Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ownership of Change: Part A

(warning: this is another example of what happens when I "participate" in forums and discussions; I go, I watch, I listen, I say maybe one thing and then I go write my arse off)

I attended the Go Local Or Die event/form this evening. Attendance was great... a core of Tacoma bloggers, business owners, artists and other concerned citizens. A lot was said by Jim Diers about what it takes to build a neighborhood and a community (and I do mean a LOT... he really could have talked for a third as long and gotten all his points across). We then got a rundown of the general opinions and positions and panelists, which, quite frankly, can be found by reading the blogs or going and getting a haircut at Embellish, it seems.

I'm sure, considering the attendance, that others will do a better job of pure reportage on events. I want to talk about a single point which made a remarkable number of appearances in the discussion. The question was put to the panelists and to the attendees: what one action or mindset change would you like to see everyone in this room take up? One gentleman spoke up on the litter and general garbage problem, and pointed out that the city is good about handling things when told. His point being that rather than walking by and going "the city should do something about that", it is perfectly reasonable, and indeed our responsibility to call the relevant authorities and give them a chance to do their jobs.

Sue (thanks for the assist, RR) from the 100th Monkey parties then spoke to the lack of racial diversity at the event, something she had noticed at the Monkey events as well, and made the very valid suggestion that the best way to combat this is for the people who notice it to go out of their way to invite people from other groups, be they religious, ethnic, or whatever.

There is a common theme here, wrapped up in a comment from our own Urbanist, panelist Erik Bjornson. In a nutshell, he challenged the room, a room full of people full of ideas for change, full of enlightenment and energy, to make their own change. Gandhi said it best: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." When you see a gap in your community, it becomes your responsibility to fill it. And if you don't take action to fill it, you lose the right to complain about it. You can look at graffiti, or drug dealers, or even something as simple as lack of greenery in your neighborhood, and you can go a couple of roads. You can sit with your friends and neighbors and complain about the uselessness of your government: "Oh, they really need to do something about this/that/the other thing." Or you can take a long hard look and ask the much more important and much more useful question: "What can I do about this?" Any time there is a failing in a society or community, it boils down to one thing: nobody stepped up to fix it. And if we cast our gaze around and see the government or the established community failing to move forward, the only responsible thing to do is step up ourselves.

There are some people who are doing this already, of course. Erik and Morgan believe in the streetcar movement, and are pushing to the forefront on that issue. Kevin saw a need for aggregation and information exchange, and thence came feed tacoma. And obviously the organizers of this event are making strides toward a larger scale of change.

Diers's presentation was chock full of examples of this. A man in Seattle concerned about youth crime and graffiti devising an alternative to criminal sentencing: putting the perpetrators under the supervision of professional artists painting murals on the very warehouse walls that were being tagged. A group of grandmothers who set up a card table on the street corner and played bridge in the middle of the night to keep the drug dealers away. Whole neighborhoods taking advantage of city fund matching programs to build parks, playgrounds, community centers.

Here's what I think: I think everyone has a crusade in them. Everyone has a cause, however large or small. Some people think that their neighborhood needs better streetlights. Some people complain that there is no good coffee in walking distance. Hell, some people just wish there were other folk out there who love to watch Project Runway.

And you know what? Some people call Tacoma Public Utilities. Some people open their own damn coffeeshop. Some people find a few other bloggers and organize a weekly girl's night in. But there are so many other people who would even think of doing these things. They'd stay in their well-lit house at night, drive to Starbucks every morning, and spend their evenings pining for a community of friends that they don't have.

So you all have a bit of change you want to see in your world, on some level. And here's the thing that people need to come to grips with: never think that your cause is too small to be worthwhile. And never believe that your crusade is too vast to be accomplished. And above all: never assume that someone else will pick up where your thoughts leave off. Take ownership of your vision, and then make it reality. Want change? Make change. Cause change. Be change.

If you get the impression that I'm being fairly non-specific and staying away from my own vision for change, well... I am. It's late and I have work tomorrow, and anyway, I doubt people want to read too much of my rant all in one sitting. But stay tuned for slot B. I'll get there soon enough.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Freedom Of Art In Tacoma

A couple different diatribes have come up recently in the Tacoma blogland, and they've got me thinking a bit (as I am wont to do, from time to time).

The first is a Matt Driscoll interview with Girl Trouble's Bon Von Wheelie over at Spew. The main focus of the interview is on the world of pay-to-play, and the battle against it. This is something I know a bit about. This Shirt Is Pants played a few shows for Big Time Entertainment, one at Studio 7 and three at Hell's Kitchen. We, I think, had an advantage over some bands, in that we knew exactly what we were in for. A couple of the guys had worked with them before, and so we were under no illusions. But we were also one of the older bands on the bills (in our early 20s)... I saw a lot of junior high and high school kids desperate for a chance to play on a stage. It's likely that they ended up there the same way we did: we could get a show at a decent club with no resume, no demo. That's the attraction, even if the end result is an empty pocket and a sour taste.

Honestly, in those shows, the worst part was not Big Time themselves. The worst part was the treatment from venue staff, particularly at Hell's Kitchen. The sound techs were well aware what kind of show they were doing, and it showed. They clearly didn't give even the slightest crap about the quality of the show. The lease was paid, and it was their job to watch and make sure nothing exploded. And I really think they were missing out on a great opportunity. Yeah, there were some crap bands. But there were also some remarkably talented kids. And how many of these kids were discouraged by poor treatment from venues? This is the biggest harm that I saw come out of pay-to-play.

