Lessons from a Planned Community: Poverty, Adversity and Overcoming


The Tillicum community is designated as a neighborhood in the City of Lakewood, bordering the I-5 corridor, Camp Murray (JBLM), American Lake, and the Tacoma Country Club.  The City of Lakewood is demographically diverse, but is troubled with harsh divisiveness between the rich and poor.  Tillicum, Springbrook, and American Lake Gardens are three of the “isolated” communities designated by the City of Lakewood.  These areas have high level of poverty, while surrounding neighborhoods, such as the homes around Gravelly and American Lake, are extremely wealthy gated enclaves that portray affluent households. With a focus on community assets and strengths, it is essential to differentiate between the strengths the community currently contains and the barriers that have prevented equitable, inclusive, and prosperous communities.  In a dynamic metropolitan region, Pierce County is facing more barriers diverging economic classes while attracting business friendly environments.  Tillicum brings distinct personal interest, for being a Lakewood resident my whole life – I have realized these socioeconomic injustices and the gap between the rich and poor – spatially and socially.

Rooted in a post-war foundation, Tillicum began its community history as a vacation area for World War I families who sought to enjoy the lake setting with outdoor-recreational activities.  There was a streetcar that connected the neighborhood of Tillicum to Tacoma, where residents could easily ride the streetcar and venture into outdoor activities.  Following World War II, Tillicum provided single-family homes for white families through home loan programs implemented through the VA and HUD.  Though the City of Lakewood did not incorporate until 1996, the area of Tillicum accordingly received a notorious reputation before Lakewood’s annexation.  Regardless, Tillicum is still a heavily concentrated poverty area with limited mobility due to a lack of adequate infrastructure connecting the area to the rest of Lakewood.  The community is still isolated from the rest of the city, and is facing new challenges in the upcoming years.  Further, the statistics regarding the community’s AMI, education levels, access to goods and resources, and performance in the Clover Park School District – aim to show us the exacerbated consequences of suburban sprawl and economic segregation.

To demonstrate the uneven distribution of wealth in the City of Lakewood, it is important to note the statistics.  Accordingly, Tillicum contains 4,779 Residents, 65% are white, 15% Black or African American, 3% American Indian, 1% Pacific Islander.  2,830 of these Residents are living below the poverty line, while 48% of the residents are non-English speaking, and 78% of households are renter occupied (Bugher, 2011).  This area is heavily concentrated in poverty and disadvantage, especially in comparison with adjacent bordering gated communities.  Nearly all students at Tillicum Elementary receive free or reduced priced lunches, while 65% do at the middle school.  This community is struggling, and it is essential to address the distress that this community has faced and continues to face.  Single mothers are extremely impoverished in this neighborhood as well, while their average AMI is about $13,000 (Bugher, 2011).  When considering these eye-soaring statistics, it is important to note that forms of capital do exist and the community is implementing unity in addressing their concerns.  The Tillicum Neighborhood Council led by long-term resident Dave Anderson has demonstrated the concerns to the City Council, and have developed a sense of unity and empowerment in the community.

Though the community of Tillicum is experiencing high levels of poverty and disinvestment, there are community assets that need to be addressed through connecting the role of their forms of capital.  Human capital regards the general education of the residents and their labor market experience, and the linkages between workers, employers, and institutions.  In impoverished areas, non-for-profits can develop workforce-training programs to develop skills and tools that can benefit individuals seeking employment.  There are currently high levels of unemployment in the community, and there have been efforts to create vocational training programs with residents.  In an interview with Dave Anderson, he stated that Clover Park Technical College partnered the city in this service program, but due to lack of a site to work in, the project fell through.  American Lake Gardens Community Center provides services for local residents from Tillicum and the Woodbrook neighborhoods. Following the 2008 Needs Assessment provided by the City of Lakewood, they highlighted the asset of the center, through their provision of Health Care and Human Services to residents in need (Bugher, 2011).  The Human Needs Assessment of 2008 addressed the residents main concerns all in correlation with potential for human capital.  Accordingly, the top concerns were: a lack of parenting skills, affordable child care, early screenings for disabilities and school readiness, increasing level of transience, youth with limited access to family like relationships, lack of support systems that increase access to job opportunities, training skills that reduce ongoing reliance on emergency and basic needs programs (Bugher, 2011).

