Category Archives: Tacoma History

Surviving Pacific: Thee Barber Shop

Construction On Pacific Avenue

Businesses on Pacific Ave are not having an easy time keeping things going during construction.

Downtown Tacoma has seen better days. Walk any given block and you’ll find at least a handful of empty storefronts. This is even more apparent on Pacific Avenue. Currently there is a major construction project underway on parts of Pacific Avenue. According to the city website this project is for ‘beautification’ and to install ‘innovative stormwater improvements to improve the business opportunities and livability of Downtown’s core street.’

That’s all well and good and hopefully the project will be every bit as successful as they say it’s going to be when they complete the work at the end of this year. The question is, will any of the businesses that are there now survive until then?

I’m going to take a look at some of the businesses in this construction area over the next few months and see how they’re doing and what they’re doing to get by.

Pete Lira, owner of Thee Barber Shop is mentoring aspiring haircutters

Pete Lira, owner of Thee Barber Shop is mentoring aspiring hair cutters. He’s also offering night classes.

First up is Pete Lira, owner of the Thee Barber Shop just a couple doors from the corner of South 9th and Pacific.

I’ve written about him before. He’s been my barber for the last eight years and he’s been cutting hair forty-seven.

While the construction hasn’t stopped his regular customers from coming in, it has made business a bit more difficult. I discovered Pete because Pete was standing outside one day and talked to a friend of mine as she passed by. Later when I happened to ask if she knew a barber, she said she did. Such an encounter is near impossible with the current construction.

What is Pete doing to help his business? Something he’s done before and enjoys doing: He’s offering to mentor those getting into the hair cutting profession. With almost half a century of experience, Pete has a lot of wisdom to impart. He’s an old school barber who believes in precision and classic training.

If you’re interested in being mentored by a champion barber or if you just find yourself in need of a decent haircut, give Pete a call at 253-272-2663.

– Jack Cameron

Tacoma’s First Underground Tour

My friend Jenya and I before embarking on the Underground Tour

I’m not one for tours. For the most part I like exploring things on my own, but when I saw Angela Jossy’s announcement of a ‘Once In A Lifetime Underground Tour of Tacoma’, I had to go. The Facebook page spoke of the legendary Shanghai Tunnels, the vaulted sidewalks, Old City Hall, and Never Never Land figures. For those who are unaware of some of these Tacoma legends, here’s a bit of background.

The Chinese Tunnels are among Tacoma’s oldest legends. Depending on who you’re talking to they were for literally shanghaiing unruly customers at shady bars, sending the unsuspecting patrons to the basement, through the tunnel and onto a ship down on the waterfront or they were for smuggling Chinese workers after their expulsion from Tacoma in 1885 or they were used as  opium dens. But as many stories as there are, there is a distinct lack of evidence of these tunnels.

Old City Hall is one of Tacoma’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. Sadly, due to a series of unfortunate events, Old City Hall is now vacant and in some areas unsafe. It’s future remains uncertain.

Walk the streets of downtown Tacoma and look down. Occasionally you’ll see thick opaque glass. These are the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. In other words, there’s something under that sidewalk.

And then there was Never Never Land. As a child I remembered going to Never Never Land at Pt. Defiance Park. There was a meandering trail through the woods where various figurines acted out parts from famous fairy tales. It was kind of cool but kind of creepy. Never Never Land closed many years ago and left behind empty areas along the trail where once stood Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. Recently even the trail was removed leaving almost no evidence that Never Never Land ever existed.

Given all of this, I was excited as hell to go on this tour. Unfortunately in the days leading up to the tour, Angela had to cancel the Old City Hall portion of the tour due to lack of cooperation from the current tenants. She also reminded people that any tunnels were long ago filled in and we’d only be seeing the entrance to one and that this was not going to be like the Seattle Underground Tours. None of this deterred me.

It turned out that Jenya, an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years was also interested in going on the tour. We met up in the early afternoon to catch up and then headed downtown.

We were supposed to pick up tickets any time after 3:00pm at the Gritty City Gift Fair at 9th and Broadway. We arrived at around 5:30pm. When we got there, the earliest group we could sign up for was 7:40pm. We met up with a couple of other friends and went to PSP (Puget Sound Pizza) for a couple drinks and some awesome pizza while we waited.

