The Real Story Behind Tacoma’s Nickname, Grit City

GRIT

/grit/ noun

  1. small loose particles of stone or sand
  2. courage and resolve; strength of character; firmness of mind or spirit

Over the last couple years we’ve met a number of people who asked where the nickname “Grit City” came from. I had done some spotty research and had a rough idea but we figured it was time to get all the facts in line before someone else told the story for us.

It’s a long story because I think the context is important. If you actually have some feelings beyond passing curiosity (especially if they’re grumpy feelings), I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. If you’re on a five minute break and you just need a quick answer, here’s the TLDR version:

Through the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Tacoma was regularly described as “gritty” by outsiders. The word was used as an insult until 2003 when Peter Callaghan wrote a column that explained the alternate definition of the word “grit.” His column inspired Sonja Silver to make some shirts that said Gritty Tacoman across the front and it grew in popularity from there. It also has nothing to do with boiled cornmeal.

Now, onto the full story.

FIGHTING THE STIGMA

In the early 2000s, city officials were obsessed with rebranding Tacoma. Many saw its industrial past as a stigma, and were eager to focus the attention of visitors and businesses on the newly built Museum of Glass and world-class fiber optic lines criss-crossing the city.

Richard Newquist wrote a story in the Tacoma Reporter in June of 2002 called “The Branding of Tacoma.” He wrote that around three years prior there was a big push to get more tourism facilities in downtown Tacoma: 

City officials quickly realized that, other than some great crime scenes, we had little else to sell to tourists. Outside of being America’s #1 Wired City and frequent appearances on the television program “Cops,” Tacoma has no real image nationally.

Two years later, the city considered covering the parking garages on Pacific Ave in enormous vinyl wraps. Brutalist architecture had fallen out of taste since the 1960s and this last ditch effort to bring shoppers back from the Tacoma Mall was eventually seen as an eyesore.

In 2006 the city hired a branding and design company to revamp the old slogan “City of Destiny.” They ended up making a series of images with Tacoma scenes and silhouetted figures accompanied by the following intentionally lowercase phrases:

  • tacoma. reach your destiny.
  • tacoma. shape your destiny.
  • tacoma. control your destiny.
  • tacoma. create your destiny.

The campaign was meant to attract businesses and investors to Tacoma but, in a painful bit of irony, the company they hired moved to Seattle shortly after winning the bid for the project. Nobody liked the results and the city didn’t even end up using them.

Tammy Blount, former president and CEO of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, had a habit of using the word “grit” when talking about the people of Tacoma, referring to their authenticity and down-to-earth nature. Not everyone was happy about that, though. In 2009 she said “it’s been suggested by some folks” that she stop using the words “grit” or “gritty” when describing Tacoma and started a city-wide contest to come up with a new slogan. 

Try as I might, I can’t find the results of that contest and who won “The Mountain in Glass” prize. Anyway, ten years down the line Tammy Blount doesn’t work for the Visitors Bureau anymore and the Grit City haters don’t seem to have been successful in stamping out the nickname.

DEFENDING THE GRIT

On October 27, 2003, The New York Times published an article titled “A City Seeks Its Identity Amid a Spire of Debate.” The first paragraph got right to the point:

The last few decades did not go well for this city 30 miles south of Seattle. It was always the lesser city on Puget Sound: smelly, crumbling Tacoma; hometown of Ted Bundy, serial killer; a dusty, dying, pulp mill mudhole with an understandable ego problem.

Oof. The next paragraph listed a few points of revitalization and ended with the question, “Can they build the Tower of Tacoma?” The question referred to a 400-foot-tall elongated pyramid that was part of the original plan when the convention center was built downtown.

For all its colorfully insulting descriptions of Tacoma, the one word the article didn’t use was “gritty.” Whenever an outside media outlet mentioned Tacoma, at least through the ‘90s and early 2000s, that seemed to be the go-to descriptor. It was never used as a compliment, though. The phrases “gritty port city” and “beer-and-a-shot kind of town” seemed to get the message across without being overtly insulting, though some occasionally were. 

The omission may have been coincidental but I like to think it was purposeful. Five months earlier, Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune wrote a column titled “Let interlopers call us gritty; it’s Tacomans who define this city.” In it, he wrote about the relentless shit-talking that Tacoma had sustained for years from just about every major newspaper that cared to glance our way.

He explained how so many papers that had begun to refer to us as “formerly gritty” were all too ready to change their tone when it suited them:

It is not only likely that the worm will turn, it is inevitable. Because the writers who thought they were being iconoclastic when they wrote positively about Tacoma will also want to be first to puncture the myth they helped create.

Every time a newspaper slapped a pejorative “gritty” label on Tacoma, Peter Callaghan was there to defend it with wit, humor, and admirable stamina. He called the New York Times writer out on the confusing contradiction of a city being both dusty and a mudhole and asked if they could finally let Ted Bundy go now that we had former Police Chief David Brame.

At the end of this particular column he wrapped it all up with an acknowledgement of recent events and a look at the dictionary entry for the word “gritty”:

So what’s it all mean? We were never as groovy as those earlier articles suggested. And we’re hardly as dismal as the more-recent ones will assert. We’re a medium-sized city with advantages and challenges, just like most places in America where people live, work and raise families.

As we struggle with the mess that the murder of Crystal Brame exposed, we probably ought to worry first about what we think of ourselves. Image is fleeting and mostly out of our control. If we build a place we’re proud of, others will discover it too.

Webster’s defines gritty as “brave, plucky.” That sounds OK by me.

RECLAIMING “GRITTY”

When asked about the pushback from citizens who opposed the convention center tower in 2003, City Councilman Doug Miller said, “I just think people aren’t ready to feel good about themselves again.” The Brame murder-suicide and recent investigation into local government corruption was fresh in people’s minds but that wasn’t the only reason for the comment.

