Local artists signal changes ahead in Hilltop, Tacoma

The site of a former Rite Aid will be transformed into affordable homes and business space. But before the demolition crew arrives, those brick walls will be a canvas for artists and a celebration of Hilltop history and culture.

Earlier this year, a fence came down in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. Erected ten years ago, it had cordoned off an entire city block dominated by a vacant Rite Aid. This stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a construction zone, a tumult of backhoes, cement mixers, and deep trenches with orange plastic traffic barriers, barrels, and cones delineating where to go and where you’d better not. In 2022 Sound Transit’s light rail will run down this busy commercial corridor, raising housing prices in an already gentrifying area. Many residents, with deep cultural and family ties to the historically Black neighborhood, can no longer afford to live here.

Even in this ever-shifting scene, Jeff Dade, who at the time was simply an interested and observant passerby, took note of the absent fence. Today, he is Forterra’s senior project manager of community development, and he is helping to facilitate a more concerted and certainly more creative effort to generate interest in this lot at the corner of MLK and South 11th Street.

Before the walls come down

Three years ago, city leaders approached Forterra for help in acquiring the Rite Aid property and developing it as attainable housing and business space. With funding from our Strong Communities Fund, Forterra completed the purchase in November 2019. With groundbreaking still over a year away, the Rite Aid property remains an uninspiring sight. But this visual doesn’t convey the opportunity ahead or the tremendous energy, thought, and hope that the community has already invested in the project. So Dade and his Forterra colleagues, our community partner Fab-5, and a council of local residents launched a public art commission for Black artists with a connection to Hilltop.

The first phase, “Get Ready,” commissioned five artists to transform the Rite Aid and nearby structures with murals or other site-specific art to celebrate the community and to signal the changes to come. This work will ultimately be transferred to the new construction. The five “Get Ready” artists are Adika Bell, Dionne Bonner, Breyahna Coston, Jeremy Gregory, and Gwen Jones. The second, “Lasting Legacy,” scheduled for later this year, will commission art for the finished spaces. The Rite Aid building, now lightly renovated, is available to the artists as studio space.

Renewal by way of the past

Since last February, Forterra has been deep in a lively and productive community engagement process to understand residents’ vision for the development. The process has been led by Fab-5 and integrated into its existing #DesigntheHill initiative which involves community members in local development and city planning decisions. Opportunities for engagement and community direction include a series of design labs and business forums open to the public, the formation and leadership of the Black-led Community Investment Council, and now, the public art commissions.

The conversation has gone beyond the technical details of unit prices and square footage and delved into neighborhood history, both the pain of racism and exclusion and the power of cultural legacy and deep community bonds. Urban renewal of the mid-20th century displaced people of color, tore apart communities, and erected impersonal and imposing public housing projects in the ruins. The Hilltop is urban renewal, but of a different sort. Rather than erasing history and denigrating the present, it is intended as an affirmation of the neighborhood’s Black history and an incarnation of the community’s present-day vitality.

“Get Ready” artists look back and ahead

Adika Bell, who was born and raised in Tacoma and lived 10 years on the Hill, can recall both a heyday of mom-and-pop businesses and the hard times that befell the neighborhood. “I remember getting slushies and chips from the corner stores Dobashi and Shaibis, getting my hair cut at Sam and Terry’s, bean pies from The Fish House. I also remember the not so good issues, such as broken homes, drugs, alcohol, guns, gangs, police brutality, gentrification, lack of opportunities, and the real struggle of a low-income community. Even with all these issues being present, I was also able to experience the love and beauty that came from the community.” Bell has painted portraits of James Baldwin, Kobe Bryant, Tupac Shakur, and other Black cultural figures, often playing up shadow, light, and contour with bright colors.

Dionne Bonner’s family arrived in Hilltop from Mississippi. Her mother and her sisters grew up here, and Bonner was born and spent her early years in the neighborhood. She never lost her connection to this place even after moving away, continuing to visit her great grandmother and great aunt and today, her son. Her great grandmother’s house later burned down, and the lot was incorporated by a new house. For Bonner, this story is “a metaphor of the condition of the community today” and inspiration for keeping these neighborhood memories and stories alive. Bonner has created a number of community-based projects, including a street mural project called Paint the Street and one for the Links to Opportunity project in Hilltop. For the latter, she designed outdoor chalkboards to elicit residents’ ideas for possible streetscape improvements along the rail extension, photographed and chatted with contributors, and gathered this feedback into a report.

Right now the property doesn’t look like much. But that fence has come down, the red brick walls are exposed, and five artists have begun work. Change is coming and it’s going to be beautiful.

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