We came back at 7:30pm to find that the 7:20pm team was just now leaving. We wandered around the Gritty City Gift Fair. I ran into Kris Brannon otherwise known as Sonics Guy as well as ThanksGIVING founder Heidi Stoermer. I also saw Fingerprint Confection Owner, Clay Richart along with his wife who were selling their amazing caramels at the Fair. It was like a 5 Question Friday gathering.

A previous tour returned. We were told to grab the hard hats from them and be sure to sign the release form. I heard one returning person say that the tour was ‘underwhelming’. Not knowing this person, I had no idea what they expected it to be so this didn’t really bother me.

As the time crawled past 8pm, I became a bit concerned. Luckily the tour started a few minutes later. It turns out that two of the tour guides had gone home. One had hurt their ankle and the other, we were told, um, stepped in a puddle. The result was that Angela and another guide whose name I did not get were taking almost two tours worth of people at once to help get things caught up. We followed her down the hill to Pacific Avenue then took a left towards South 7th Street.

As we approached Meconi’s Pub, we were split into two groups. One went into Meconi’s. The other group (my group) was taken around the back of the building to find a man named Darryl who would show us where to go.

Around the back was an open door and Darryl. He led us to a spiral staircase covered in plastic sheeting that went down to the basement. In this basement, there were dozens of figurines. Every one of them creepier than I ever remember them being. The idea that at one point these were meant to entertain children is disturbing. That I was one of those children is even more bothersome.

Here are some photos of these almost forgotten relics:

Three Little Pigs

Big Bad Wolf

Assorted Characters


Past the figurines walking towards the direction of the street was a dark area where the flashlights were absolutely necessary. The stone floor was wet. There was thick glass above us in certain areas that I recognized as part of the sidewalk. These were the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. You can’t really see through the glass, but it was clear that if it was day, the sunlight would have provided at least a little illumination.

Vaulted Sidewalk

We walked back past the Never Never Land figures and up the stairs to switch places with the other group. Once inside Meconi’s we were led through a door, down another staircase to another vaulted sidewalk. This one had a substantial pool of water on the ground. I assumed this was the puddle that took out a previous tour guide. I walked through it with no problem.

Back in Meconi’s we walked through to the back of the bar where we went through another door and another staircase. Here there was a wall of brick and cement framed by a doorway. This we were told was once an entrance to a tunnel that went all the way to the docks.

In the 1880s, this area of Tacoma was full of illicit activities so a secret tunnel to the docks wasn’t even a little far fetched.

We left Meconi’s and head back up towards 9th and Broadway by way of the Spanish steps, near the old Elk’s Lodge that McMenamin’s has recently purchased and promised to turn into what might end up being one of the best night spots in Tacoma. It seemed fitting to end the tour through Tacoma’s past with a glimpse of what’s in Tacoma’s future.

The entire tour took about twenty minutes or so and if I had been expecting something out of Indiana Jones, I suppose I too would have been underwhelmed. As it was, I had a great time with my friends exploring forgotten bits of the City of Destiny. That to me was more than worth the $10 price of admission.

As a side note, Angela Jossy recently found out that they’re not destroying the vaulted sidewalks in January like she thought and there may yet be time for another round of Underground Tours for those who missed it this first time around. If she does, I’ll post that information on this article when I have it.

I’d like to publicly thank Angela Jossy and everyone else who helped her put on this tour.

