Evergreen Tacoma Helps Shape Puget Sound’s “City of Destiny”

By Sandra Kaiser

How two Evergreen Tacoma graduates entered the college to learn and departed to serve their city and region.

Carol Wolfe ’96

Carol Wolfe ’96 credits Evergreen Tacoma with seeing the ”magic” inside the city's Hilltop neighborhood.

Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

If Puget Sound is best visualized as an arm reaching into a barrel, the city of Tacoma would be the elbow, the hinge that marks the beginning of the South Sound region.

After the glaciers retreated 13,000 years ago to shape the physical geography of Commencement Bay and Point Defiance, waves of people began shaping the “City of Destiny,” as Tacoma was once anointed by local businesspeople.

Over the last 200 years, people created Tacoma’s human strata of settlement, fort, village, neighborhood, and city. European settlers pushed out Native Nisqually and Puyallup people, who watched Captain George Vancouver’s expedition sail by as he searched for the mythical Northwest Passage in 1792.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1887 kicked off a boom. Tacoma’s wealth, ambition, and vigor fueled opulent construction on the hills overlooking Puget Sound.

The railroads and banks collapsed at the end of the 19th century, and it took the shipping and industrial expansion of two world wars before the city’s economy rebounded. That expansion brought African Americans from the South to Tacoma to work in the war plants. Hilltop, or “The Hill,” perched above Tacoma’s core, was the traditional point-of-entry neighborhood for these and other immigrants. The neighborhood was not immune from Tacoma’s boom-and-bust cycle. Deindustrialization killed off jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, and retail drifted to local suburbs. Unemployment, drugs, and a spiraling crime rate ripped the fabric of the Hilltop community.

This time, the city’s unique architectural legacy and its people, along with its educational, artistic, and health-care infrastructure, showed the way forward. This was the time Evergreen Tacoma was born, in 1982, in the Hilltop neighborhood.

Evergreen Tacoma used Hilltop as one big teaching laboratory,” said Carol Wolfe ‘96, a community and economic development expert with the city of Tacoma. “We learned to see the potential under the blight.”

From its beginning, Evergreen Tacoma has been a nexus for community activists playing a key role in the Hilltop’s resurgence. It has helped a new generation of Tacoma residents acquire the skills and confidence to take their places as leaders in the region. And it continues to influence the direction of 21st-century Tacoma. Monica Hunter-Alexander ’13

Monica Hunter-Alexander ’13 completed her degree while working full-time as a Washington State Patrol Officer.

Carol Wolfe came to Tacoma in 1994 after realizing the “Mork and Mindy” fantasy of a business career in Boulder, Colo., didn’t match the reality. At 30, single, with a baby daughter, and living with her sisters, she decided it was time to finish her degree.

Remembering a friend who had loved his Evergreen experience, she enrolled at Evergreen Tacoma and was stunned to realize community development could be a career.

“I got to work with amazing local people in Hilltop, who helped me realize the geography and assets of a community are not always obvious,” Wolfe said. Wolfe apprenticed with a community housing organization, working with local businesses to improve conditions and attract investment, getting landlords to clean up their properties, and encouraging residents to work with police to stop the drug trade. Soon she had a paid position.

The City of Tacoma, eager to bring the lessons of Hilltop into broader use, asked Wolfe to take on a citywide community development portfolio. Today she uses her Evergreen Tacoma experience throughout the city, working with neighborhoods to build more owner-operated businesses (“they’re better stewards for the community”) and attract outside investors.

“You need a true mix of market-rate housing and businesses without city support to make it work,” Wolfe said. “And we are seeing investors come in to redevelop core properties.” According to Tacoma police statistics, the Hilltop sector, once a drug and- prostitution hub, now has the lowest crime rate in the city.

Wolfe believes Evergreen Tacoma’s impact continues to reverberate in the region.

“The fact that Evergreen put a campus in what was a tough neighborhood showed bravery and commitment to community,” Wolfe said. “Even though the surroundings were terrible, there was magic inside. I can’t repay my debt to Evergreen and Hilltop, but I can apply their lessons in my work, and make sure these gains last.”

Farther south from her office, across from the edged lawns and cool sandstone of Olympia’s Capitol Campus, Lieutenant Monica Hunter-Alexander ‘13 keeps a watchful eye over the politicians, buildings, and parks that sit on a hill overlooking southernmost Puget Sound. A 17-year veteran with the Washington State Patrol (WSP), Hunter-Alexander currently oversees executive protection for the governor, legislators, staff, and offices, working from WSP’s nerve center in the state’s capital.

On the spring day we spoke with her, Hunter-Alexander and her team were scrambling to organize security around one of Governor Jay Inslee’s trips to the town of Oso, where he was monitoring recovery efforts after the landslide.

Despite the fast pace and long days, Hunter-Alexander makes the round-trip commute every day along the South Sound in an unmarked police car from her home in northeast Tacoma, where she has lived since 2000.

“Tacoma is my home, and it’s important to me to be rooted there,” said Hunter-Alexander. “I get through a lot of books on tape, and occasionally I can help a stranded motorist or assist with an accident scene on Interstate 5.”

Moving to Tacoma as a single mother, she was looking for a chance to build a future for her son and herself. She worked as a flight attendant, owned a hair salon, and in 1996 joined the WSP. She thought about trying to finish her education. The challenge for her was to find a place that would allow her to work days and study at night.

“Evergreen Tacoma appealed to me, because of the community feeling,” she said. “I loved the liberal arts piece. I wanted to be part of the Evergreen family.”

Between bringing up her son, managing her work schedule, and commuting all over the state, it was not until 2010 that Hunter-Alexander managed to enroll at Evergreen Tacoma. Rising at 4 a.m. to be at work by 6 a.m., departing at 4 p.m. to be able to make evening classes that ran from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Hunter-Alexander’s determination to succeed was matched by support from her WSP colleagues, Evergreen faculty, and fellow students.

“I don’t know if I would have finished if it hadn’t been for all the support I received,” Hunter-Alexander said. “Many of the students had their own struggles and challenges. The faculty provided so much compassion to all the students.”

Hunter-Alexander’s husband Johnny, also a lieutenant with the WSP, plans to attend Evergreen Tacoma in fall 2014. And while she has many years to serve in the patrol, Hunter-Alexander sees her own destiny in Tacoma.

“This town still faces some growing pains, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she said.