A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Spring 2017

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A Walk Around Proctor


Finding a Neighborhood's Luster in the Details.

By Candace Brown

On a sunny September morning my husband Dave and I loitered on a street corner, gawking like a couple of lost tourists. People we know must have wondered why I pointed and took pictures. They see us most days and we act pretty normal, but on that day I had an agenda: documenting life in the quintessential American village. Who would imagine finding that village hidden in a city the size of Tacoma, Washington? Officially called the Proctor District, or just Proctor to the locals, it exemplifies the ideal neighborhood life. I wanted to analyze its charm and why it functions so well.

First we stopped to pick up our mail. Going to the post office is just one of life’s necessities easily managed in a neighborhood where family homes snuggle up to businesses and institutions. Kids can walk to Mason Middle School or Washington School, for the elementary grades, opened in 1901. They come from Proctor’s charming mix of mostly older homes, some dating back to the 1890s, everything from cozy bungalows to mini-mansions.

Across the street from Washington School stands the busy Anna Lemon Wheelock branch of the Tacoma Public Library. Climbing the steps to the arched entryway always feels good to me. I spoke to Regional Branch Manager Cheryl Towne. Did she have any thoughts to share about Proctor and what the library means to the community? You bet.
She radiated enthusiasm and pride.

“I love where I work. I’ve been here two years as Branch Manager and I accepted this job because of the neighborhood, but also because it’s just a beautiful library” she said. I agree. Light streams in through the tall windows on the east end. It’s a magnet for people of all ages. “We really try to make it feel open and inviting. And the meeting rooms are heavily used by many different neighborhood groups. Another thing I do is try to purchase materials specific to the community’s needs, and people really use this library. Statistically we’re comparable to the main branch downtown. Wheelock has 20% of the total circulation.”

That impressed me, in a system with ten branches. But libraries mattered here from the earliest settlement, existing in several forms before the Anna E. McCormick library opened in 1927. Its Tudor style brick building stands right next to Wheelock and is still used for meetings. The Wheelock library is also undergoing renovations right now including creating a special room just for young children and their picture books.

Public gathering places define and enrich Proctor. We stood in the shade of a 100-year-old oak tree on library property. A chain link fence surrounds torn-up ground where a project is underway. The soon-to-be Mason Plaza will honor Allen C. Mason, a visionary who came to Tacoma in 1883 and among other things, built the first street car line that went from downtown through what was then forested land, to Point Defiance Park. This enabled the development of the city’s North End, including Proctor, and families settled here to get away from the less desirable influences of city life downtown. Mason Plaza will feature a life-sized statue of Mason and six sandstone columns from his late 19th century mansion. It will add yet another place for citizens to gather, relax, reflect and strengthen their sense of community.

A post office, school, and library, close together, hint at the convenience of this urban village. We walked past other places essential to everyday life: dentist offices, an auto-body shop, dry cleaners, grocery stores, a vet. The 1911 firehouse still serves its purpose. Within a few blocks you can find banks, churches, a barber shop and beauty salon, women’s apparel, gift shops, pet supplies, jewelry, a garden center, bicycle shop, locksmith, a train and hobby store, and so much more.

What about the places that are just as essential, to the enjoyment of life? You’ll find a variety of excellent restaurants, some new and upscale, some long established and homey. Try coffee shops, a wine bar, an ice cream parlor or bowling alley. Visit the unique 1923 Blue Mouse Theater, where animated blue neon mice scamper across the marquee at night. Small in scale but big on style, it shows second run movies for under five dollars, less for matinees. The civic pride and unity of all these business owners awes the library’s Branch Manager, Cheryl Towne.

“One thing I really appreciate is the way all the business people work together to make Proctor’s special events, which usually focus on kids, so successful. Look at the ‘Proctor Treats’ at Halloween, for example, or the Junior Daffodil Parade. They’re not afraid to close down the street and make it pedestrian only. They’re more concerned about it being fun and safe for families than they are about losing business, and in fact, these events have helped business.”