– Jack Cameron

Seventh Tacoma Homicide of 2012: Sgt. Prince Gavin

Prince Gavin was a combat medic in the US Army. A sergeant. He was stationed at Joint Base Lewis/McChord. He’d done two tours in Iraq. He carried a .45 pistol for protection and had a permit to do so. As far as anyone can tell, he’d never pulled it on anyone. On Friday his ex-girlfriend was helping him move from his place on Mildred. He’d been recently been transferred to a base in Colorado. At some point there was an argument between the two or something happened that caused the police to respond. The officers arrived to the place on Mildred but found no one there. They had information that they may have gone to a house on the 0800 block of South M Street.
As Gavin and arrived in a truck on South M Street, a police officer pulled up. Reports say that Gavin ran from the truck towards the house. What happened next is unclear. There was some sort of confrontation between Gavin and the officer. The officer says he was in fear for his life and fired his service weapon twice killing Prince Gavin. Sgt. Gavin was 29 years old. Gavin’s pistol was found near his body. Friends say that Gavin was likely trying to show the officer that he was armed and the officer misunderstood. It’s unclear what exactly happened and the shooting is currently under investigation.
This is the second shooting this officer has been involved in. It would be easy to make the leap that the shooting was unnecessary and that this is just the latest in a recent string of questionable local police involved shootings over the past few years. However, as tempting as it might be to paint such a picture, doing so leaves out the fact that we don’t actually know what happened. All we know is that two armed men had a confrontation and that one killed the other.
I’ve known many police officers. Some of them have been involved in shootings. Not one of them wanted to kill anyone. I think the same is true of Sgt. Prince Gavin. Given what information we have, it’s difficult for me to see Gavin turning his weapon on a cop. At the same time, I have a hard time thinking that the responding officer’s actions were malicious. This is a tragedy. And I hope that the resulting investigation will uncover more facts.
My heart goes out to Gavin’s family and friends. And to the family of the officer involved in the shooting.
Sgt. Prince Gavin was the  seventh homicide in the city of Tacoma this year. As always, the comments section is reserved for those who knew Gavin to share their memories of the man and let the rest of us know who he was.
– Jack Cameron

The Life And Death of Hell’s Kitchen

Hell's Kitchen

Hell’s Kitchen 2002-2012

Hell’s Kitchen announced today that they would be shutting their doors for good after this weekend. Originally on Tacoma’s 6th Ave., Hell’s Kitchen moved to downtown Tacoma a few years ago to a spot on South 10th and Pacific. In both locations it was a loud, rude, and interesting bar. It’s the sort of place where you really had no idea who you might meet there. In their decade of existence, they hosted all sorts of acts from Rancid to Hank Williams as well as a steady line up of local bands.

On any given Saturday night you could hear the music blasting out of Hell’s Kitchen. The building itself is located under a parking garage and next to a tunnel of steps that homeless people sleep in on rainy nights and that leads to the 10th and Commerce Bus Station. Hell’s Kitchen is a dive bar in the best possible sense.

The demise of Hell’s Kitchen is much like the death of any other business in that it was simply no longer profitable to run it. But of course there’s more to it than that. Recently, they had to pay over $180,000 in plumbing costs thanks to ancient plumbing that failed and thanks to some tree roots. The landlord agreed to let them take the money from the rent, but that sort of expenditure made difficult to get back on top. If they hadn’t been forced to spend the money on plumbing, they could have been spending that money on getting more acts, marketing, and other things that could have improved business. Unfortunately, though they’d managed to pay everything off, things haven’t improved enough for them to continue as a business.

This isn’t the first time that this particular location has had problems. Before it was Hell’s Kitchen, it was a Southern food place called Stephanie’s which kept on trying to open but had a near constant problem with cockroaches which caused them to close down multiple times.

Before that it was a transsexual Mexican bar where they had a Thursday night striptease. And before that it was a somewhat upscale Mexican restaurant. Now that Hell’s Kitchen is leaving, it’s anybody’s guess what will fill the place next, though judging from the other empty store fronts nearby, we may have a while to wait before we find out.

–          Jack Cameron

5 Question Friday With Shalisa Hayes, Founder of the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation

Billy Ray Shirley, III

Last August Shalisa Hayes lost her son, Billy Ray Shirley, III when he was shot and killed during an after hours party in a warehouse. As of this writing, his murderer has not been caught. It is the only unsolved Tacoma homicide from 2011. He was 17.

Billy Ray wasn’t your typical teenager. By all accounts he was someone who wanted to make a distinct difference in the community. He had a vision and he spent time making that vision happen.

