The Tacoma Sun


The Tacoma Armchair Approach to Cleaning Up Your Neighborhood


By Erik Bjornson

After the Tacoma Mall moved into Tacoma in 1968, much of downtown and neighborhood business centers suffered neglect and some were nearly abandoned in their entirety. The city likely struck its all time low point around the late 1970s and early 1980s (Stephen Cysewski made his infamous photo tour of downtown Tacoma in 1979).

Many of Tacoma residents who had the means, moved to the suburbs leaving many areas of the city depopulated and in poor physical condition. The homes in Tacoma’s existing neighborhoods suffered decades of disinvestment. Although some progress has been made, many neighborhoods still suffer from blight, neglect and other entrenched social problems. There are relatively large numbers of empty houses, commercial buildings and vacant and blighted lots.

Yet, we all have limited time.

A. Reduce the Many Sources of Blight To Reduce Crime And Increase the Livibility of Your Neighborhood

Studies show that much crime is opportunistic and that blightful physical characteristics give visual cues that that criminal acts can be carried out without repercussions. Thus, following the “broken window” theory, removing blight in your neighborhood can reduce crime.

A cleaner neighborhood is a signpost that neighbors have taken ownership of an area that they may be also watching out for criminal activity and will act protective of the area. It also raises property values and makes your neighborhood more of a place worth caring about.

The first 7 steps can be done from the comfort of your kitchen or computer chair

1. Have the City of Tacoma remove abandoned cars from your neighborhood streets

Abandoned cars facilitate criminal activities and blight the neighborhood and are easily viewable measures of the integrity of the neighborhood. Abandoned cars are often stolen cars which have been left.

From the City of Tacoma Web site:

What is an abandoned vehicle?

Abandoned vehicles are ones that have been left on City streets and may have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Dismantled
  • In a state of disrepair (broken windows, sitting on blocks, etc.)
  • Stripped of major parts
  • Missing license plates
  • Filled with garbage
  • Sitting in the same spot for seven or more days and appears non-operational
  • In front of a residence in which owners have moved away Most abandoned vehicles are left by people unknown to those living in the neighborhood.

Call the abandoned vehicle hotline at (253) 591-5926 (auto message).

For other car issues such as:

  • Vehicles parked illegally
  • Vehicles with expired licenses
  • Recreational vehicles parked on City rights of way

Call the Tacoma Police Department non-emergency number
(253) 798-4721
and choose option 1 for those types of vehicle problems.

2. Request that the City repair streetlights in your neighborhood

There is a well established connection between the amount of light in an area and the crime rate. The perverbial “eyes on the street” cannot monitor the street activity of an area if it is pitch dark. Also, neighborhoods with burned out lights signifies a neighborhood that no one cares to maintain, monitor or protect, information all too apparent to potential criminals.

Call the City of Tacoma at (253) 591-5287. Streetlight repair requests can also be made online here.

3. Request that the City remove garbage from empty lots and from nearby properties.

Vacant lots and boarded up houses in urban areas are magnets for a large spectrum of criminal activity.” The maxim “Nature abhors a vaccum” is readily apparent in urban areas. With little monitoring, garbage often accumulates in these areas. A vacant lot filled with garbage, often dumped illegally, signals a free pass for criminal activity.

Litter, debris, overgrown vegetation can now be made online here or by phone at (253) 591-5543 or 591-5001.

From the city website:

…leaving your garbage in undesignated areas is illegal. Illegal dumping has a severe impact on Tacoma’s safety, property values and our quality of life. It also places an economic burden on the City of Tacoma when dump sites need to be cleaned up.

Examples of illegal dumping

Items dumped on public property such as city roadways, streets and alleys. Construction materials, tires, mattresses, furniture dumped on side of road.

4. Call to have abandoned shopping carts picked up

The time duration abandoned shopping carts remain in an area signify how active neighbors are in monitoring the area, maintaining the area and in the amount of control likely to be exercised. Although they are unlikely to be used in a crime, they are an instant visual que to neighbors and potential criminals alike.

Fortunately, Tacoma has some services that will recover shopping carts for free. For other areas, call the store the cart is from if possible.

For Safeway and Save-A-Lot carts on Hilltop call Cart Recovery LLD at 1-866-906-CART. Also covers Safeways located 1112 South M St, 302 S 38th and 627 72nd St E

5. Request that the city take nuisance abatement action against blighted buildings and lots in your neighborhood.

A blighted house which is in disrepair has a higher chance of being a facilitator of criminal activity. Vacant houses often serve as the outpost for criminal activity. It also givens visual cues as to the what the standard of behavior is tolerated in a neighborhood.

Here is the City of Tacoma’s examples of nuisances:

  • Nuisances (primarily litter and debris)
  • Junk vehicles on private property
  • Minimum Building and Structures Code (dealing with the condition or existing buildings)
  • Graffiti
  • Overgrown vegetation on private property

To report any violations please call 591-5001. To report graffiti please call our 24-hour graffiti message line at 591-5691. You can also review the Nuisance Code Fact Sheet.