I’d reached paradise: Culpepper’s Books. Packed full of used, collectable, and rare volumes, it delights the eye with rows of richly colored bindings. To some of us the scent of old leather is seductive. I knew I wouldn’t get out of there empty-handed. Michele Martin greeted me as she stepped from behind the counter to check on a book for someone waiting on the phone. Later, I asked for her thoughts on why Proctor is a great neighborhood.

“I’d say the availability of everything I need, the variety of shops” she said. “ I rarely leave the North End. People around here are friendly and most of my neighbors shop here too. And besides that, I can walk to work.”

Outside, Dave was eyeing the menu at the Europa Bistro right next door. Of the many great places to eat in Proctor, their amazing dishes, like the Mexican cuisine across the street at La Fondita, keep us coming back. So does the Old House Café. It occupies the upstairs of a 1907 house with a gift shop on the ground floor, but the word café is too modest for a place that offers elegant dining in a genteel setting.

We headed north to where a clock on a tall post, adorned with hanging baskets of flowers, dominates the corner. I wondered if Bill Evans would be in his store, the Pacific Northwest Shop. Filled with regional food specialties, books, art, pottery, jewelry, Washington wines and more, it attracts the locals as well as visitors. In a sunny south window hang colored glass balls made from Mt. Saint Helens volcanic ash, all speckled and swirled, kaleidoscopically fascinating.

There stood cheerful Bill, delighted to hear I’d be writing about Proctor. Everyone knows this former City Council member’s enthusiasm for his neighborhood, and what he’s contributed in time, energy, and love. He and historian Caroline Gallacci authored a book called Tacoma’s Proctor District. An old fellow visited the store recently, to ask about the book, and found in it a picture of himself as a kid in 1928, walking down Proctor Street in a “Pet Parade”. Seeing his memories preserved on the page summoned deep emotions.

“Hey, I want to show you something”, Bill said. “Have you noticed what’s in the window box?” I followed him out into the sunshine. “Look at this.” Several organic cherry tomato plants still held a few ripe fruits. Behind them a note taped to the window, invited children to pick one for themselves. This neighborhood loves and values its children. Bill has his own way of making them feel special.

So does the owner of the Teaching Toys and Books toy shop on the opposite street corner. Just outside the door, a tub full of bright, shiny pinwheels spinning in the breeze took me back to childhood. Only in Proctor, would it work to have a toy store sharing the same 1910 building as an historic pub, the North End Tavern. Walking by, I’ve never heard or seen a single disturbance there. Shaded by trees, people sit in benches on the sidewalk outside, where brass markers point out the history of early businesses.

Every Saturday, from that same corner and heading a block west, the Proctor Farmers Market seems a distillation of neighborhood attributes. It’s another gathering place, a family outing, lunch rendezvous, shopping extravaganza, and dog show all in one. With bright flowers and fresh produce, food aromas and flavors, colors, textures, and live music, all five senses engage. You might see the chef from Babblin Babs Bistro picking out some fresh herbs. A well-known and loved resident, Bruce Larson, one of several instrumental in starting the market, doesn’t directly run it anymore, but still comes. He can’t walk five feet without someone wanting to talk.

What makes Proctor a great urban village? It’s partly what’s missing: chain stores and fast food restaurants, and decay. But what it comes down to is simply people: the small business owners, volunteers, parents who teach their kids not to litter, homeowners planting flowers, and walkers who pick up after their dogs. Opportunities to meet, mingle, work and do business near home, and plan events together, all help create a sense of ownership and pride. The key though, is “walkability.”

I gave the “roving reporter” routine a rest. The next morning would be market day and we’d be at it again, seeing friends and having fun. And just like the old fellow in the Pacific Northwest Shop, one day we’ll look back fondly at memories of life in an urban village and walking the streets of Proctor.

Candace Brown

Candace’s blog can be found at:

 

http://goodlifenw.blogspot.com

 

Links to some of the mentioned Proctor locales:


www.proctorbusinessdistrict.com
           
www.pacificnorthwestshop.com
                  
www.proctorfarmersmarket.com
 
www.tpl.lib.wa.us/
  (library)
 
www.oldhousecafe.com
 
www.culpepperbooks.com
 
www.teachingtoysandbooks.com
 
www.europabistro.net
 

 

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