Shalisa didn’t choose to lose her son. But she chose to make sure Billy Ray’s vision lives on in the form of the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation.  I contacted her and asked if she’d like to take the time and tell you about her Foundation and her son. Luckily, she accepted the invitation. Here’s Shalisa:

1. What is the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation?

A nonprofit business with a vision to build and maintain a fully functional state of the art community center on the east side of Tacoma that gives life to Billy Ray’s vision of having a fun, healthy & safe place for youth to go. This facility shall be one that will provide the programs and resources necessary to engage youth in conversation and activities that will promote positive life choices. We will also look to reinforce education, decrease violence and encourage healthy lifestyles while inspiring individuals to work at continuously building their communities regardless of social or economic boundaries.

2. What is your favorite memory of Billy Ray?

Billy Ray came to me one day and explained that he had noticed a young man at school that always wore holey shoes, so he decided that he wanted to give him a few pair of his own shoes but didn’t know how to approach the young man without embarrassing him or himself. Eventually, the thought of giving

shoes evolved in to giving him both shoes and clothing. I gave Billy Ray a suggestion about how to approach the situation and for whatever reason he decided to do things differently, only to have the young man reject his offer. Later in the week, the two talked and the young man agreed to take Billy Ray

up on his offer. I watched as my son loaded up the car with a few bags of clothes and shoes as he prepared himself to give to his new friend. My heart, mind and spirit will never ever forget the day that I got to meet this young man. Billy Ray was no stranger to doing something for someone else, but I think this story touched me so deeply because I’ve always preached to Billy Ray about how we are no better than anyone else, and no matter how beautiful or expensive the material things we have, they can all be lost or taken in the blink of an eye. So, to watch him take that seriously and rather than be judgmental of someone who may not have had as much as he and turn it in to an opportunity to hopefully make that someone feel good, warms my heart every time I think about it. To make this even more special…….as a teenager, I used to be that young man. I know exactly how it feels to walk around with

holey shoes, so in my mind, Billy Ray was giving to me.

3. What has been the response since you started the Foundation?

Very positive. I have yet to meet a person who lives in or knows the history of Tacoma’s east side and does not agree with the need for what I am trying to accomplish. In the past, the east side has had some facilities and programs that cater to our youth, however in recent times that has changed. Although there are still some programs available, they are very limited and spread out over the area so our youth appear to outnumber these programs. As a result, people from all walks of life have encouraged me to move forward with the idea of making this community center happen.

4. How can people help the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation?

We are looking to raise awareness as well as funds to support our cause. We need people who can assist in the following ways:

– Connect with more Tacoma residents (especially the east side) to rally their support. Adults are needed to help guide the project and youth are needed to help determine what’s needed within in the community center, as well as get involved with our various community service activities.

– Utilize individual job skills to help with the project, both with programming for the youth as well as the building or remodeling of a building to be used for a center (ie., architecture, budgeting, commercial building, etc).

– Send a donation. In these tough economic times, government funding is not easy to come by so private funding is also necessary.

– Purchase Team Billy Ray clothing to contribute to the fund. All funds received from clothing purchases will be used for the costs associated with building and/or maintaining the community center. The youth of Team Billy Ray is also involved in a lot of community service and fundraising activities, therefore these funds may also be used to help offset any costs to host these events (ie. facility rentals, group transportation, etc.).

5. What do you see for the future of the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation?

Billy Ray was a young philanthropist. I see this foundation growing in to a business that will continue that practice and provide a variety of items to the community. To name a few……. educational scholarships, membership/program scholarships (for patrons of the community center), food and clothing vouchers for the needy, as well as continuously raising funds to help maintain the operation of the community center in order to prevent it from becoming another casualty. The foundation will help support the community center that I envision to be a one stop shop for our youth.

For more information on the Billy Ray Shirley, III Foundation, you can go to their website at  or their Facebook page

I’d like to thank Shalisa for taking the time to participate in 5 Question Friday. As always, if you or anyone you know would like to participate in 5 Question Friday, contact me at

– Jack Cameron

5 Question Friday With Lisa Fruichantie from the Gritty City Sirens

The Gritty City SirensI admit to being a bit biased, but I’ll go one record as saying that Tacoma has more great performers than we should given the size of our city. Personally I think it’s a combination of the city being open to just about any kind of performance you can think of and the fact that we have just enough rainy days to keep people inside being creative. Whatever the case, the Gritty City Sirens are most definitely a Tacoma original. I contacted their manager, Lisa Fruichantie and asked if she could take the time to be part of 5 Question Friday this week. Lucky for us, she accepted. Here’s Lisa:

1. What are the Gritty City Sirens?

The Sirens are Tacoma’s one and only modern day Burlesque troupe, who, from the beginning have honored burlesque’s past, while advancing the art with daring creativity. We are a group of performers that come together to showcase our varied individual talents, while introducing our local audiences to other performers, out of town guests and traveling entertainers while presenting an action packed cohesive show in a traditional vaudevillian style.

