the "tac" in sea-tac
September 11, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

what's it like to live in Tacoma WA? or any other nice small cities to live in?

So I'm looking to live in a smaller-feeling city where one can:
1. live near work,
2. get around without crazy traffic (or to be really optimistic, on public transport)
3. have cafes, bars, and coffeeshops in one's neighborhood
4. not be completely twee/pseudo-hipster/no-one-here-actually-works-for-a-living (although some of this is ok and probably unavoidable)
I lived in Providence RI before and I thought it was about right. Is Tacoma like this? Is there public transport into Seattle? Where else should I consider?
posted by genmonster to Work & Money (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to add some more criteria to your list, because 1-4 could be achieved in any number of mid-sized cities. For instance, I live in WI and both Milwaukee and Madison (especially Madison) have awesome neighborhoods for this.
posted by ella wren at 8:05 AM on September 11, 2011

OK, ella wren, how about 5. not colder then Massachusetts, where I currently live? (but for real, Madison was already on my list- I've almost moved there several times)
posted by genmonster at 8:07 AM on September 11, 2011

Tacoma's an industrial city and has the odor to match its paper mills. There's a reason the "Tacoma aroma" is something non-residents comment upon. As a former Seattleite, that's my strongest memory of traveling through Tacoma.

The rest of your criteria may or may not fit Tacoma. It's hard to say because your question is pretty vague. Can you get around on public transit? Probably; there's public transport inside the city and up to Seattle. Can you drive without crazy traffic? What is crazy to you? People from the east coast tend to hate the way PNWers drive. Can you live near work? Can you have cafes and bars in your neighborhood? Maybe... what do you do for a living? What part of the city or suburbs do you want to live in?

As for the weather, it's not that much different from Seattle. It's rarely very cold as in snowy or icy, but it's grey, overcast, and rainy (mild to heavy) for, like, 7 months in a row. Can you handle that?
posted by asciident at 8:16 AM on September 11, 2011

i wouldn't consider tacoma to be without crazy traffic. also, have you visited tacoma? while some people don't mind it, there is a smell to the place that is offputting to many.
posted by nadawi at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2011

I was thinking Milwaukee/Madison too. There's also Asheville NC which might be too twee, but it's less hipster and more hippie, but does not have a working class vibe of Tacoma, to me anyhow. I often look for satellite-type cities around bigger cities, or places with some sort of industry whether it's state capitol stuff or local college (but not large university). So Olympia instead of Seattle. Milwaukee instead of Chicago. Baltimore instead of DC. St. Paul instead of Minneapolis (probably too cold for you). Jersey City instead of NYC. Tuscon instead of Phoenix.
posted by jessamyn at 8:26 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Durham, NC meets your criteria depending on where you end up working. It's a pretty small city so getting around is easy, lots of cool bars, restaurants, and food trucks with more popping up constantly, and a good farmer's market. I don't know enough about the public transportation to judge it, but there's a free bus that loops through the downtown area, and the downtown area is pretty walkable too. Getting out of Durham, to say Chapel Hill or Raleigh is more difficult using on public transportation but I don't know how often you'd be doing that. It's also definitely warmer than Massachusetts.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 8:48 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Neighborhoods near Portland might be worth considering. Or Bellingham, WA might be good.
posted by jennstra at 8:51 AM on September 11, 2011

You can get transit to Seattle, but the traffic in Tacoma is pretty terrible, frankly. What nadawi and asciident said about the smell--it actually does smell. The Tacoma downtown is depressing and it recently lost one of its long-time employers to Seattle. Olympia is about 35 minutes down the road from Tacoma and has less traffic, no stench, and is the state capital. But it's probably too far to Seattle to commute to and has less developed public transit.

A lot of this depends on what you do for a living as to whether you can live near your job or actually find work in one of these cities.

Also, how small of a city are you willing to move to? If you wanted to live in the Pacific NW, for example, Bellingham, Spokane, or Olympia might fit the bill. You could also check out Vancouver, WA--but it's really more just a spur of Portland so it might not have the feel you're looking for.

Once upon a time we thought about relocating (and stayed put in Seattle) but places we kicked around were Grand Junction, CO, Fort Collins, CO, Reno, NV, Eugene, OR, Missoula, MT, and Santa Fe, NM.

FWIW, you also might want to consider Pittsburgh, which has everything you're talking about, although I'm not sure if it's "small" enough.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:52 AM on September 11, 2011

I don't know -- I go there (and through there) fairly often, and although Tacoma used to smell pretty bad on occasion, I haven't smelled anything bad in years. Of course, I've gotten older, maybe a younger nose would still be offended. Tacoma's worked hard to move past its port/mill town past, but it's still an industrial town, for sure. Many people live there and love it, but I think not many people dream of moving there. It's one of those towns that has a slurb around it: there's no real empty space between Tacoma and Seattle or between Tacoma and Ft. Lewis (excuse me: Joint Base Lewis McChord).