Though this report was published ten years ago, at this time the demography of youth impoverishment in correlation with the needs of the local residents are extremely correlated.  With half of the population living in poverty in Tillicum, it is fair to say that the current situation is much familiar with what it was ten years ago regarding intergenerational poverty.  Residents called for services in parenting skills, as well as youth with limited interpersonal relationships, and a lack of support systems among the community (Bugher, 2011).  With a low amount of residents with a bachelors degree, and a good majority who have not received their high school diploma, it is important to note that this is a result of place-based inequalities and a lack of access to transportation and employment, which can be directly tied to a lack of investment from the City and County.  Tillicum faces a spatial mismatch, alike Springbrook and Woodbrook – all three being designated by the city as “isolated areas”.  The lack of developed human capital can be tied to Tillicum’s lack of social capital, though Tillicum has increased its “synergy” through their neighborhood association, which holds monthly meetings addressing resident’s concerns.  The neighborhood association is open to residents from all isolated neighborhoods, which can bond their existing capital and bridge their networks.  Unfortunately, as the cost of living and value of land exponentially increases across the south sound, these neighborhoods are limited in opportunity while new businesses are locating to their areas – which will be elaborated further.   In regards to political capital, Tillicum has been involved in important regional issues regarding the Amtrack pathway, and last year developed a grassroots strategy to address voter suppression.

Tillicum was in dire need of a ballot box.  In an area that is already extremely physically isolated and it is difficult to get anywhere outside of the community, the initiative was extremely successful and empowered residents.  Accordingly, Felicia Jarvis, the Co-Chair of Pierce County Young Democrats, began canvassing door-to-door to collect signatures and empower residents.  Jarvis noted the high amounts of Hispanic and nonwhite rates of poverty, whom “work long hours, struggle with transportation issues, don’t always have money for stamps. And who say their mail service is sometimes unreliable” (Driscoll, 2017).  The process took some time for results, and was considered “an uphill battle with the bureaucratic dock stacked against the activists” (Driscoll, 2017).  They were able to obtain 600 signatures and challenge the process the county chooses to locate their ballot boxes, which did not consider socioeconomic indicators until this pivotal moment.

Although this story brings a piece of success to the community, the future economic growth, induced by forces of financial and political capital seems weary for vulnerable residents.  The old Woodbrook middle school will be closing down and will be demolished and replaced by segments of the Woodbrook Industrial District.  Four years ago, the city changed it’s zoning in preparation for this “Industrial Hub” – putting CPSD in a strange situation where redevelopment of the school could not even be thought of since the change of the zoning laws.  According to lifelong resident Dave Anderson, this is truly a “sublet to a greater objective by the city to increase its tax revenue through an industrial complex” (Grimley, 2016).  What is most troubling regarding this development, is the immediate displacement of middle-schoolers, forcing them to reestablish themselves in larger schools.  Accordingly, 75% of Woodbrook students live on JBLM, which may be associated with an interesting school district boundary change (Grimley, 2016).

The Woodbrook Industrial Park is planned to start being developed from this summer (2018), until the summer of 2020.  CPSD sold almost all of it’s 40 acres to developers, who will eventually accumulate another hundred acres in the area.  According to the business report, they have dedicated the investment highlights towards Woodbrook’s prime location – close to the port and with access to national and regional freeways, as well as the strong regional economy in the Puget Sound, and the attractive market conditions that come along with it.  Further mentioned was the “strong net growth”, which regarded the rental increases of and reduced vacancies, the supporting Pierce County municipality towards growth, and the strong labor market (Business Portfolio).  This “Industrial Hub”; according to City Manager Caulfield; will bring 1,170-3,500 “family wage jobs”, and two to three times the number of support jobs “created off site”.  The land has the potential to increase in value from $33 Million to $143-184 Million, which on the high end can bring about $1.00 Billion of an economic impact (Caulfield).


