Turning around a rough downtown

“The heart of my city was being taken over by gang members,” says Marcia Moe, whose daily walk to work twenty years ago took her through a deteriorating downtown. She especially remembers a day when she found herself two feet away from a drug deal as she entered her office building. She writes:

I sat at my desk with a heavy heart. What could one person do to change the streets of our city?

I told my ALF class that I was going to start a farmers market in downtown Tacoma. This was many years before markets like these became popular. My goal was to fill the streets with people and positive activities and drive out gang members and drug dealers. The wife of an ALF classmate joined my journey.

Local business people were not exactly enthusiastic. “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” they told me. “Workers will not come out of their buildings during the day.” “Nobody will come into downtown Tacoma to shop.” “I won’t do anything to hurt your project, but I won’t do anything to help it either.” Those who owned businesses along the street that would be closed four hours each market day went to the city en masse to protest. “Business is hard enough,” they cried. “If you don’t allow people to park in front of our shops, we’ll go out of business!”

The day of the first farmers market dawned with blue skies and bright sunshine. As we stood on the corner at the entrance to the market, our hearts soared. A few people were actually coming out of their offices and heading for the market. Then the floodgates opened. Shoppers by the hundreds filled the streets and sidewalks heading for the market. A local baker brought forty loaves of bread for her booth; they were gone in ten minutes! Shoppers were delighted with the bargains and vendors were thrilled. Even the businesses without their parking spots were elated as their shops filled with customers.

That was over twenty years ago. Today Tacoma Farmers Market is one of the largest day markets in Washington state. With shoppers flocking to purchase beautiful fruit and vegetables, colorful bouquets and handmade crafts, Tacoma Farmers Market has contributed to the turnaround of downtown Tacoma.

Marcia Moe, a former ALF executive director, works with private foundations and lives in Tacoma, Washington.