My daughter actually moved from Providence RI (which she loved) to Bellingham WA (which she also loves). Bellingham's smaller: Providence has about 200,000 people, and Tacoma has 178,000 while Bellingham has 81,000. I live in Bellingham (for the last 14 years); I'd never lived in such a small town before, and I totally love it. It's a livable size, with a lack of traffic (if we have to wait for 6 cars before we can turn we wonder "what's going on?"), lots of emphasis on getting out of your car. There are a number of real neighborhoods, with stores, coffeehouses, bars, bookstores, etc. But 15 minutes in any direction and you're in the country; Whatcom County is primarily an agricultural county, with several migrant worker camps in the summer. Amazing outdoor activity opportunities: water, forest, mountains.

Bellingham has its twee, but it's an interesting jumble. The families that have been here a long time were primarily farmers and mill workers; the farmers are still here, solid county conservatives. A lot of old hippies ended up here, and there are the snowboarders, and the musicians (we have an amazing live music scene), and Western Washington University students and staff, lots of Russian emigres, and a huge Sikh temple. Flourishing and relatively well-integrated Native American tribes, the Lummi and the Nooksack.

The problem, of course, is work. But I doubt if you can find a place in this country where that's not the problem. It depends entirely on what you do, or want to do. If you'd like more specific answers to questions, memail me and I'll answer what I can.

One point: have you ever lived on the West Coast? It's very different from the East Coast, and the Northwest is significantly different than Rhode Island -- and not just because people mostly open the traffic laws in the Northwest. There's a very different feel, and some people can't abide one or the other.
posted by kestralwing at 8:55 AM on September 11, 2011

Hello, I am a lifelong Tacoman. Let me share my perspective with you.

Can you live in a neighborhood with bars and shops etc nearby? It's possible in some neighborhoods (Sixth ave, and/or near the universities; some areas of downtown have become a bit gentrified), but for the most part the city is saturated with California-style mega outdoor shopping centers that are designed around automobile traffic.

Do we have public transit? Technically yes, but voter sentiment is overwhelmingly against actually supporting it, and service has been scaled back drastically. I relied on public transit for years and it sucked before the cuts (example: a fifteen-to-twenty-minute car ride becomes a 90-minute excursion with multiple transfers). I actually cried when the votes were tallied.

There is a Seattle Express bus which will take you directly to and from the fun part of Seattle, and which you can hop from a Park and Ride lot.

Do people actually have to work for a living here? Yes. You're not going to run into too many trust fund babies. They can afford to live in swankier places.

People like to hurf de durf about the "Tacoma Aroma" but I assure you that the only time we residents notice it is coming down I-5 south from Seattle and environs, and then only briefly. It doesn't, like, seep into our clothes and surround us in a miasma of wet paper smell or anything. (Or at least I'm pretty sure it doesn't.)

Nice things about Tacoma: cool art scene. Close enough to Seattle to be convenient without having to actually live there. Drivers are courteous. Rent is reasonable. Very nice view of Mt. Rainier on the five days of clear sky we get per year.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:57 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't you rather live in Bellingham?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:19 AM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

thanks for the answers so far! for employment, I'm gonna be a resident on Family Medicine, so wherever I go I'll have a job, but some places (like Bellingham or Eugene) don't have programs I can apply to.
posted by genmonster at 9:26 AM on September 11, 2011

Our artist friend lives in Tacoma with her husband. It is less expensive to live there than Seattle. You could commute to Seattle on the Sounder train, or use buses to get around.

It's a bit more down-to-earth than Seattle — or as our friend would say, "fewer snobs" — but the art scene is definitely a big part of the city's culture.

I've heard stories about the "Tacoma Aroma", but I have never noticed it myself. It might simply depend on where one lives.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:33 AM on September 11, 2011

Some specific neighborhoods in Tacoma that might appeal to you:

Stadium District

Proctor District
posted by trunk muffins at 9:35 AM on September 11, 2011

One theoretical downside of living in Tacoma would become quickly evident when the nearby Mt. Ranier erupts and lava pours into the sound, taking a chunk of the city with it (lava flow map).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:36 AM on September 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

1) Graham is lahar ground zero and stands to get the worst of it, by far

2) Most of Tacoma that lies in the path is industrial

3) Everybody has to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime, and you have to admit that perishing in a torrent of red-hot lava is a pretty epic way to go. Beats the pants off dying in a hospice bed saturated in your own urine. Just sayin'.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:50 AM on September 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

My boyfriend grew up in Tacoma and his family is still there, so we visit frequently. It's a pleasant enough town (gorgeous houses in certain museums, a nice -- though tiny -- art museum, decent cost of living) but I find there's really just not much there.