When you look at the decisions that were made back then on behalf of the city at large, they seemed to be motivated by an assumption that Tacoma was simply not good enough as it was. Whether it was or not is entirely subjective. Some people certainly welcomed the newly polished face of Tacoma while others were proud of the city as it was and didn’t feel a need to call it something it wasn’t.

Around the same time that Peter Callaghan was sharing his opinions on the word “grit,” Sonja Silver was busy running a clothing shop at the corner of 9th and A streets. She had been there since 1999 but all the recent attention given to the UW campus down the road coupled with the nearby light rail construction was having a negative effect on business.

Sonja had seen a lot of the same Tacoma bashing Peter Callaghan had been writing about. So when she read his column that got more into the other definition of the word “grit” she had an idea.

When I met her to talk about the backstory she explained, “I called Peter and I said, ‘I want to get some T-shirts made that say Gritty Tacoman because back then, there were no Tacoma T-shirts.” She was tired of friends from Tacoma telling people they were from Seattle. She’d say, “No you’re not. You’re from Tacoma.”

Sonja used the proceeds from the first batch of shirts to make the first Theater District merchant map. She printed more and more shirts and the positive association between Tacoma and the word “grit” steadily grew in popularity. It’s unclear who first uttered the nickname “Grit City,” but Peter’s column and Sonja’s shirts were the first two dominos to fall.

Over the years Sonja has told this story to a number of people and many of them simply don’t believe her. Being responsible for the nickname of an entire city is not a bullet point on many people’s resumes.

The last time any one person in Tacoma could rightly wear that feather in their cap was around 1887 when George Francis Train first called it the City of Destiny. If it weren’t for Sonja’s shirts, the nickname may never had made it out of a few newspaper articles and occasional conversations.

MISCONCEPTIONS

In December of 2011, Post Defiance published a story claiming the nickname was based on a tradition from the early 1900s wherein the old Albers Mill on Dock St. would serve up grits for the public as a Christmas celebration:

… By that time, grits had become a standard foodstuff in Tacoma, proudly symbolic of hard work and regrettable decisions. A small fleet of cart vendors lined the muddy margins of the waterfront roads and Pacific Avenue on weekend nights, peddling hot grits to hard-working revelers.

“So, for all its boom and bustle, Tacoma got the nickname of Grit City because of the homely meal that helped sustain it,” Blaze Bayley wrote in a contemporary article for the Ellensburg Sun.

As compelling as the story was, the entire thing was made up. Blaze Bayley—along with all the other historians referenced in the article—are former members of Iron Maiden. To be fair, the end of the article had a footnote clarifying that “All historical information represented in this article is less fact and more the collective imagination of the Post Defiance editorial board.”

That message seemed to have been missed by some. Steven Little, guest speaker at the 2012 Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber’s annual meeting, referenced the article and explained to 500+ attendees that the people of Tacoma just really liked boiled cornmeal and “Grit City” had nothing to do with our industrial past or current character as a city.

INTO THE MAINSTREAM

At some point after Sonja Silver’s Gritty Tacoman shirts made the rounds in Tacoma, locals started listing “Grit City, Washington” as their hometown on social media (back when you could type in whatever location you wanted).

In 2016, Abrewer88 added “the unofficial local nickname of Grit City” to Tacoma’s Wikipedia page. As of March 2019, according to Redditor yoproblemo, there have been at least 28 businesses, organizations, or products with the phrase Grit City in their title. New ones seem to pop up pretty regularly. 

Someone bought the domain name gritcity.com in 2001 but never seemed to make anything of it [insert fist shaking GIF here].

FINAL THOUGHTS

The article in Post Defiance was not meant to mislead people. The staff simply felt the nickname was being overused. They weren’t the only ones who felt that way and plenty of other locals see the moniker “Grit City” as synonymous with “newcomer.” It’s no secret that Tacoma has been facing a lot of changes in recent years and those changes often make life harder for longtime residents. 

The association drawn between “Grit City” and Tacoma’s gentrification is somewhat ironic but also understandable. Widespread acceptance of the nickname may never happen and that’s perfectly fine. Every individual in Tacoma experiences a slightly different version of the city and, in my humble opinion, it’s that diversity of perspective that keeps a city alive. As always, if you have some thoughts to share, we want to hear them.

Bonus facts:

  • Tacoma wasn’t the first to come up with the name Grit City. In the mid 1980s, there was an effort by the city of Fort Lauderdale, FL to clean up a neighborhood locally known as Grit City. Its nickname had nothing to do with courage or resolve, though. The area, officially named Silver Lakes Village, was known for having an excessive amount of garbage on its streets.
  • There are two unincorporated communities in the US with the official name, Grit. One is a farming and ranching community about 100 miles west of Austin, Texas. The other is in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
  • In 1904 Bond’s Grit Machines were manufactured and sold in Tacoma for $4 apiece.

Newspaper clippings and historic photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library’s NW Room

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We spent a lot of long hours in the library researching all the bits of this story. Time we couldn’t have afforded without help from local businesses. Big thanks to Mary Mart for their ongoing support of Grit City Magazine.

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  1. You missed an earlier reference, the shout out from the stage by Bruce Springsteen. Tacoma Dome, mid-1980s, where, with exhuberence, he called Tacoma a “gritty little mill town.” We weren’t alone, as Worchester, MA (where he started a tour in 1988) was referred to with a similar phrase. The phrase fits well with the Springsteen persona of working class champion, but it was not well-received in Tacoma, where we were strugglung with high unemployment in all economic sectors.

    1. That’s really interesting. It definitely reflects a lot of the negative commentary Tacoma sustained through that time. Thanks for sharing!

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