The second blog that caught my eye was a rant about the lack of genuine art in Tacoma from

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Art Your Little Heart Out, Tacoma

Like art? Movies? Music? Theatre? Then Tacoma's the place for you this weekend. There seem to be a remarkable number of different events all converging on these next few days. I'll do the highlights, and let you look into particulars yourself (lunch break isn't THAT long, after all)


What's today? Thursday. Which one? The third one, of course! That means it's ArtWalk time in downtown T-town. Per usual, all the museums, galleries, etc from one end of downtown to the other are free to all. Highlight this time around? I'd say the Renoir as Printmaker exhibit at the TAM. It opened on the third Thursday of January, but I was on my way to Toronto, so I missed out.


Everyone's blogging about it. It happens every year. If you don't know about it, you probably just aren't paying attention. Wintergrass!

One of the largest bluegrass festivals in the country, this marks the first year for the festival in the Hotel Murano. Which means very little, because it's been in the same building (the former Sheraton) for years. Mostly just means that there will be much more glass surrounding everyone. Already this morning I could see people hopping on the Link or walking up the hill carrying guitars, fiddles, mandolins and what-have-you.

My act of choice for the weekend? Pearl Django. I've heard these guys' spin on the hot jazz genre a few times before, and they are beyond solid. They'll be at the Marriot at 5:50 on Saturday, and the Varsity Grill stage at 7:45.


The Northwest Playwright's Alliance are having their first fully-staged festival over the next two weeks at Theatre On The Square. I spent four summers volunteering at the now defunct Pierce County/South Sound Playwright's Festival, and it's great to see something step in and fill the void. This year's festival features three full-length plays and a number of shorter pieces. And fortunately for those of you distracted by other art forms this weekend, everything is running again next weekend, as well.

My play of choice (if I only go one night): Brent Hartinger's Geography Club. Hartinger's novel of the same name achieved 1) a lot of critical acclaim and 2) a place on a number of school banned book lists for "promoting the unsafe activity of meeting people on the internet to young people" (translates roughtly to "Crap, if we say we don't like it because it's about gay kids, they'll jump all over us. What other excuse can we whip out?").


To top it all off, the Grand Cinema is hosting their annual Oscar Party at the Rialto on Sunday. Anything make this more special than previous years? Well, for one thing, four of the five best picture nominees have been at the Grand in the past year (heck, three of them still are). But more on that later.

Also running at the Grand is the opening of animated film Persepolis. A French language film about the revolution in Iran, it promises to be very interesting fare.

That's all I've got for now. I'll come back later and turn more of these things into links.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ten Years of Rocking/Folking/Who knows what...

Mr. Freitas recently posted about his 10th blogging anniversary, and asked who/where we were 10 years ago. Upon reflection I've realized that 10 years ago (or thereabouts) was actually my first appearance on the Tacoma music scene.

I was in 8th grade, 14 years old. I'd played piano for about six or seven years, guitar for three or four. I'd played saxophone in the school band for four years, so I'd performed music, but not as a spotlight player.

So my dad, my brother and I started getting together and playing music. My dad on guitar, bro on bass, me on keys. Our first gig was at Shakabra Java (I would link, but it appears they've been link-farmed), in their now defunct performance space, opening for whatever real band my dad was playing for at that point. If memory serves, we played three songs: Riders on the Storm (The Doors), (All I Have To Do Is) Dream (Everly Brothers) and Walk of Life (Dire Straits).

It wasn't until the following year that I first sang in front of a crowd. Same deal at Shakabra, singing Romeo & Juliet (Dire Straits again). I would call it a great performance, but it was what got me liking it, largely because I actually had a number of friends come to that show.

Since then I've made the rounds of styles, groups, venues and qualities. In 9th grade I played CougFest, a Curtis Junior High battle of the bands, in a classic rock cover band called Prefect (very, very bad). In 10th I joined some of my friends in a punk/metal/wait-what-the-hell-did-he-just-say? outfit called Blarg!. Blarg!, too, played only one show: a battle of the bands at the U.P. Festival. We remain somewhat legendary for it, though... the only people on stage at that festival in KISS-esque makeup, singing about Muppets on killing sprees, Walt Disney curing cancer, and other lovely conversation pieces. Blarg! was also the first band I played with to produce an original studio recording, Blarg! Theme Song (yes, the lyrics are "B! L! Arg! Blarg!", in case you wondered).

That year I also started playing music with my friend Erich in what would become Mr. Fusion. He ran off to Alaska for a bit, but when he returned we started hitting up the Victory Music open mic at the Antique Sandwich Company, and thus began the era of me performing my own songs (well, technically I wrote Muppet Attack, but I didn't sing it, so it doesn't really count). Over the years, Mr. Fusion has played at Kokopelli's (victim of the U.P. Clown Center fiasco), Shakabra, the Pierce County AIDS Walk, and a student-produced benefit concert at Curtis High School called Symphonic Band Aid, and recorded an 11 track CD in my video productions teacher's backyard.

