Sour Pickled Cabbage

The Tacoma Dome in the near distance shimmers in the sunrise. (Photo by Jaymie Depew)

An Ode to Tacoma, Washington

Tacoma is a dirty secret you tell your closest friends;
Tacoma is a pompous one-night stand; period panties; heroin needles at a playground;
Tacoma is sauced up sauerkraut on a bratwurst with extra mustard;
Tacoma is smelly, sour and sweet.

Downtown Tacoma. (Photo by Jaymie Depew)

An aroma of old cardboard factories whips off the Puget Sound when the tide is right and a hint of sour eggs tyrannizes the air on rainy days, which is common in the Pacific Northwest.

Legend has it, when Bruce Springsteen played in the big wooden alien spaceship, better known as the Tacoma Dome, in the late 1980s, the Boss had to leave the city early because the smell was so bad it upset his stomach. Even though Springsteen probably just had a bad bug, there is no denying that the Tacoma Aroma is something the city is well-known for.

Tacoma is Seattle’s grungy neighbor located roughly 35 miles south — but unlike the Emerald City, locals are fairly outgoing. The Seattle Freeze, something Seattleites are proud of according to underground Seattle newspaper, The Stranger, is stronger than the Tacoma Aroma because it’s present every day.

Prior to moving to the west coast I was more excited about living close to Seattle, the birth city of grunge music, than I was Tacoma. After nearly a year of exploring the surrounding areas, I’ve had a change of heart.

I reached the Pacific Northwest 10 days before starting a job in Tacoma in late September. My boyfriend, who drove with me from Northern Michigan, and I stayed north of Seattle with some friends briefly while I looked for a place to live. During the first few days, my friend’s roommate voiced horror stories about Tacoma and how I better be safe, especially as a lone female because it’s “pretty ghetto.”

Being from Michigan, I was preparing myself for living in Detroit. I thought about abandoned skyscrapers with chalked up graffiti down the sides, thick steam rolling out of gutters, homeless people telling you to go fuck yourself when you walk past without giving them any money, more peddlers, drunken sports fans, and neighborhoods police bypass because ironically they’re the ones afraid of being shot.

Tacoma is fruit with a little patch of mold on the side;
Tacoma is Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club;
Tacoma is tenacious and charming;
Tacoma is a contradiction;
Tacoma is a lot of things but it isn’t Detroit.


While the Crips and Bloods resided in Tacoma’s Hill Top neighborhood in the late 70s and 80s, gentrification pushed most of the gangs out of the area, dividing them among the city. If you walk around Hill Top you’ll notice the different houses side-by-side. One of the houses has boarded windows with a sign hanging in the upper corner saying: “security cameras on premise,” while the house next door is painted a bright yellow and has beds of expensive flowers lining the sides of its front yard’s walkway.

This is reality. You raise the living expenses and it pushes many out of their homes. Sometimes it happens to folks who’ve lived in the same house for decades. Or, sometimes the working class wonders what they’re working for when they’re living in a busted home because it’s all they can afford.

In the mornings in Tacoma, smog from rugged factories reflects off the sun past the ports downtown. During the winter when it rains the most, the sun hides for days and the smog blends in with the clouds.

On clearer days in the Gritty City (one of Tacoma’s better nicknames if you can believe it), Mount Rainier, the highest mountain peak in the Cascade Mountain Range, beams in the near distance like a mythical god waiting to cast havoc upon mortals. Tahoma as Native Americans called her, is an active volcano considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of its location. If Tahoma erupted, melted lahar would burn miles of land and surrounding cities, trapping and killing many in its path.

Volcano evacuation routes: check.

If you travel a couple hours to the west coast you’ll see signs for tsunami evacuation routes, too. There’s a lot of anticipation and fear over the big earthquake that’s going to rattle off the Cascadia Subduction Zone and rupture the Pacific Northwest coastline. Thousands of deaths are expected. Worse than the 2011 earthquake in Japan, some suggest. British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California could face mass destruction.

No matter where you live, there’s always some sort of price to pay. I’m afraid the majestic rainforest, the Pacific Ocean, and the Cascade Mountains won’t appear as pretty when covered in debris. But like February in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, even the dead of winter can be quite beautiful.

Tacoma is the City of Destiny;
Tacoma is upcoming, trying;
“Tacoma is cheaper than Seattle…so it’s not as nice”;
Tacoma is still feared and the locals want to keep it that way.

Tacoma is an old industrial city that used to house one of Asarco’s smelting factories which spewed thousands of toxins, including lead and arsenic, into the soil and the Puget Sound for nearly a century.

Arsenic and lead have extremely damaging effects. Lead, as noted in the Flint Water Crisis — which was overseen by the Rick Snyder administration, can cause brain damage, resulting in behavior problems and disabilities, whereas arsenic has been linked to skin and organ cancers.

In 1981, Commencement Bay, where Asarco’s factory was located before it was demolished in ’93, was considered one of the most polluted areas in the country and was placed on the U.S. government’s superfund program. After aggressively cleaning the area, 15 years later, the waterway was finally taken off the National Priorities list.

Even though the soil in the bay is still quite poisonous, the city of Tacoma has built new homes and a waterway park in place of the factories. Numerous restaurants have also made Commencement Bay their home.

The bay appears like a dream to newcomers who are looking for an affordable place to live in a luscious area. Many of the homes are located along the water. There’s a lovely view of the mountains. It’s close to down town, and several miles down the road is Point Defiance Park, a 760-acre fortress filled with mossy trees, walking trails, and a rocky beach where families, couples, and singles gather to barbeque, kayak, enjoy the sweet serenity and the like.

It’s absolutely breathtaking but I wouldn’t drink the water.

Tacoma is like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth;
Tacoma is salty, surprising, and brash;
Tacoma is the gritty city;
Tacoma is the second place I’ve called home and I’m going to miss it once I leave – even if it smells a little.

Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. (Photo by Jaymie Depew)