Communique #2 from the Bureau of Taking Back Public Space:


“They come like fate, without reason, consideration, or pretext…”

– Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals

“In some way that is incomprehensible they have pushed right into the capital. At any rate, here they are; it seems that every morning there are more of them.”

– Kafka, Country Doctor



There is a decidedly socio-spatial dimension to Tacoma that we would like to address. Geography speaks louder than words, and we implore our readers to study the city they live in geographically.

What’s been changing Tacoma is sometimes called a “renaissance,” or an “urban renewal.” We would like to outline several factors involved. Thumbing through mountains of files and reports sitting in the dusty and half-molding Archives of Stolen Space, the Bureau has traced much of this to the construction of the University of Washington in Tacoma, which broke ground in 1995.

No, the Bureau is not opposed to educational institutions. Universities, however, are more than just educational institutions. They are also real estate developers. As such, UWT and its retail entourage were never interested in Tacoma’s low-income neighborhoods, and knew nothing about neighborhood issues and dynamics. UWT was the forward operating base in a long and bloody war waged against its surrounding neighborhoods from the late 1980s onward, a struggle which began even with the selection of UWT’s construction site.

University of Washingon Tacoma satellite campus, courtesy of Wikipedia

University of Washingon Tacoma satellite campus, courtesy of Wikipedia

In this case, the city benignly neglected the old Brothel Row area in downtown Tacoma so that the grimed up and dilapidated property would be less expensive to buy out in the mid-90s for the purpose of developing UWT. This was done at the expense of the surrounding neighborhoods, namely, the Hilltop neighborhood to the West and the Dome neighborhood to the South.

Like many inner-city black communities, Hilltop fell victim to the CIA-condoned cocaine shipments into the US from Nicaragua and Colombia during the 1980s. Though beyond the scope of the present task, the Bureau refers our readers to the little-known and little-studied Library of Racist Urban Planning (some of which can be found at UWT) for further information on the War on Drugs. Some early stories of “renewal” in the Hilltop are told in the 1991 documentary War on the Hill.

UWT and Hilltop

If crack cocaine was Hilltop’s first Trojan Horse, the urban university was, indeed, the second. As a gift to the community, UWT would speed things up a lot faster than crack did. The university was the newer, more constructive vehicle for inner-city gentrification. Land acquisitions of the former Northern Pacific Railroad warehouse complex began in 1990, and by 2002 65% of the site had been acquired.

Soon after the campus opened in 1997 Tacoma found itself in an “enviable position” (according to two academics, Perry and Wiewel) whereby investment and development “generated more investment and development,” creating a cycle of growth that most cities seek but never achieve.

Today the City of Tacoma subsidizes unaffordable condominium communities in other cities, namely, the gigantic Point Ruston development located, not in Tacoma, but in the City of Ruston. Why does Tacoma even do this? The municipality – the “City of Tacoma” – does not exist for the betterment of everyone, but only for the rich, only for the “accumulation of capital,” social and financial capital.

The next step for Tacoma was to criminalize the urban youth and black cultures, and reward activities of the incoming population through festivals, grants, and other forms of favoritism. One of the more obvious ways this happened was by banning specific hip hop concerts. But already, “spitting while black” was illegal in Tacoma. And before long, pan handling was illegal, and other activities targeting people on low or fixed incomes.

Black-owned businesses are slowly disappearing on the Hilltop, and there has been an increase in fire code, city code, and yup code applied to houses and apartments. Your “concerned” neighbors might be encouraged by Tacoma CARES, a “community organizing” group, to report an ugly paint job, a house with bushes instead of a backyard, or a junk vehicle. Too many police visits at your apartment and you could be evicted, so the police might just visit you to fuck with you even more. Washington Community Renewal Law explicitly forbids “discrimination,” but these words are quite useless in reality, and there are clearly many ways around them.

Tacoma also started a “Safe Streets” program to disrespect all of Tacoma’s graffiti pieces (some of the best in the Northwest), and began rolling out a whole host of museums, ugly and unusable plazas, and indefensible public viewing areas…

Tollfeson plaza *courtesy of Tacoma Urbanist

"No Skateboarding!" Tollfeson plaza, courtesy of Tacoma Urbanist

Following the urban designs of Rudy Guliani, former mayor of New York City, city councils across the US all started sounding like echoes of one another. “Crime prevention through environmental design” was a popular slogan, and an obsession with “fixing broken windows” dominated discussions in city halls and universities. The logic of this theory is the same logic behind banning hip hop concerts. Hip hop leads to black people, black people lead to gangs, gangs lead to violence… no hip hop!

The alternative has always been to “organize the community” when this type of shit starts happening. But in Tacoma the community organizing model was in the process of being totally co-opted by the police, if it hadn’t been already, as the police continued to gaffle people of color for even the smallest misdemeanors.

Let the Bureau be clear on one thing: the “broken windows theory” was an argument for fascism. The theory behind it said this: by cleaning up the streets with strict ordinances and heavy racial profiling, cities could decrease crime and increase their stock of yuppies. To city managers, nothing could have sounded better, because this solved two problems at once. If inner-city neighborhoods became police states, with random checkpoints, racial profiling, cameras and all… and if rent rates could price-out poor people from the neighborhood, then criminal activity would decrease.

From Tacoma 1987 picture set

From Steven Cysewski's Tacoma early 1980s photo set

In the end, the state proved to be the biggest criminal of them all, with the monopoly on crime, drugs, forced eviction, and city planning. Any government activity when taken to the extreme “crowds out” the private sector, right? Well, Uncle Sam was pushing more dope than anybody else could. We therefore do not ask our readers whether the “broken windows theory” is true or not, only whether it is fucked up the cities bought into it, and have used it to justify what we see happening in our neighborhoods.

There is no obvious solution, because today the majority of what is called “community organizing” in Tacoma is done through the city government, and through the police substation. Neighborhood councils are dominated by Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes (the “concerned citizens”), and guided by the cops and the social workers. If you want to voice your Fuck-yous at the neighborhood councils your statements will be recuperated by Associated Ministries and contradicted by the yuppie bloc. You will be stared down by settlers who want to gentrify the community, who want to colonize the community – and that is a conflict of interest.  They don’t understand this perspective very easily, (but that is why the Bureau is writing.)

How the police and the social workers “organize” the community? By strengthening organizations who share their vision of an elite inner-urban society, and by strengthening those who already have the power and money to make decisions that strongly affect other people. Organizations like the Hilltop Action Coalition get money through fundraisers paid for by the police department itself. This coalition sells off the homes of priced-out families to the yupitarians moving in.

Let us be clear on another thing: we do not trust the community organizers, and they are not organizing for our community. Their community is organizing against ours.

UW Tacoma Master Plan, 2008

UW Tacoma Master Plan, 2008

The Bureau will have more statements to make in the future regarding the logic of urban space, but for now we shall say that amidst all that is changing and has changed, we are even more convinced now that nothing has changed at all. Only the rich, the talked-about people of the city, are living in the euphoria of high economic indicators, endless growth, and political stability – despite a recession. Pierce County has the highest foreclosure rate in Washington State. And as UWT continues to acquire land along the hillside and into the neighborhoods, further widening the gap of uneven development, we will continue to interject our ideas into a public debate for which there is no public and for which there is no debate.


Until next time,

The Bureau of Taking Back Public Space