Stuck in the middle there were a couple performances (in my Frenzy Blarg persona) with cover band ∏ Eating Contest, at the old (pre-Brick City) Club Impact and the aforementioned Symphonic Band Aid.

After graduating from PLU, it really started to pick up with the formation of This Shirt Is Pants. The first "real" band I've been in (and when I say that I mean we were, for while, practicing regularly and performing nearly once a month), TSIP allowed me to play at Studio 7 in Seattle, The 4th Ave in Olympia, and numerous shows at Hell's Kitchen in Tacoma. And lest we forget, our fine debut at the Gonyea Boys and Girls Club.

TSIP has taken a bit of a dive (naturally, right after shelling out a bunch of money for a professionally produced EP - we've got lots if you want one! :D), but oddly enough everything seems to be coming full circle. Mr. Fusion has started writing and recording again. I'm back playing at the Antique on occasion. And, rounding off 10 years, last summer the Izenmen played at the Proctor Farmer's Market, and on Sunday I played with my dad and his friend Goodwin (Out of Sight, Out of Mind) at the Wright Park Conservatory (photos by Freitaka)

So... 10 years, 7 bands, 12 tacoma venues and countless tunes later, here I am. Better than I was before, though no better known. Heck, I have friends and co-workers who don't know that I sing. But that's alright. I've never played for recognition. I'm just as happy to walk off the stage and have no one recognize me once I'm back in the audience. I just love to play. And I'll still love to play in 10, 20, 30 years. Will it be in Tacoma? Who the hell knows. But it's been good to me so far: a great place to play a show for your friends and then fade away, on to something else, with just a vague memory in a few people's minds... "Were they really singing about vengeful Muppets? Nah, couldn't be..."

This Week's Excuse For Fried Things

Speaking of weekly traditions gone awry... for a while there, foos and booze @ Meconi's was the place to be on Friday night (if you worked at SiteCrafting, and wanted to keep seeing your co-workers after a 40-hour week of them). We even got a few of the Tacoma blogsters in on the action once or twice.

Meconi's, for us, at least, had three primary draws: foosball, pool and fried things. The foosball table was much more stable and level than our table here at the office. I didn't like it as much, but only because I wasn't as good on it. The pool table, while not a magnificent feat of engineering, was decent, big, and free (balls checked out by surrender of your DL as collateral). And the fried things, oh the fried things... I've had their burgers and sandwiches, and they're pretty solid, but the key is the appetizers. Mozzarella sticks and onion rings. Scrumchelesent.

Anyway, the foosball table broke, and went away (plus now we have a better one, anyway). The free pool got replaced by a smaller, coin-op table. All that remained was the fried things, and, good as they are, it just hasn't been enough. As long as I've got an excuse for a hot dog, or a craving for a cheese steak sammich (which is frequent), there's just no drive.

Until now...

Tonight I am pulled back to the glorious grease-fest by one thing: the Tacoma Beer Society. The TBS is having their monthly shebang tonight at 6:30. In the spirit of the lovey dovey season, the theme shall be beer and chocolate in conjunction.

Now, being also a bit of a wine fiend, beer is not my first thought when pondering what to drink with chocolate. But then, some of my favorite beers are made with chocolate malts, so perhaps I shall discover a new world of spectacular deliciousness beyond my wildest tasty imaginings.

Or maybe it'll just be good.

Anyway, RSVP here. Cost is $10. And Meconi's is located at 709 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, just a few blocks from the 10th and Commerce transit hub (beer and public transit... a wonderful combination). Be there or be... not eating chocolate and drinking beer with the rest of us!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Henry Butler @ Jazzbones Tonight

Still looking for something to do in Tacoma on a Friday night? Well, ordinarily I wouldn't suggest coming to me for recommendations on that front. Usually my Friday night consists of staying in, drinking wine and watching a movie, and I'm sure you could have thought of that on your own.

But if for some reason you have, I would be inclined to recommend Henry Butler at Jazzbones tonight at 9 PM. Butler, blind since birth, is a masterful blues/boogie/New Orleans (and yeah, New Orleans counts as a genre) pianist, as well as a classically trained vocalist. I'm listening to his latest, 2004's Homeland, right now and it is genuinely fantastic stuff. Extraordinarily energetic. I can't wait to see what he's like live.

And anyway, it's Jazzbones, which means sushi time! (or, if you're not into that sort of thing, a solid cajun menu).

Tonight, 9PM, $12. 21+, of course.

That is all.

Prepare to Folk Out at the Conservatory

What? Rock gets to be a verb. Why not folk?

Aaaaaanyway... every second Sunday of every month throughout the year, Tacoma Metro Parks hosts an acoustic concert, featuring local musicians, at the lovely W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Wright Park. Shows start at 1 PM and last about an hour and a half. This particular Sunday will feature the Conservatory debut of yours truly, the Izenmaniac himself.

Primary billing goes to those who booked the gig, Don Izenman (look! he has the same last name as me! weird...) and Goodwin Trent. The two of them have been making music together in Tacoma for years in a variety of groups. Mr. Trent, as fine a bass player as you are likely to meet (his bass has no frets, I can't work it) is currently recovering from major back surgery (is there such a thing as minor back surgery?), and so, to fill out the ensemble, Don enlisted his youngest spawn, some weirdo named Joe.