Second of all, we are a family. So much of who we are on stage is nurtured by our creative process offstage. What I enjoy is that we all participate in every act in every show, from ideas to costumes to choreography.

2. How did the Gritty City Sirens begin?

Rosie Cheex was the initial driver behind the formation of the Sirens.

She developed a passion for the art form over several years and with fierce determination she resolved to bring burlesque to Tacoma!  When the time was right she put the word out, found three lovely ladies who shared her goals and enhanced her long term vision of the troupe- Ava D’Jor, Funny Face Fanny, and Polly PuckerUp joined her at that time and the Sirens were formed!

Since then the Sirens have continued to blossom with in their first year, adding to their talent Tizzy Van Tassel, Pistolita, Pretty Ricky, Kitty Kisses, Dean Jameson and Heather Hostility

3. What’s the biggest misconception about burlesque shows?

There are two misconceptions that are both quite easy to pinpoint and quite stereotypical in their general assumption

1) being that Burlesque is “new” or trendy based on a recent surge of films on the genre

2) that being a burlesque performer is a fancy word for being a stripper and that its both naughty and x-rated.

Burlesque is the art of the TEASE, its not about simply “stripping”, rather the journey we take our audience on in that short span of time while we are onstage- not the end result. Burlesque has a rich history & been an empowering art form for over 100 years. Developing acts that feature and cultivate emotional responses that our audience can connect to through comedy , longing, sadness, sensuality and confidence is not something a stripper does. If anything it’s ribald satire directed at adults.

It’s sexual acceptance. It’s a culture exploring it’s taboo. When we, as an audience, emerge on the other side, we have a better understanding of certain issues. It’s actually gratuitously funny. In the baroque era they thought it was healthy to experience a wide range of emotions at a show you might laugh, cry, be angry, be confused. It’s recreational!!!

4. If someone is interested in burlesque, how do they get started?

The best way to get started is to read the history. Go to shows, meet performers, watch videos, and take classes from established performers in your area.

5. What are you future plans for the Gritty City Sirens?

We hope to continue to revive the burlesque & vaudevillian scene for Tacoma by continuing to produce a wide variety of unforgettable, lively and entertaining shows.

In addition to take our show on the road and travel after we complete our 2nd Year anniversary this December!!!!

You can find more about the Gritty City Sirens on their Facebook page:

Also the Gritty City Sirens will be performing two shows at Jazzbones on April 14, 2012. Jazzbones is locations at 2803 6th Ave in Tacoma.

Thanks to Lisa Fruichantie for joining me for 5 Question Friday. As always, if you or anyone you know would like to participate in 5 Question Friday, email me at and let me know.

–          Jack Cameron

Third Tacoma Homicide of 2012 Noah Walker

On Friday, March 30th, Aleesha Walker called 911 at around seven in the morning. The 28-year-old called to confess that she had murdered her 2-year-old son, Noah. Paramedics and police officers responded to the house in the 3600 block of South Thompson. Noah was taken to Mary Bridge Children’s hospital and pronounced dead. Aleesha was taken into custody.

Tacoma’s third homicide bothers me more than most. I’m of the opinion that no one really deserves to die. However, there are homicides that occur that are at least understandable if not justified. The murder of Noah Walker is the very definition of a senseless killing. A two-year-old child cannot be a threat and at worst can be an annoyance. Noah’s mother should have been the last person he needed to fear.

At TacomaStories, I try to focus on the victim, but it’s difficult to do with one so young. He never got to show Tacoma and the rest of the world what sort of person he could be. He never got the chance that everyone reading this has had. It was stolen from him by his mother. He had two years of life and is gone.

I wish there was more to write but there isn’t.

– Jack Cameron