Low income senior and disabled home owners may be able to have their homes painted for free or at a reduced price with assistance from Paint Tacoma Beautiful which can be contacted at 383-3056 ext 105.

6. Call to have the city remove graffiti from houses and commercial buildings

Here’s an interesting quote on graffiti:

Graffiti creates fear and costs you business and customers. The sight of graffiti can also encourage people to commit acts of vandalism. Graffiti-filled areas often don’t attract shoppers, customers, or investors. Even if your building is graffiti-free, the atmosphere in the neighborhood can impact your business.

Read the city tip sheet on grafitti removal.

  • Graffiti on public or private property within the City of Tacoma: 591-5001
  • Graffiti on buses and bus shelters: 581-8050
  • Tacoma Housing Authority (Salishan Housing Development): 207-4455

If the building is masonry and designated historic or in a historic area: Historic Preservation Office: 591-5220

7) Call the police if you see crimes occurring (911)

According to the Broken Windows theory, small crimes being allowed in an area tend to escalate. Thus, one needs to be diligent in reporting smaller crimes to head off larger crimes.

Final Thoughts

The first thing to understand is that the public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. …. No amount of policing can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down.”

Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Rather than being random, significant research on crime finds that it is largely based on perceived opportunities and is situationally based. Thus, to reduce crime, one must reduce the various components which facilitate it even if, when considered by themselves, seem trivial.

If you have followed these steps, you should already be seeing improvements in your neighborhood. To gain more improvement, a bit more effort is required.

Few of us worry about crime very much until it gets out of control. Our demands for our time are already overwhelming. To make a larger difference, consider joining your neighborhood association, start a community garden and/or join a block watch. Restoring and strengthening the the social fabric in our neighborhoods is the largest defense against crime and blight we have.

To read more about Broken Window theory, order a copy of Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order And Reducing Crime In Our Communities.

Erik Bjornson is the Vice Chair of North End Neighborhood Council and a founding member of the Tacoma Sun.

This article is also available as a PDF File for future reference.

published February 19th, 2008

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RR Anderson // Feb 19, 2008 at 9:57 am

    I like these info-posts Nice work Tacoma Sun

  • 2 James D // Feb 19, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Many thanks for this article. Very useful. I have already forwarded it to several fellow Tacoma folks. Nicely Done!

  • 3 Erik B. // Feb 19, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I like these info-posts Nice work Tacoma Sun

    I thought you would like the ability of the internet to make a difference.

    Many thanks for this article. Very useful. I have already forwarded it to several fellow Tacoma folks. Nicely Done!

    Thanks. There could actually be a series of these. There is alot more area to cover. Some remedies even require one to get out of their chair and away from their computer.

  • 4 Jeanie Peterson // Feb 21, 2008 at 5:45 am

    In reference to nuisances, you might let them know that the City’s new Nuisance Abatement ordinance is working so well that 97% of the people who are being contacted by the city are voluntarily cleaning up their properties (to avoid having the city clean them and getting charged for it). I don’t know if you know about the program, after people report a blighted yard (things of particular interest include the ones listed on your sheet, like: furniture, appliances, overgrown vegetation, piles of vegetation that have been left unheeded, litter and debris), a code enforcement officer comes out, takes a picture of it and posts it on their door, they then have 18 days to clean it up or the city can come onto their property and clean it up at the owners expense (the average clean up costs the owner about $2400. I am attaching a good example of a before and after picture flier, which gives you a good idea. This yard, particularly terrible cost the owner over $6100 to have it cleaned, which was placed as a lien on the property. No wonder people are voluntarily cleaning things up, it’s a great program, and as speedy as is possible for a government system. (Hardship cases can get non-profits or neighbors to help them, or they can be excused under certain circumstances).

  • 5 Erik B. // Feb 21, 2008 at 10:57 am

    In reference to nuisances, you might let them know that the City’s new Nuisance Abatement ordinance is working so well that 97% of the people who are being contacted by the city are voluntarily cleaning up their properties (to avoid having the city clean them and getting charged for it)

    Thanks Jeanie. I have listened to some of the reports from CARES and it continues to suprise me how much garbage and debris is still around on residential lots.

  • 6 Jeanie Peterson // Nov 27, 2009 at 4:37 am

    It’s even better still, the largest City Abatement for nuisances is down to about $600 now, no more of those $6000 types, so they’ve gotten to the worst of them, and are working on the averages messes. There are still people who just let it build back up again, but it’s getting better. I’m so glad we’re finding solutions for some of our long-standing issues. If your readers have any issues they want us to start working on, please have them email me at and we’ll put them on our list of things to do. Its great that people like you are out there spreading the word, Eric. Thanx

  • 7 Erik B. // Nov 27, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the comment Jeannie and for all of the work you do on Hilltop.

    Hopefully, there will be some re-development in Hilltop so that the social fabric can be restored so that the area does not take such continuous heroic efforts to keep some normalcy.

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