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HOLIDAY GUIDE TWO: A tale of downtown Tacoma

How the Tacoma Mall usurped our noble downtown core

Downtown Tacoma functioned differently back in the day. Photo credit: Tacoma Public Library

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Once upon a time, downtown Tacoma was a bustling place. A place filled with people - yes, real live people who went downtown for fun rather than business. This was especially true during the Christmas season.

In the days of yore, before malls stole the show, downtowns were where the party was. This included downtown Tacoma, which enjoyed a long heyday, starting in the late 1800s when the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad brought business to the area.

"Cities and their suburbs have been shaped by transportation," says Caroline Gallacci, author of several Arcadia Publishing books about Tacoma's history. "The downtowns of industrial cities, such as Tacoma, were the product of streetcars. Trolley routes all led downtown. Routes took people outward to what urban historians call streetcar suburbs."

If you went Christmas shopping in the mid-1900s, you would have gone downtown, not to the congested commercialized madness that is the Tacoma Mall. Popular stores of the day included Rhodes Brothers, Peoples, Woolworth's, and Sears - stores that all shut down or (in the case of Sears) moved to the mall by the 70s. Many of the buildings that held these stores are still there today.

"Downtown was alive with businesses and activity of all kinds," says Gallacci. "Name what you wanted to do and it was there - shopping, sports, dancing, the theater, fraternal halls, political meetings. It was a highly congested place with buses and automobiles vying for space on the streets."

There were even mysterious people-movers called escalades to help people get around downtown.

"There were two series leading from Pacific Avenue westward and were operational when I first moved here in 1970," says Gallacci of Tacoma's outdoor escalades. "Eventually they were blocked off and redesigned when they became too unsafe from crime of various sorts."

Today, when it's time to Christmas shop, we go to the mall. There are no escalades, just escalators in the department stores (and the novelty of those has long worn thin). There are no streetcars, just Pierce Transit buses.

So why the change? Why did people abandon the once popular shopping areas in downtown Tacoma?

"With the automobile, development patterns began to change, not just here but nationwide," explains Gallacci. "Developers began to plan ways where people could live in pristine suburban areas and shop nearby in ways that did not rely on the streetcar. As we know even today, downtown parking is a real challenge."

Malls were the solution - allowing people to live away from congested shopping areas. Large parking lots made arriving by car a cinch. Lakewood Center was the first mall in this area, but the Tacoma Mall was the coup de grace for our downtown area. Who wants Woolworth's when you can have the Bon Marche?

But downtown's story isn't over. Preservation groups strive to keep this part of our heritage alive and beckon people back. Businesses are again returning to downtown's storefronts. Theaters and restaurants there are thriving.

"The story is not done," says Gallacci. "Urban development is always a work in progress and always changing. Families a couple of generations from now will, no doubt, see an entirely different-looking city than the one we know today."

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