gulches reminds me that most of the great city parks of the rest of the country, if not the world, are planned and built.

The best of Tacoma’s parks and places of refuge, on the other hand, have been hidden in plain sight and are the products of historical accidents. Our glorious Point Defiance was owned by the federal government and was intended to be a key military installation.

It was never built, the land was never logged, and the park now gives us, and untold generations, an inheritance of irreplaceable centuries old trees in abundance.

Blueberry Park was the intended site for a public school. Fortunately, at least for those of us who love blueberries, the school was never built; we now have a legacy of nurturing and picking blueberries.

Swan Creek Park was originally designed as part of a large housing development; it too was never built. In place of housing, we now have a thriving food forest and a destination trail bike course.

Few, if any cities, could boast the number, range and variety of city parks Tacoma holds. But as the late night infomercials might put it, “Wait, there’s more!”

I have poked around in, explored, got lost and muddy in, and found refuge in Tacoma’s gulches for decades. Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I lived in Old Town. One of my fantasies was to work downtown and walk to work through the Bayside Trail.

How many cities have, from their urban core, immediate walkable access to deep, quiet, eternally green woods with anything like our stunning views of Mount Rainier and Commencement Bay? And with a direct connection to a neighborhood like Old Town?

Running was just getting popular then, and the trail was filled with eager runners and quiet walkers for years. And then it was fenced off.

I don’t expect to run for public office, so I can say this: Tacoma seems to have one guiding principle of urban planning and that “Enough neglect will kill any project, no matter how good, useful or promising.”

Fencing off the Bayside Trail kept neighbors, families and volunteers out, gave addicts and the homeless their own domain, and ensured that the steep hillside would not be maintained or even monitored as it slid onto Ruston Way.

Closing off the Bayside Trail was clumsy, ugly and ultimately expensive. But it wasn’t the worst decision our city planners made; that award goes to the rejection of the Olmstead plan for gently sloping boulevards matching and mitigating the contours of Tacoma’s steep downtown hills.

These gulches are a gift. I am glad they have been under the radar of most citizens and city planners.

I have long seen them as my own private refuge. Where else in America could city kids walk a few blocks and enter a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn paradise of woods, rope swings and tree houses?

What other city has a multitude of free-running streams within walking distance? In fact Pierce County is crisscrossed by dozens, if not hundreds of streams; but where are they? Paved over and hidden, they are yet another treasure waiting to be uncovered.

Each gulch is different. Some, like Puget Park, are central and easily accessible. Others, like Mason Gulch, are vast and largely inaccessible.

Most of my columns have explored Tacoma’s glorious and largely unrealized potential. Tacoma’s gulches are just another category of the unique, wonderful and barely noticed opportunities right in front of us.

M. (Morf) Morford is a former reader columnist. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.