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Shining light

Shining light

Written by Forterra NW
Photography by Melissa Ponder

Unpacking the gifts of Tacoma through art and activism

Chris Jordan is a 27-year-old award-winning Tacoma visual artist known for infusing activism into his work. Seeing little recreational space within Bay Terrace, an affordable housing community in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, Jordan partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority to create Home Court, an illuminated ultra-futuristic basketball court that is one of the most unique art installations and community gathering places in Washington state.

Here, the artist muses about his vision for his hometown, the local housing crisis, and the weaponization of art.

What’s your vision for Tacoma?

I am fighting for a Tacoma that economically empowers its communities of color and working class and attracts the Black and Brown talent that is being pushed out of Portland, Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles. Tacoma is a 22nd century city. If we put our focus on sustainable industry, education, and incubation through an equity lens, we have the potential to be an oasis in a very vast desert.

Tacoma has such a history of being an ugly duckling and thinking of itself as an undesirable place. But if you know the ugly duckling story, it is not about appearances; the ugly duckling story is all about not recognizing your gifts. Tacoma needs to recognize its gifts.

What is the media getting wrong about Tacoma’s housing crisis?

The biggest issue I see with the coverage and with the conversations is that gentrification is discussed as an issue of cultural heritage, of an African American community being erased. They want to fix that with mural paintings and festivals and artistic experiences.

The issues are resources, infrastructure, transportation, food justice. How do you gain access to well-paying jobs? How long does it take you to get back and forth from work? It’s an issue of schools and people being relegated to communities where schools are deeply underfunded and have no support.

People who can’t afford to live on Hilltop aren’t moving to South Tacoma. They are being pushed out to unincorporated Pierce County. Unincorporated, as in places that don’t have the tax base to give back to its citizens the resources they contribute by living there.

Hilltop court, Ampersand Magazine
Artist Chris Jordan at the home court installation in Bay Terrace, an affordable housing community in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

“Tacoma needs to recognize its gifts.”

Is it weird to you that everyone now seems to love Hilltop?

Make no mistake. They don’t love Hilltop. They love houses that cost less than Seattle’s, and they love pricing out neighbors and leveraging curb appeal. But they most definitely do not love Hilltop. If they loved Hilltop, all the hospitals and nonprofits would be staffed with people from our community, and we would’ve been thriving 15 years ago. We would be in a much different situation.

A lot of well-meaning organizations spanning from education to mental health are not supporting, nurturing, or empowering folks from the community to excel. If you’re a person that’s not from the neighborhood and you work in that industry, your main objective should be to outnumber yourself — to make sure that every single position, including yours, is filled by folks who come from the community that you’re trying to serve. Because you can’t be effective doing anything less than that.

What can citizens, especially artists, do to reshape public opinion around the housing crisis?

One of the most unfortunate things I see is this myth that artists are a class of oppressed people. Part of the danger and the violence of that mindset is that it actually erases who should be the focus, which are working-class Black and Brown people. And what happens as a result of that is you have self-righteous people fighting for affordability as it relates to them.

The only way to really have a critical mass is for artists and people who self-identify with artists to get into the fight with the communities that are already experiencing displacement. If you wait until you’re getting kicked out, there will be no one to stand by you.

Tell us more about Home Court.

It started with seeing that the teenagers had nothing. They had to drag this basketball hoop from a few miles away and were playing basketball in a gravel pit. (Artist) Kenji Stoll and I didn’t just make a basketball court. (The young people in the neighborhood) wanted more light to feel safer in their neighborhood at night so we incorporated LED lights into the amphitheater that surround the basketball court and light up the hoop.

A reason why this needed to be in Bay Terrace in particular is because if we put that same thing anywhere else in Hilltop that wasn’t in an affordable housing community, it would jump-start and kick up the rate of displacement and the rate of speculation. We need to nest our assets into the epicenters of affordability. That’s how we anchor the best of what’s possible in public space, and we don’t allow our assets to be used against us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.