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A year brings change, hope and loss to Tacoma's historically black Hilltop neighborhood

Jonathan Clark, left, at work at Bob's Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.
Will James
Jonathan Clark, left, at work at Bob's Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.

Tacoma has appeared on recent lists of the nation's fastest-rising rents and most-gentrified ZIP codes. 

It's a city in the throes of change. At the center of that change is Tacoma's historically black Hilltop neighborhood. Few communities stand to lose ?— or gain ?— more from the transformations sweeping the city.

Hilltop residents have long called for the level of investment now pouring into the neighborhood. But with prosperity comes rising rents and displacement. One analysis found the Hilltop lost more than a third of its black population between 2010 and 2015.

Last year, KNKX visited a barbecue restaurant whose owners wondered where they fit into this new Hilltop. If they could survive gentrification, they believed, they stood to thrive from the neighborhood's growth. 

KNKX reporter Will James recently returned to Bob's Bar-B-Q Pit, and found a lot had changed at the restaurant, and the Hilltop at large, just since last year. You can listen to that story above.

Jonathan Clark, who manages Bob's, said the threat of displacement is more real than ever.

He said he's gotten word the restaurant's landlord, a development company, plans to demolish the building at an unknown point in the future and replace it with a "multi-use" structure with affordable housing and retail space. 

Clark said he knows it's the sort of project the Hilltop needs with more and more longtime residents getting priced out. He said, if he owned the property, he'd build the same thing.

He's hopeful Bob's will find a home in the new structure, or one of the many other new buildings planned in the Hilltop.

"Everything has to go forward," said Clark, whose grandparents founded Bob's 71 years ago. "There’s nothing we can do about it but except for adapt and keep moving forward with it."

There's perhaps no greater sign of the change coming to the Hilltop than the chorus of clanking and rumbling around the corner from Bob's.

Machinery is tearing up the road to make way for a new Link light rail line that will, by 2022, connect the neighborhood with downtown Tacoma. By 2030, it will link the Hilltop with Seattle. 

It brings with it hope for economic prosperity. But also fears of even higher rents and more people displaced.

"From a businessperson’s standpoint, I see the benefit of the Link coming in here," said David Combs, who owns a T-shirt printing shop down the street from where the light rail station will be.

Credit Will James / KNKX
David Combs outside his business, the TShirt Men Company, in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.

But, he added, "from a resident and a concerned citizen’s standpoint, I feel like the negative impacts that it’s going to have on the community aren’t worth it."

Combs' frustration over some of the changes sweeping the Hilltop are the reason he decided to run for City Council this year. He's challenging another Hilltop resident, incumbent Keith Blocker.

Combs is concerned about the growing visibility of homelessness in the neighborhood, despite millions of additional dollars city leaders have invested over the past two years to address the crisis citywide. A cluster of tents stand beside Combs' shop. 

"There are things that are being done to kind of help or little things that are kind of Band Aids to some of these problems," Combs said. "But as far as solutions, there really wasn’t anything that the city or even the community were putting forth that was going to eradicate homelessness or eradicate our affordable housing crisis or even the gentrification and displacement of some of our residents here."

Blocker said his opponent is talking about some of the most complex problems facing any city. 

"We’re talking about billion-dollar problems, and we have a budget of millions of dollars," the council member said. 

"I’ve experienced homelessness, so I understand housing on so many different levels," added Blocker, who was homeless for periods as a child and young man in Philadelphia. "We all really care about this issue and we’re all investing a tremendous amount of time... But if the expectation is that the city is supposed to solve this problem, then that’s unrealistic because this problem is bigger than the city of Tacoma."

Credit Will James / KNKX
Keith Blocker represents Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood on the City Council.

And while Blocker shares some of his opponent's worries about gentrification, he sees the changes in the Hilltop as largely positive.

"The Hilltop historically has been seen as a community that’s been neglected by the city," he said. "I think ultimately this is the change that a lot of people have been waiting for."

The trick, he said, is ensuring current Hilltop residents are able to benefit from that change.

Elsewhere in the Hilltop, there's an effort underway to do exactly that.

The Tacoma Housing Authority, whose headquarters overlook People's Park in the Hilltop, has been buying up land along the planned light rail line with plans to build about 250 units of affordable housing, plus affordable retail space. 

For Michael Mirra, executive director of the housing authority, it's a race against time.

"There are some suggestions to this trajectory that tell us in 10 or 15 years, the only affordable housing in the Hilltop, the only affordable retail space in the Hilltop, is what we and our partners succeed in building, buying or owning in the next five years," Mirra said. 

But, he said, Tacoma has a chance to succeed where many other cities have failed: bringing in new prosperity without sweeping away the people who have been waiting for it.

"The Hilltop does not just need investment of dollars," Mirra said. "It needs the personal investment that comes from growing up here, having raised your children here, knowing your neighbors. And if you lose that, the other kinds of financial investments feel incomplete."

Efforts like that are the reason Clark, who manages Bob's Bar-B-Q-Pit, said he's more hopeful about the restaurant, and the Hilltop, than he was last year.

"I still miss all of the people that I grew up with who lived in this neighborhood that were residents," he said. "And I've met some new residents, I've got some new friends from people that have moved here. It's a good thing. It's called evolution. It's called growth. It's called progress." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.