To stand outside Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma is to see a gentrification wave just beginning to curl.
A block away, a new artisanal coffee shop is brewing. Down the street, a developer plans to build an apartment building with studios renting for up to $1,400 a month.
But to walk inside Bob’s is to walk into the past.
Hanging over the counter are paintings of Robert and Elizabeth Littles, who opened the first Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit in downtown Tacoma in 1948.
Bob's re-opened in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in 1989.
The walls are covered in obituaries and memorials of people who used to eat here. Some regulars look for their friends and relatives on those walls every time they come in.
“That part, it’s worth getting up every day for,” said Jonathan Clark, who manages the restaurant.
His grandparents, the couple in the paintings, founded the original Bob’s. The same family has been slinging ribs and other barbecue staples for 70 years.
“My grandpa came from Texas and saw there was no barbecue,” Clark said. “He says ‘I gotta have some barbecue.’ And ever since then, we’ve been around.”
But Clark worries Bob’s could be the next black-owned business to disappear from the Hilltop.
His family lost their building on 11th Street when they failed to make a $250,000 balloon payment on a loan.
The property where the restaurant operates is now owned by a development company that specializes in building commercial office space and loft apartments.
Bob’s has been without a lease for about two years.
“It kind of leaves me in the air to wonder what is going to happen next,” Clark said. “I mean, I could get a notice saying, ‘In 90 days, we need you to be out of here because we’re going to do this.’ I just wish they would tell me exactly what they want to do.”
'Part of the game'
Clark grew up in the Hilltop. That means he has seen a lot of change.
The neighborhood lost more than a third of its black population between 2010 and 2015, according to William Towey, a program manager for the Tacoma Urban League who wrote his master’s thesis on gentrification in the Hilltop.
To Towey, the survival of Bob’s is tied to the question of what kind of community the Hilltop will become.
“I’m hopeful that the community within the Hilltop can continue to hold onto and lift up its historical traditions and values,” he said. “I don’t think that this will end up being a sort of bland, faceless, gentrified development like others.”
But rents and home prices have only gone up.
Clark wanted to buy a house in the Hilltop but, with home prices on the rise, he found a better deal outside the Hilltop, in the community of Fern Hill.
“Up until recently, Tacoma was the housing bargain of the West Coast, and the Hilltop was the housing bargain of Tacoma,” said Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority.
But Mirra worries that, in a few years, “the Hilltop is going to resemble Ballard,” a more expensive and largely white Seattle neighborhood.
Clark’s feelings about all this are complex.
As a Hilltop native, he once felt angry. Now, he gets sad.
“I knew almost everybody on every block,” he said. “I also delivered their paper, I cut their grass. And there are a few still that own their houses, very few.”
But as a business owner, gentrification presents an opportunity.
It’s one of the reasons he wants to stick around.
“It made me think, ‘If I’m going to be a part of this community and part of the game, you’ve got to be in the game,’” he said.
For a while, he himself dreamed of knocking down the restaurant and putting up a new building, something that would change the neighborhood and help preserve it at the same time.
“It would have shops on the bottom and then you’d have either low-income housing or senior housing up top,” he said.
"Of course the penthouse up top would be mine," he added, with a laugh. "I’d move in there that way I could live in Hilltop again. But, due to the economy, that just didn’t happen.”
So Clark is still running Bob's, and doing his best to adapt.
'Utopia for black folks'
If you want to understand how much the Hilltop has changed, you just have to talk to Paul Waller.
He runs the kitchen at Bob’s. He and Clark have been friends since they were six years old.
“When we were kids growing up, the Hilltop was a utopia for black folks because a lot of them were retired military families that came up here and had purchased their homes,” Waller said, while stir-frying lunch for the restaurant crew one afternoon.
But he said that changed while they were growing up, from the early 80s through the early 90s.
“The children went a little crazy,” he said. “A lot of the young black men in the community got inducted into the Crips and the Bloods. All hell just broke loose.”
The Hilltop made national headlines for violence during that period.
“By the time I was 25, I had been to over 100 funerals,” Waller said. “I didn’t go to funerals for almost 10 years, until my grandparents started dying, because I got sick of seeing people I loved in coffins.”
The shooting has largely stopped. But many of the families Waller and Clark grew up with aren’t around the see this new Hilltop.
They’ve been replaced, in many cases by white families moving from Seattle.
Waller said, watching all this, he wishes it could have unfolded differently.
“Inner cities are going to be only the haves,” Waller said. “Anybody who’s going to live outside are going to be the ones who are poor.”
'Progress, whether you like it or not'
Change in the Hilltop is only accelerating.
In 2022, a new light rail station is supposed to connect the Hilltop to downtown Tacoma.
The Tacoma Housing Authority is buying up land along the route. It plans to build affordable apartments designed to allow people to stay in the Hilltop.
Mirra said the agency is also looking into building affordable retail spaces for businesses like Bob’s.
By 2030, commuters will be able ride light rail from the Hilltop to Seattle, after transferring trains at the Tacoma Dome.
Clark is embracing all this. “This is progress, whether you like it or not,” he said.
When a new coffee shop opened down the street, he didn’t complain. He welcomed them to the neighborhood with ribs.
“I went and had coffee there and I was just kind of impressed with their technique,” he said. “They were roasting the coffee right in front of me.”
The affection is mutual.
“They’re our biggest competition for making the neighborhood smell good,” said Wesley Johnson, one of the owners of Manifesto Coffee, which opened a year and a half ago and is in the process of expanding into a neighboring space.
Clark is looking forward to places like this drawing foot traffic past his restaurant.
He’s preparing. He has signed up for delivery apps like Uber Eats. He has also raised his prices a little.
And he has even tweaked his recipe for collard greens.
“Some people don’t eat pork now,” Clark said. “So what we’ve done is we’ve changed and use a smoked turkey tail or smoked turkey necks.”
It’s scary to navigate the perils and promise of gentrification, he said.
But, to him, looking toward to the future is the only way to keep the past alive.
Clark points to some customers who just left a nearby table. They come in for a meal every year, on the date one of their relatives, a former customer, died.
“That’s not the only family that does that,” he said. “There are several families that do that.”
That’s why, he said, if his family loses their building, they’ll look to open Bob’s somewhere else.
But definitely somewhere in the Hilltop.