It's an industrial town, as others have said, which gives it a very different vibe in terms of local economy and culture than college towns of a similar size (the local campuses that are there aren't central to the town the way you would have experienced in a place like Providence). It's de I've never noticed the "Tacoma aroma" that others have mentioned; my boyfriend says it was a lot worse back in the day.

It's drivable to Seattle, though everyone complains about the traffic to get there (which I don't find that terrible, but I live in L.A., so take that into consideration); the people we know who commute to Seattle all take the express bus. There are a few areas (e.g., 6th Street, mentioned above) that have some nice shops, cafes, galleries, etc., but on the whole there's not a lot; if these sorts of things are crucial to your quality of life, I don't know how satisfying it would be for you in the long-run. However, this means it's definitely not twee/hipsterville, so that's a plus!

Personally, I would suggest looking at more straightforward college towns/small cities. To add to Jessamyn's list upthread, you might want to consider Ft. Collins, CO, and Iowa City, IA as well.
posted by scody at 12:00 PM on September 11, 2011

(heh.... I don't have any idea how the sentence "gorgeous houses in certain museums" got there... should be "gorgeous houses in a certain neighborhoods")
posted by scody at 12:01 PM on September 11, 2011

I love Tacoma. It's good lots of great coffee shops, better and better restaurants, beautiful views of the Sound and the mountains (including The Mountain), and one of the largest urban parks in the country. Some neighborhoods are far more walkable than others: Sixth Avenue and Stadium District are especially good. It's a fairly easy drive to Seattle (Seattle traffic can be daunting) without being Seattle (which can be a little . . . self-congratulatory). Tacoma has a real working-class ethos that appeals to me (and reminds me of Pittsburgh in that sense). I very rarely smell "the Tacoma aroma," although that might depend on where one lives. Anyone who says the downtown is depressing hasn't been in it in a long time, IMO. Tacoma has definitely undergone a renaissance. Buying a house is expensive (less expensive than Seattle, more expensive than Portland) but renting is cheap.
posted by pittsburgher at 12:13 PM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what you've described, I would rule out Rochester NY. I just wanted to verify that based on your first description, it IS possible to rule some places out.

Very bad public transportation (spoke system--everyone has to travel downtown first, then out to where they're going). The closest thing to cafes/coffee shops/bars in one neighborhood is heavier on bars, lighter on cafes and stretches for about two blocks max.

But there is a great family medicine program and the practice is on the edge of said cafe/coffee shops/bars neighborhood. And while there are sometimes heavy winters, there are numerous Olmstead-designed parks--2 near said neighborhood.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2011

You may like West Seattle, technically still a part or Seattle it feels distant and separate to me. It has a cute Main street, beaches, lots of coffee shops and some really yummy bakeries. You can commute by water taxi or public transit to downtown Seattle.
posted by ljesse at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone who has recently lived in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, it sounds to me like you're actually looking for Olympia.
posted by zjacreman at 7:23 PM on September 11, 2011

Seconding Fort Collins, CO, for sure.
posted by exceptinsects at 8:31 PM on September 11, 2011

If you're interested in western washington, you should come here and check all of these places out. I was going to say more, but...without coming, it's really hard to know what you're looking for.
posted by victory_laser at 4:46 AM on September 12, 2011

I love the West Seattle vibe, loads of coffee shops, bars and culture in general. And if you get a home facing west, on a clear day, the sunsets and view of the Olympic mountain range can take your breath away. They also have an excellent bike shop and among the best sushi in the city.

The only issue from your list is that the main artery connecting West Seattle with downtown proper is a bridge that gets a lot of traffic. With bus transfers you could look at a 30-45 minute commute. Seattle is renowned for traffic jams, but the bridge between West and downtown Seattle can be even worse, sometimes.

Still, if we could have afforded living on the west side and if we had been able to put up with the commute, we would have bought our house there.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:29 PM on September 12, 2011

If you're interested in mid-sized cities with medical residencies, Tacoma would be a good place for the diversity of patients -- both their ethnicity and their range of conditions. You might consider Spokane, too. It's on the far east side of the state. It is almost exactly the same size as Tacoma. Other factors: lower diversity, no Seattle/megalopolis nearby, good parks and arts, great four-season outdoor recreation, good teaching hospital.
posted by slab_lizard at 10:29 PM on September 12, 2011

« Older Should I leave this relationship or is there hope?   |   Where in Manhattan can I find cheap, battery... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.