Tacoma, Washington

Thrice All American by Neko Case

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People who built it, they loved it like I do
There was hope in the trainyard of something inspired
Once was I on it, but it's been painted shut
I found passion for life in Tacoma Read full Lyrics
In 2018, Sunset Magazine declared Tacoma the best city to move to in the Pacific Northwest, but things definitely weren't always that way.

For most of its history, Tacoma has been on the losing side of a rivalry with Seattle. Economically, culturally, and musically, Tacoma was always considered something of a redheaded stepchild. The '90s grunge explosion saw a flood of attention paid to Seattle, while Tacoma remained unknown, ignored, or feared, despite being less than an hour south of Seattle and despite the city having its own grunge scene with many of the same acts considered synonymous with Seattle.

Aerial view of downtown Tacoma with Washington, Broadway and Market streets<br>Photo: Chris Boswell, DreamstimeAerial view of downtown Tacoma with Washington, Broadway and Market streets
Photo: Chris Boswell, Dreamstime
One Tacoma music venue, in particular, made an outsized contribution to music history. It was called the World Community Theater, and over the course of its less-than-two-year lifespan, it saw numerous acts that would become big, both locally and nationally. It was, in fact, the place where Nirvana first performed under that name (having previously called themselves Ted Ed Fred, Fecal Matter, and Skid Row). A young Neko Case happened to play drums in a band named Del Logs and the Propanes at the Theater during this time (she also worked at Bob's Java Jive, one of Tacoma's most beloved landmarks and dive bars).

Tacoma left a strong impression on Case, and she has said it's the city she considers her hometown despite having been born in Virginia and living all over the United States at various times.

"Thrice All American" is about Case's adopted hometown. This isn't hard to figure out, with lines such as "life goes by slow in Tacoma" and "you know that you're poor, from Tacoma." But to really understand the rest of the lyrics, you have to know a bit about the city.

People they laugh when they hear you're from my town
They say it's a sour and used-up place

Bob's Java Jive<br>Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tacoma_-_Bob%27s_Java_Jive_02.jpg">Joe Mabel</a>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsBob's Java Jive
Photo: Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Even in 2018, after several years of a revitalization effort so successful that it garnered national praise and analysis, Tacoma still has a bad reputation with people who grew up in the Puget Sound area. Tacoma was simply a very rough, dilapidated town for a huge part of its history, especially from the 1960s to early '90s. Many people in cities like Olympia or Seattle still won't believe it if you tell them that Tacoma has actually been cleaned up and has a great downtown.

Even in 2020, if you tell people you live in Tacoma, there's a good chance you'll get a laugh, if not a pitying gasp.

Buildings are empty, like ghettos or ghost towns

From its very inception, Tacoma was a tough town that made its living off the sweat of longshoremen. It had its ebbs and flows, but from the '60s to the early '90s, it was a particularly rough place. In the '70s, Mayor Harold Moss even said that the city looked "bombed out... streets were abandoned, storefronts were abandoned and City Hall was the headstone and Union Station the footstone."

Case moved to the area in the mid-'80s and experienced this particularly tough time for the city. The buildings very literally were "empty like ghost-towns."

I'm in league with the gangs, guns, and the crime

Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood was once synonymous with crack cocaine and gang violence. A gang war between the Hilltop Crips and a Los Angeles Crip group brought Tacoma to national attention for its violence, which peaked on September 23, 1989, with murders at an all-time high.

Neko CaseNeko Case
Also in 1989, a group of US Army Rangers serving in nearby Fort Lewis and living in the Hilltop area got into a shootout with the Crips. The event is known today as the Ash Street Shootout.

Starting in the early '90s, Tacoma launched a serious revitalization effort. The opening of the University of Washington, Tacoma campus, in 1990 was a major part of this movement.

Things didn't really begin to take hold until the 2000s, but by 2018, the city was being hailed as an example of the possibility of urban renewal and being featured in Sunset Magazine as the most desirable place to move to in the Pacific Northwest, which includes longtime rival Seattle.

The past never feels all that far away for people who lived here through Tacoma's tough times, and Case's "Thrice All American" still resonates with them as an emblematic song for the city.

Jeff Suwak
August 31, 2020
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