Post Mark’s love of street art and public art often takes us to the streets. Last year while we were out photographing the brand new mosaic mural at 9th and MLK, a helpful stranger stopped to chat about the work. “ It looks kind of native American. But it’s got modern buildings and cars and stuff.” He told us, “I think it’s supposed to be Alberta, Canada — you know… the city. But I don’t know why it’s here.”
Clearly, the helpful gentleman was mistaken about the mural’s subject, but we didn’t have the heart to tell him. (Besides we didn’t know much more ourselves). The mural is mounted on a building bearing the name Alberta J. Canada. To those who are not familiar with the person attached to the name, this has caused some confusion. Some locals believe (or joke?) that Alberta, Canada is Tacoma’s sister city, or that the building is our Canadian Embassy. But Post Mark’s interest was piqued, and we felt it was important to find out the truth about Alberta J. Canada
Surprisingly, the first clue lies directly across the street. On the Southwest corner of 9th and MLK sits a badly weathered mural featuring four people on a background of blue sky and a snow covered Mt. Rainier. One would assume that the four distinguished looking folk portrayed on that wall must be important to the community. But the poor condition of the painting and the lack of any identifying information on those pictured is unfortunate.
Just a little research revealed, however, that one of those Hilltop luminaries is none-other-than a smiling, bespectacled Alberta J. Canada. The mural, titled “A Dream Coming True,” was painted by Bob Henry in 2004, and includes portraits of Frank Russell, Ernest S. Brazill, and Virginia Taylor.
But why was Canada’s name chosen over some of these other VIPs to adorn the Senior Housing apartment building across the street? And what did the beautiful mosaic art piece actually have to say about the life and importance of Ms. Canada?
We went back a little further, to the beginning of the Canada family name, to start Alberta’s story. At the end of the American Civil War, a young man was freed from slavery and decided to leave the South behind. Family lore says that this newly free man chose the surname “Canada” because he was heading North to that promised land. But little is known about the journey North that diverged at some point to land the young man in Tacoma in 1905. He settled in a neighborhood known as Hilltop, and soon got work as a street cleaner. His wife took care of their children and the home they rented at Fawcett Avenue and 9th Street.
Tacoma’s Hilltop of the early 1900s was largely made up of Italian, Russian, and Irish immigrants. There were only a few African American families at that time. The Canadas stayed in Hilltop for several years, and eventually relocated to South Tacoma when they were able to purchase a home of their own.
They ate lots of rutabagas and parsnips harvested from the family garden, and were sometimes reduced to wearing clothing made of potato sacks.
One of the Canada family daughters grew up, married, and started her own family; and she did so back on Hilltop. Tragically, her husband died shortly before their seventh child was born. That mother named the new baby girl Alberta, and began the arduous task of raising her children alone without the financial stability of her husband’s income. Alberta and her siblings lived in a little house on M Street, near 21st. And according to the Canada family, the now fatherless clan was forced to occasionally rely on public assistance. They ate lots of rutabagas and parsnips harvested from the family garden, and were sometimes reduced to wearing clothing made of potato sacks.
Alberta’s mother worked hard to raise her family, and even managed to send her children to Visitation Catholic school, and later St. Leo’s. (Both schools depicted in the mural that would eventually be dedicated to her). Their Hilltop was a pleasant neighborhood in which to grow up. Their home was filled with love, there were many neighborhood children to play with, and good schools nearby. The Port of Tacoma was prosperous, the lumber industry was booming, and the City offered plenty of good paying jobs.
Alberta and her family flourished on the Hilltop. She was a bright child who got good grades, graduated, and began a long career with the Social Security Administration. Alberta’s work eventually required moves to Eugene, OR and Baltimore, MD. But she ultimately returned to the neighborhood of her youth and purchased her mother’s home. Alberta soon found that in her absence, her beloved Hilltop had changed for the worse.
…there were people in Hilltop who were ready to dig down deep. To take a stand. I decided to join with those who would not be moved.”
Hard Times for Hilltop
An epidemic of crack cocaine and gang activity hit Hilltop hard in the 1980s. Many young adults and children died in the violent crossfire and many more were tempted into lives dominated by drugs and violence. Longtime residents abandoned the neighborhood in droves. And fearing for the lives of her children, Alberta almost joined that flight. Instead, she chose to stay and fight.
To explain her decision, Alberta was quoted in a contemporary news story that, “I saw so much destruction and loss of life. My neighbors. My neighborhood. It seemed like we had gone backward. At my lowest, I was ready to move out. I was beyond discouraged. But there were people in Hilltop who were ready to dig down deep. To take a stand. I decided to join with those who would not be moved.”
Instead of fleeing, Alberta put herself on the front lines. She spoke out at City Council and Neighborhood Council meetings, as well as traveling to the Capital to lobby for support at the State level. She spoke out for positive change, and was seemingly everywhere delivering her message of hope for Hilltop.
According to one of her daughters, Alberta could do it all, including “talk circles around a legislator, convince a gangster to pull up his pants, get a Catholic priest to march against mass incarceration, persuade a reporter to write the truth, advise a sex worker to carry condoms, and get a toddler to stop throwing a tantrum. All in the course of an hour.”
…in not surrendering we derive a measure of healing and strength.”
When the City of Tacoma proposed building a huge, new jail in Hilltop, Alberta not only spoke out against it, she also filed a lawsuit to stop construction. She believed in the value of every person, and reminded City officials that it was their duty to build better opportunities for Tacoma residents — not bigger jails!
A Worthy Dream Demands Hard Work
Alberta came of age during the Civil Rights struggles and wider social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. She understood well that it wasn’t possible to win every fight, but that real victory often came from simply standing up for what one knows to be right. She was quoted as saying, “People do not have to surrender to despair. And in not surrendering we derive a measure of healing and strength.” That ability to “not surrender” in the face of overwhelming odds; the ability to focus instead on “healing and strength” is what sustained Alberta through her years of fighting for Hilltop.
Eventually, Alberta’s activism found greater focus on increasing home ownership in the neighborhood. She was confident that owner occupied homes (rather than paying rent to a distant landlord) encouraged residents to be more invested in Hilltop’s success. Ownership also put residents in a position of greater power.
Alberta decided to leave her stable career at the Social Security Administration to devote herself to Hilltop on a full-time basis. In 1988 she established the non-profit known as Martin Luther King Jr. Housing Development Association (MLK HDA). The Association established its mission to buy, renovate, and sell or affordably rent housing in Hilltop. Alberta was the first Executive Director.
Even with the fancy “Executive” title, