As presidents go none of them spent as much time in Tacoma and the south sound as Dwight Eisenhower. As a soldier before the Second World War, Ike served at Fort Lewis as a battalion commanding officer and regimental executive from December 1939 until March 1941. During the time his wife Mamie charmed local Tacoma society and son John attended Stadium High School. Ike’s older brother Edgar founded the Eisenhower Carlson law firm in Tacoma and lived the rest of his life in Lakewood where Ike and Mamie visited several times.
Eisenhower left the military as perhaps America’s
most respected soldier, served as head of NATO and Columbia University before becoming the 34th President of the United States. Ike had a soft spot for conservative politics but during the baby boom economy of the 1950’s he poured tax money and ideas into American cities. Tacoma got more than its share of the revenues and Urban Renewal programs during post war years fundamentally changed the physical and social patterns of the city.
Ike’s emphasis on building a national interstate highway system coincided with urban blight removal programs, federal funds for infrastructure and unimaginative city building, and loans and cash to local governments for planning and business development. In Tacoma it all added up to I-5 sweeping past the downtown carrying people to the suburbs, blocks of demolished buildings and a proliferation of parking lots, vacant lots and lots of brutal concrete parking structures.
The route of I-5 through Tacoma paralleled its predecessor, old Pacific Highway 99 which ran along South Tacoma Way and then swung
east along Puyallup Avenue. The new freeway cut through established working class neighborhoods in South Tacoma, the Wapato Lake and Lincoln districts and destroyed the Hawthorn neighborhood at the foot of McKinley Hill entirely. Like many older cities that were forced to give up swaths of urban fabric to accommodate federal transportation projects that fueled suburban sprawl, Tacoma absorbed the damage.
By 1959 I-5 was completed from Ft. Lewis to Seattle. It cut through Tacoma, a city with salt water shoreline making up three quarters of its city limits, without even providing a clear view of Puget Sound. The route intentionally ran over or divided ethnic and lower income districts where property condemnation was cheaper and home and business ownership was less common. Puyallup tribal lands and the largely African American residents at Salishan, who had come to work in wartime industries were fenced off from the downtown and port areas by the freeway. Like the Urban Renewal programs that targeted older ethnic neighborhoods and buildings downtown, the federal interstate highway system was used as a weapon of blight removal by planners who were also aware of social and economic patterns in housing, schools, public transportation systems and neighborhood micro-cultures.
During the war years Tacoma grew explosively, gaining almost 35,000 people between 1940 and 1950. But during the 1950’s, as I-5 was built and suburban sprawl was sucking the purpose and vitality out of the downtown, the population stalled to less that one third of one percent growth over the decade. It barely grew more in the 1960’s, when the Tacoma Mall drew the big and small retail stores out of the city’s historic core and drive thru everything from banks to Kentucky Fried Chicken and movie theaters kept people in their car seats. Tacoma’s rail based DNA, from its birth in the transcontinental railroad to its city plan and neighborhoods based on streetcars, worked against itself as cars, split level ranch houses, double car garages and home entertainment centers became the modern norm.
Ironically, during the years that Tacoma had the closest ties to the White House, the Eisenhower years when it received the most attention and Federal funding from Washington D.C., the city experienced its deepest decline and most damaging physical changes.