Maybe Goodwin will feel great and I'll just hop in on a few songs. Maybe I'll be playing along for the entire hour and a half. We shall see. I can promise that it will be fun no matter which of us is playing when. You can expect a blend of folk, country (the good kind) and acoustic rock, with both covers and a few originals peppered in.

In addition to the music, Saturday is also the opening of the Hilltop Artists glass exhibit, so that display will be in full swing for the show. Free music, free art, oodles of plant life... what more do you need?

Plus, for only the second time ever, you get to see me performing on a mandolin. How cool is that?

Sunday, February 10th. 1 PM - 2:30 PM. Be there or be whichever polygon you find the least cool.

The Beginnings of an Idea:

It is known by most that I play a lot of music. I play shows (occasionally) with three different groups; I have recordings with two bands in addition to my solo work. About a month ago I decided that I wanted someplace to post these things on I wanted to be able to have my songs, shows and photos divided up into my various projects, albums, etc, with information at the band, album and track level.

This idea bounced around in my brain a bit, eventually coming to this: if I was already going to have multiple bands for one user (me), why not allow multiple users? From there it snowballed into something much more complex and, I think, worthwhile.

What I propose is this: a comprehensive resource for musicians in the Tacoma area. Multiple bands per user. Multiple users per band. An event calendar that can be filtered by band, venue, genre, anything. Song and video uploads. In short: total promotion, total sharing of information, to anyone who's interested.

I know there are things like imeem and MySpace out there, but I feel like the small community aspect can be what really drives it. It's for the community, and should be built on the strengths of the community.

So... are you a musician? Or a music lover? Or have a friend who has a friend who knows this guy who is? I have an idea of what I want it to be, but the best people to come up with feature ideas are the ones who might use it. The bands, the fans, the venues. I would like, if possible, to have this be something of a group project. I'm already talking to one fellow blogger about doing the graphic design.

You don't have to play an instrument. You don't have to write code. Just let me know what you think this ought to be. I've established a development blog for the project where I will be cataloging my design and coding efforts, discussing features, announcing launches, etc at Anyone who wishes is free to follow along, comment, or shoot me an e-mail about any of it.

I posted a bit about this in the feed»tacoma forums, but got no response. Hopefully as the ball starts to get rolling other people will get excited about joining in the process.

Monday, February 4, 2008

This Week's Excuse For A Hot Dog

I love the Red Hot. I do. I couldn't rightly explain why. I was never a big hot dog fiend before. The Parkway is closer to me and has a wider beer selection (and a masterful cheese-steak sammich). But something about the Red Hot calls to me.

For a while I had a great excuse to take that half hour walk every week: Monday Night Football with Freitas and co. Alas, that time is ended. So what do I do now? I could join the aforementioned crew for the MNF successor: American Gladiators. But that really doesn't appeal to me. I tried to do that last week, and it got bumped by the State of the Onion (which I didn't mind... I'd rather watch baseball reruns than Gladiators). But that's not liable to happen every week, or indeed ever again.

Fortunately this week the world has provided for me: Wednesday night is Stone Brew Night. California based Stone Brewing Co., best known for their Arrogant Bastard Ale (a thick beast of a beer, along the lines of an imperial stout), also makes a couple fine IPAs and a good solid porter. And that's just the stuff I've tried.

Anyway, pints of whatever Stone goodness is on tap run for $3 starting at 7PM. And like any good brewer's night, there will surely be merch prizes galore.

Oh yeah... and they'll have hot dogs.

Adventures In Pedestrianism: Episode I

As a constant pedestrian (I've never owned a car and am not fit enough to manage the surrounding hills on a bike with much success), I've noticed an awful lot of construction happening that disrupts sidewalk traffic. The church going in on 7th and Tacoma, whichever [Girl's Name] Heights Prium is finishing up on 6th, and all the hoopla surrounding Wright Park redevelopment.

Anyway, I ran across this little gem on G, approaching Division, heading toward the grocery store:

For those of you who don't know that intersection, or at least what it looks like now, here's the aforementioned other side:

Hrm. I guess they ran out of the "SIDEWALK CLOSED. You're shit out of luck, asshole!" signs.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

One more rant: Public Transit

Huh. It appears that, for whatever reason, people seem to actually be listening to me rant. I suspect I just stunned them with sheer volume of wordage and they haven't quite figured out that I am making things up as I go along. So to continue that trend...

I've brought up the subject of public transit either vaguely or in very specific instances recently, but the fact is that it's a big subject that is very important to me. I don't own a car. I have never owned a car, and if I can avoid it I never will. This remains dependent on where I live, where I work in relation, and what other options are available to me. And I know people to whom this is an even more relevant subject. My father, for example, spent his last few years before hitting retirement age making his way toward being mostly blind. He can function, get around without a cane, even use a computer with great proficiency, provided sufficient screen zoom. But he certainly can't drive a car.

(He was in the first stages of this when I was 18 or so, preparing to take my driver's test. I tell you what... it is an interesting experience learning to drive with someone who is unknowingly losing their depth perception.)

The point is that there are those of us that use public transit because we feel like it's the best option. And there are also those of us who use it because it is our only option. But there are also many people for whom it could be the best idea who will never know it. Much like the problem of increasing visitors and foot traffic downtown, it's not about convincing me that I'm doing the right thing. It's about dragging the rest of the world, the driving world, to a point where they see the advantages of other options. So how do we do that?

