Opinion Columns & Blogs

Whither Tacoma: Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

This is the season that reminds me of my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In that film, George Bailey, more than anything, longs to travel and see the world.

Personal obligations intervene and keep him home. As we find out later, his real destiny is to keep his beloved (and sometimes much resented) walkable and friendly Bedford Falls from becoming the crass and hostile Pottersville.

Bedford Falls always reminds me of Tacoma. We always seem to be teetering between the immigrant-friendly town — with thriving independent businesses and stable homeowners — like Bedford Falls, and the cynical and transient Pottersville.

And we seem to forget what makes a town more than the accumulation of people.

Have you ever seen a Beautiful Angle poster?

They have been an unofficial Tacoma tradition for several years.

Each poster is hung in a public place; this is art in its most free (literally) public and accessible sense.

Each poster is a graphically rich, hand-printed, poetically reflective love letter to Tacoma.

On the rare occasions when I see one, I am caught in a moral dilemma; should I take it or leave it?

They are, almost without exception, glorious, passionate, beautiful, and yes, collectible and potentially valuable.

But I want them to stay. I want people to see them.

I love what they say about Tacoma. I love their message of longing, appreciation and lingering disappointment. I love their tributes to history and the wispy hopes for a better future.

I have never taken a poster. But they are gone within minutes.

They are the perfect metaphor for Tacoma — something carefully crafted and beautifully done — presented and immediately removed.

Like a petulant child, Tacoma loses almost every treasure it holds.

From the Goddess of Commerce, to the Fuzhou Ting, to the Point Defiance Pagoda, to Old City Hall, we take, break or neglect into oblivion the things that make us unique.

Our compulsion to be a look-alike sprawling modern version of Pottersville seems irresistible.

Beautiful Angle posters end up in basements or attics, our Never-never Land characters are in secret semi-permanent storage and too many of our buildings are ignored to oblivion.

Large companies will come and go.

In the end, they don’t even really matter.

What matters, and what makes us a community, is the individuals who make neighborhoods, friendships and families.

Community is built by those tangled webs of memories, obligations and shared experiences. It is built and maintained with great difficulty — and lost easily.

Pottersville, on the other hand, is easily constructed, and, is, apparently, a perpetual temptation.

We have neighborhoods that reflect the cynicism and churning dislocation of Pottersville and others that embody and express the generous, trusting and jovial spirit of Bedford Falls.

I’ve never understood the appeal of Pottersville. Its callous commodification is everyone’s nightmare with a price on every object, place and person.

I know people who represent or even help build Pottersville. For the most part, they are not mean-spirited; they just believe that each demolished craftsman home, each big-box store, each identical strip-mall and sprawling parking lot doesn’t really matter.

But as every member of a neighborhood knows, everything respected or disrespected — every word, every person, place or building — matters.

Every beautiful historic home or building, lovingly restored or carelessly demolished, tells its story. Its story, combined with the stories of other buildings and neighborhoods, tells our story.

It doesn’t take an urban planner to see that a thriving city is full of people — not vehicles.

Too many of our neighborhoods have no sidewalks, no pedestrians and nothing to walk to, even if they could.

Some neighborhoods, clearly designed in the spirit of Mr. Potter, have endless strip malls and parking lots, mind-numbing big-box stores, seemingly deliberate traffic snarls, and, above all, no soul.

But we also have welcoming, walkable, friendly neighborhoods with small parks and street scenes that would make Jane Jacobs feel at home.

Perhaps our destiny, like George Bailey, is to build our community one conversation, one relationship at a time. Tacoma doesn’t need a bumbling angel like Clarence; we just need more George Baileys.

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