Opportunity Zones” (OZ’s) as a part of the new Federal Tax Cut – two of them being Tillicum and Woodbrook.  These OZ’s were chosen by the Governor to designate impoverished areas that could “benefit” from investment and increased business investments.  Tillicum, an area that is far from gentrifying, will face different difficulties regarding displacement of current residents.  While Hilltop, and the Lincoln District have also been designated, they may face more general distinctions of displacement that comes with gentrification.  Truly, these OZ’s are a place-based policy that ignores social services and the current assets of the community – which will be up to the business to utilize.  Accordingly, OZ’ are “a subsidy based on capital appreciation, not employment or local services, and includes no provisions intended to retain local residents or promote inclusive housing” (Looney, 2018).  In particular, as of recently there have been twelve designations throughout Pierce County as The value of the tax subsidy is truly dependent on raising property values, rising rents, and higher business profits (Looney, 2018).  If the City of Lakewood wants to develop an inclusive community in Woodbrook and Tillicum, they will have to involve the local residents in vocational job training and offerings for employment.  Growth requires equity to sustain future generations and create inclusive communities; and through the intergenerational poverty of the Tillicum and Woodbrook area, economic opportunity should be prioritized among the residents themselves.

When interviewing Deputy Mayor Whalen and City Manager Caulfield, they heavily boasted the economic revitalization that is taking place and the impact that will have on the region.  Being too hesitant to ask, I should have questioned the impact that will have on the local residents and local employment – for a good amount of Tillicum residents are unemployed and living far below the poverty line.  They mentioned the substantial impact the Starbucks has had on local revenue, and the vast changes that have taken place in Tillicum over the past ten years.  When interviewing lifelong resident and Neighborhood Council President Dave Anderson, it seemed as though he had a much different and truthful understanding of what is going on in the community.  We talked about the development of youth and the limited transportation mobility that is exacerbating existing problems in the community, and how there are limited options for basic needs such as grocery and food options.  Though the city government mentioned the importance of the new “street scape” and infrastructure improvements, and boasted the economic growth and “revitalization” plans, not once did they mention the importance of the local community or future community development plans.  This is a prime example of venture capital, where the cost and availability is increasing significantly throughout the region, and “poorer areas become more attractive for investment” (p. 270. Green, Haines).

In a community that is in dire need of human and social services as well as employment, it will be intense to see the impact of the Opportunity Zone with investors exemplified through the already-in-progress Woodbrook Industrial District.  The community has developed through different areas of capital – and would benefit significantly if implemented into the local economy.  The community has found empowerment through their neighborhood council, and has established sincerity and commitment to citizenry through advocating for and receiving a ballot-box.  Dave Anderson, the president of the local community council, mentioned the significance of his role as a community member and the theory of “place-based” communities that can call their place their home.  He stated through “rolling up their sleeves” and working and caring for themselves, the community has gained a since of unity and progress throughout the past ten years.



Bugher, D. (n.d.). Tillicum Neighborhood Plan (pp. 1-159) (United States, City of Lakewood, Community Development Department). Lakewood, WA.  Accessed at: https://www.cityoflakewood.us/documents/community_development/current_project_documents/tillicum_plan_cc_adopted_version.pdf

Driscoll, M. (2017, February 08). How Tillicum got its ballot box, and why it’s a big deal. Tacoma News Tribune. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/matt-driscoll/article131391789.html

Grimley, B. (2016, October 20). City of Lakewood Blamed for Presumed Closure of Woodbrook Middle School. Tacoma News Tribune. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/education/article109570792.html

Green, G., & Haines, Anna. (2016). Asset building & community development (Fourth ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Looney, A. (2018, April 24). The early results of states’ Opportunity Zones are promising, but there’s still room for improvement. Retrieved June 02, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-early-results-of-states-opportunity-zones-are-promising-but-theres-still-room-for-improvement/

Real Capital Markets, (n.d.). The Lakewood Woodbrook Portfolio. Retrieved June 4, 2018, from:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s