We know it's cheap. We know it's healthy. Now make it easy.

How much does Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, any transit in the area spend on add campaigns comparing buses to cars, pointing out the pollution that cars give off, the cost of gasoline? Do they genuinely believe they are providing anyone with new information? Go out and ask 20 people, non-bus riders, whether they think it's cheaper to ride the bus or drive everywhere. Ask another 20 people what creates more pollution, ten cars or ten people on a bus. People know the answers to these questions. They don't drive because they think it's cheaper, nor because they think it's healthier.

So why do people eschew the bus? Convenience. We live in a culture of convenience, of one-stop superstores, online shopping and instant communication. Any blow against the ease of use of your product or service can be crushing. Once people have cars, those become easy. And the transit system here is, frankly, not.

I can forgive minor scheduling complaints. That's something that people simply have to learn to deal with: you cannot always get a bus at exactly the moment that you want it. But generally life can wait 15 minutes until the next one rolls around. This is not my concern. My concern is ticketing. At the moment there are three means of ticketing. You can buy the monthly bus pass, you can buy a booklet of tickets or you can pay cash. First off, the booklet of 10 $1.50 tickets I didn’t even know about until yesterday, and I'm an avid rider, so I'd say that could probably use a little publicity. Second, the monthly bus passes, while great for some, have severe weaknesses. At $54.00, they are priced at the cost of 36 local Pierce Transit fares. So anyone who rides the bus 36 times or more in a month is set (when I was taking the bus to work I rode it up to 50 times a month). Likewise, the people who ride a bit less but find it worth a couple extra bucks to not need exact change are alright.

So what about everyone else? People like me who can walk to work but would like to take the bus to eat a hot dog and drink a beer, or go across town to the comic shop on a Saturday? There is no other non-cash option.

I've had a chance to travel around quite a bit over the last few years, and so I've used a number of different transit systems: San Diego, Minneapolis, New York City and London. The two that strike me the most are NYC and London. These places have evolved quite efficient ticketing methods out of pure necessity. I was in London with a number of people, and was able to buy a week-long pass for the tube and coach services. Frequently commuting residents could buy monthly passes. Those with less regular schedules (like me, here) can simply top up their card with a certain amount of cash. Simply the ability to not be worried all the time whether you have correct change is a great boon for the system.

Which brings me to...

The rest of the world achieves convenience through technology. You can, too!

The varied system in London works because it is electronic. I bought my Oyster Card (I don't know why they are called that, but whatever) within minutes of getting off the plane, so it was in their system as a week pass. To enter a tube station, I scanned the card. To get on a bus, I swiped the card. Nine days later I had to take the tube back to the airport, so I walked up to the machine, filled with with a single three zone fare, and swiped the card. This allows everyone to have the same card, and use it as they see fit. The technology makes the system flexible.

NYC was similar. Every station had a ticket machine that you could pay in cash or card, and even the paper tickets had magnetic strips. Day passes, three day passes, timed passes, all handled by computer. Guess what? Our Puget Passes have magnetic strips. And there are a few buses in King County Metro that have a swipe system (though they'll still let you just show them your pass), but no consistency. I know there have been tests and focus groups and what-have-you done on Pierce Transit recently about actually introducing the card swipe, which would be a great first step. Once the tech is in place to read the cards, it's a relatively simple matter to set them up as more than just monthlies.

Your website is bad.

I've been talking a lot in the last couple days about economic issues. I have no background in this. I don't know how much things cost to achieve. I wrote quite a bit in favor of light rail extensions based on convenience issues, but have had it pointed out by others (who have done more research) that this would be financially prohibitive and perhaps even irresponsible. So I am no expert on this. What I am an expert on is websites. They are what I do for a living. And the Pierce Transit website is simply awful. To the point of making the whole system harder to use.

It would be great if everyone, no matter where they were, only had to take one bus to get anywhere else. It would be great, and it will never, ever happen, neither here nor anywhere. This is why taxis are more expensive. What you can do is make it easy to determine how to do what where. Yes, you have the trip planner, but that only works for a straight point A to point B jump. If I want to go from home to the comic shop to the mall and back home, I am fortunate enough to know that I can take the 41 or 42 out to 72nd, the 56 to the mall, and the 53, 57 or 3 back downtown. Many people would not know that. There are so many little things that could be done... links from each timed stop showing a list of nearby connections at that time (the closest they've got now is the map with links to nearby routes... you still have to dig through for the times). Hell, any sort of general listing of other routes so you don't have to go back to the Schedules page and pick another.

These are easy things to achieve and they increase usability drastically. And the easier it is for people to use the system, the more likely they are to do so.

You don't have to wait until there's no other choice.

The best transit systems around evolved, as mentioned, by necessity. There is too much traffic and too large a population in Manhattan and London to have a ticketing system that doesn't run smoothly most of the time. Yes, they suffer plenty of delays for a variety of reasons, but the system of figuring out how to get somewhere and paying for it works well, because otherwise everyone would go nuts trying to manage it.

The problem is in assuming that because we don’t have the congestion and the population, we have no use for the progress. Will your system break down without these advancements? No. But if your only goal is to stay just above the disaster line, I don’t think you're looking at it the right way. You don't just want to keep your customers, you want to add new ones. You want to take innovations that others developed because they had to, and use them because it's just a good idea.

Anyway, I'm winding down on rant fuel, so I've just got one more thing...

Those buses you have doing most of the Seattle/Tacoma runs? They are shit.

You know the ones I mean, Sound Transit. They are tall and narrow. Tall and narrow is why SUVs have a high rollover rate: high center of gravity tends to want to become a low center of gravity. That the 594 doesn't flip over every few days is a testament to the quality of your drivers and the lack of tight curves on I-5. Tall and narrow also means that 1) the steps are way too steep and 2) the walkway is way too small. What else do you use these buses for? The airport express. Have you tried carrying a suitcase onto one of those? It is not fun. Especially since the overheads aren't even big enough for my carry-on.

While we're on the subject of the steep stairs, who came up with that system for taking on wheelchair passengers? Anyone who can't make it up the stairs has to wait for the elevator seats to be moved and the lift to come down. That's alright for a wheelchair, I guess, since you'd have to take the time to strap them in regardless, but what about someone with a walker who just wants to shuffle up a ramp and sit down? For that matter, what do you do when someone is already locked in and you need to pick up a second wheelchair? Surely this happens on occasion. I just can't quite figure how it would work.

Who pointed out all these problems to me? Annoyed commuter? Grumpy wheelchair owner? Nope. Friendly bus driver. Who detailed the experience of Sound Transit buying a couple of the buses to test, asking all the drivers for their opinions, and then promptly ignoring them and buying the cheaper tall skinny buses anyway.

Thus ends my run of poorly researched, hastily cobbled together rambles on topics I know little about. Stay tuned later for my return to blogging about beer, food and music.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Economic Jibba Jabba: Part the Two

Well, I ran out of things to say last night because it was late and my memory was getting sketchy. But now... more!

First off, a continuation of the downtown retail connectivity question. Riding the Link to work today I noticed (or re-noticed) the big enormous gap just north of BKB, stretching for what could easily be three or four shops. I am guessing, from what I know of the area, that this property is owned by UWT. What I don't know is what is there. Are these spaces being used for the UWT campus? Or are they for lease and just not getting used? I can understand the university wanting to use their property for their own purposes (if that's the case), but even so, this retail gap is absolutely slaughtering the chances of connection to further downtown segments, both those northerly and the aforementioned potential track up the hill to 19th and Jefferson.

I'm not espousing anything new here. It's pretty obvious that empty space is bad for business. But what can be done to improve the situation? What sort of business out to go in? One point made last night was the need for retail to fit with its neighbors so they can share customer base. So what have we got down there? We have alternative apparel retail (urbanXchange), wearable art (BKB), a moderate-sized bookstore (UWT) and a destination confectioner (Hello Cupcake). Not to mention the Subway/Taco Del Mar one-two punch, the Harmon, and a Starbucks. So I see two core markets: the mild counterculture and the business lunchers. Any number of things would be suitable: a used bookstore to offset the new product at UWT (though downtown already has a solid used bookshop at each end, so maybe not); another small lunch establishment (maybe a Better-Than-Subway sandwich shop or something); one idea that's bounced around is a newsstand, such as a Bulldog News or similar establishment, which I think would definitely appeal to the lunch-shoppers riding in on the light rail. Maybe even one of the glut of record stores (I mean real record stores, selling vinyl), tired of the excessive competition, could move down from 6th to mesh with the Buzzard/urbanXchange crowd.

Anyway, that's enough of that. On to other things.

Enough with the residential already!

People are talking about how the best way to draw businesses is to increase foot traffic, and too many seem to believe that the best way to have foot traffic is to make sure that people live nearby. I suspect that condo developers have been taking a cue from Seattle, who are in mid-development on a few major downtown condo projects (and by major I mean upwards of $1M per unit). Well guess what? We're not Seattle yet. Seattle downtown is already established as a Place To Be. Trying to mimic their residential placement is foolish. As Prium, among others, have no doubt discovered. I've brought this up elsewhere, but the people moving to be close to downtown are not established residents. Families aren't moving from North End houses to downtown condos. If you're trying to market these places to financial bigshots, you're getting nowhere. Financial big shots have cars. The people moving are people like me. People fresh out of college, just making career inroads at downtown businesses. We are the people who are used to that kind of cluster: having all of our work, food and retail options in walking distance. And we are renters.

If I thought I was staying in Tacoma long term, I'd love to buy a house or a condo. And yes, I'd love for it to be in that area because I would like to go as long as I possibly can without owning a car. But very few people are coming out of college ready to buy, or even knowing where they want to be, geographically, in five years. And it's geography that brings me to...

Accessibility. Public Transit. How we get from one bit to another bit.

Why would I want to buy close to downtown, rather than in a nice residential neighborhood that's more conducive to a future family? Transportation. Right now I live a short walk from one end of the Link, and work a short walk from the other end. The Link does a fantastic job of traversing downtown. Unfortunately, that's all it does. What is severely lacking is a way to get from anywhere else TO downtown in the first place. Yes, nearly all the buses in the city converge there. But compare how many business folk I see on the bus (or saw, when I took the 2 and the 57 to work) to how many I see driving in, parking by the Dome, and taking the Link to the financial district. There is a certain social stigma that comes with the bus system, which is unfortunate. It really is quite reliable and safe. But the Link, being shiny and new, and boasting a fairly consistent security detail, gives off a greater aura of safety to the people that want it.

Our fellow feeder the Tacoma Urbanist has an update on the status of potential expansion to the system. I've got a rather lengthy comment on there of my vision for this, which I will not bother reposting here. Suffice to say that giving people a light rail running from TCC down through 6th ave, Stadium, and into downtown is exactly what we need. We don't need more residences in downtown. We need the people who already live in the existing residential neighborhoods to come down and fill the sidewalks. And for them to come, they need the perception of ease (whether an extended Link stays free, or whether we implement a computerized ticket system so infrequent riders don't need to carry exact change) and the perception of safety (I'm not saying create the illusion of safety, but make apparent the fact that it is already safe).

All of this comes down to one core point: we don't need to infuse downtown with residents. We need to infuse it with reasons to come, and ways to come. No matter where they live, people will go anywhere for their needs if it is easy to get there and made worth going. The constantly packed parking on 6th Ave. should make it apparent that those businesses are not thriving because of the people who live within walking distance.

Anyway, all of these ideas, all this chatter, is rather pointless unless we do one thing (well, two things):

Find the people who care. And then find out how to make everyone else care.

AE and the City of Tacoma have done a great job of finding the people who really care about improving downtown, and the city as a whole. It was pretty clear that everyone at the discussion last night was really passionate about making this work, though each for their own reasons. So we have this core of people willing to make their opinions known. But these aren't the people we need to draw. We're all already in downtown, living, working, supporting businesses. And we're decreeing what we believe will improve it based on our own opinions. But what about everyone else? What about the people who don't care that they're running off to Seattle whenever they want to have fun? How do we make them care about Tacoma? Some of that is simply finding out exactly what they're going to Seattle for and then having that in Tacoma. But more important is finding out what neither has and then bringing in that. What can we do to make the people who moved here for the cheap housing and nothing more see that the more is what matters?

That's the big question that needs answering. And I can't answer it. I'm one of the ones that already loves it here. The answer is out there, among the people that aren't coming to your focus groups, that aren't filling out your online polls, that might not even be voting. We're trying to make people want to come to Tacoma when we have a chunk of the population that barely cares about staying in Tacoma. Make it a place for them, and you'll make it a place for everyone.

Economic Jibba Jabba (look out, kids... it's a long 'un)

I took part in the AngelouEconomics Young Professionals focus group for the development of an Economic Development Plan for Downtown Tacoma at the Varsity Grill tonight. Despite the project leaders' best efforts, there did end up being some fairly interesting discussion.

Okay, that's a bit harsh. Their PowerPoint slides raised a few questions that sparked many a random tangent, which was really the whole point of it.

Anyway, there was quite an assortment of folk there. I won't bother pretending that I know there names, but offhand I took note of urbanXchange Lady, Puget Sound Pizza Guy, a few City of Tacoma people, a gentleman from the Business Examiner and a woman, formerly of the Museum of Glass, now of the LeMay Car Museum. Not to mention the ever-present Blogger133. So just there, in about half the attendees, you have representatives of retail, dining, journalism, government and the arts. Not to mention a decent balance between lifelong natives, transplants and a few born/moved/returned.

I won't rehash the whole evening for you, but there were a few points made worth mentioning (with, of course, expansion provided by the fact that my mind is incapable of reporting anything without inserting every bit of commentary that pops in during writing).

What keeps people away from Tacoma? Too long a memory, and too vague a definition.

There is a pervasive belief that Tacoma is dangerous, violent, a poor environment to raise a child or even to walk the streets at night. And the fact is, there was a time when this perception was not far-fetched. Hilltop after the WASP migration to University Place, downtown Tacoma, Parkland: these places have all, at one time or another, been centers of gang violence, drug problems, etcetera. I will grant that. What everyone else needs to grant, however, is a capacity for change. This is, now more than ever, a community of people who really care about making their city a place worth living in. And the easiest way to accomplish this is simply to do it: don't just reside in the city, but live in it. The fact of the matter is that the best means of reducing crime is to have witnesses. Bring up the legitimate and legal nightlife activity in a region and you will reduce the drugs and violent crime. And we've done that. How much criminal activity do you see on 6th Avenue? How much improvement has there been in the violence plagued northern end of Pacific with the transplant of businesses like Paddy Coyne's and The Matador? We've even got happening nightspots in the heart of the dreaded Hilltop (which, by the way, I walked through many a day and evening when I lived at the top of 19th, never once feeling unsafe). We are a city that is full of growth and promise, ignored because people remember what it once was.

There is also the question of definition. Someone made a very interesting point: Seattle is known by its neighborhoods and suburbs. Tacoma's suburbs are known by it. Say someone gets gunned down on Capitol Hill. People, local media, whomever, will talk about violent crime on Capitol Hill, safety conscious visitors will avoid the area and relegate their travels to downtown, or the U District, or Ballard or Fremont. Now picture a similar slaying in, for example, Spanaway. Nobody knows Spanaway, so it is reported as Tacoma. Killing in Lakewood? Tacoma. In UP? Tacoma. Can't really tell these places apart (apparently), so we'd best just avoid Tacoma altogether.

Who needs major retail? We've got minor retail.

There's been a lot of talk about revitalizing downtown by bringing in some major retail chain. Clothing stores, bookstores, anything to bring shoppers to the area. There are a couple of fundamental problems with this plan.
  1. It's difficult to revitalize an area with major retail when even the minor retail struggles due to a lack of foot traffic. You say the retail will bring the foot traffic? I say they'll take one look at the neighborhood as it stands and bow out. No non-regional business is going to want to be a part of our "We sure hope this works" plan to boost the area.

  2. The greatest potential resource we have in downtown Tacoma is our small-scale retail businesses. Locally owned, locally run, places like urbanXchange, like Buzzard Disks and Stadium Video, like King's Books. These places are the core of what currently makes up downtown. They all survive because people love them and will patronize them despite the neighborhood (or the perception thereof). People will go to the Stadium District for King's, to Pacific for the eXchange, to 19th and Jefferson for Buzzard. This is the beginning of what we need.
So we focus on the small retail. What's the trouble? There is no link between these businesses. The most viable retail options in downtown are completely disconnected. UrbanXchange and Buzzard Disks are, from a top-down view, barely two blocks apart. And, I'd hazard a guess, they draw a broadly similar clientele. But how many people, knowing one, will spontaneously discover the other? Part of this is in the urban landscape. With no streets linking Jefferson to Pacific from 21st to 17th, there is no geographic encouragement. All that exists to lead a patron of The Rock, Buzzard or The Swiss further into the heart of downtown is the UWT stairway. But it suffers from the next problem: continuity of business. People don't mind walking if there is consistently something to see or potentially do. Walk down 6th Avenue and there is a constant stream of restaurants, record shops, galleries and the like. Every time you reach something worth stopping at, something else catches your eye another half block down. Simply the act of trying to park to go to Asado or Masa or whichever new restaurant is trendy this week and then walking to your destination is enough to introduce you to three new restaurants and two wine shops, that will bring you back the next week. We have quality retail options, nightlife options, restaurant options, and nothing to lead you from one to the other.

The most consistent tract of downtown is right around UWT, where we have the Harmon, the Xchange, Hello Cupcake, BKB, and maybe, if you peek your head up around the end, Two Koi. All carefully segregated on one side of the street from the museum strip. And the truth is that they don't need to be led to. No one is going downtown for a cupcake, looking up and saying "wait... there's a museum down here?" What we need is for the museums to be the leaders. but with a nice big median down Pacific, there are just as few people visiting the Museum of Glass who will look across the street and say "There's a cupcake shop? Sounds delicious!"

Something that didn't come up (largely because I'm just thinking of it now) is a means to actually connect these shops. Because that downtown stretch has the potential to be busy. And the bit of Jefferson between 19th and 21st is likewise fairly happening. It's the connection so that the two can feed each other, whilst fostering new development, that's the rub. Since the odds of the UWT stair suddenly being lined with shops are fairly minimal, we need another link. So why not track down from The Swiss to Two Koi? With the restaurant and Tacoma Art Supply peeking up around the corner there, it's like Pacific is calling out to the rest of downtown. All there is filling the space (as far as attracting foot traffic goes) is the Old Spaghetti Factory. The whole area across from that edge of UWT feels ripe for a conversion to retail and nightlife.

From there, it's just a matter of spreading the retail strip further down Pacific in either direction, particularly north toward the financial district. That far northern tip is just starting to bloom, but again, it's not connected to anything. There's a big gap of banks, Starbucks, and Quizno's (among the few Starbucks that is not only not open late, but not open on weekends, because it caters to the financial crowd, because, well... there's nothing else down there worth catering to). Not a simple matter, necessarily, but feasible.

Moving on...

What economic undercurrent drives Tacoma? Independent media.

Another fine point made by Business Examiner Guy. We have the BE. We have the Weekly Volcano. And now we have this, an indie media outlet that isn't even run as a business. While I, like some others on the feed, would be uncomfortable with the term Citizen Journalist (too many implications of journalistic ethics and sensibilities, when people should take us for what we are: people writing what we think), the truth is that we, as bloggers, are our own media outlet. We can report news, promote events, point out new businesses. We can spread information. We can affect government change by virtue of our readership and the quality of work we put out there. We can even nudge, if not full-on drive, the economy. Not like the Volcano or another newspaper via ad revenue and salaried employees, but by guiding people. Heck, sometimes we're TOO good at our jobs, promoting new business nearly to death. What's more, we have events calendars, discussion forums, video galleries, and hell, even our own political cartoonist. feed>>tacoma IS independent media at its liveliest, and can be (has already been, even) a great tool in pushing the economic development in the area forward.

This ties into points made by others: the creative community in Tacoma is off the charts. The feed is full of very talented writers, professional and otherwise. School of the Arts is full of incredible kids who genuinely want to stay in Tacoma and be a part of this world. The local music scene is rife with a treasure-trove of talent just wishing they had an outlet. Look at the success that has had with 253hiphop in such a short span. Give people a chance at media exposure and they will thrive. And when the artistic community thrives, the nightlife will thrive, and it will bring the community along with it.

I could have sworn there were more things I wanted to say, but I spent so much time writing all this that I forgot the rest. Ah well, maybe it'll come back to me. That's all for now. It was getting too long anyway.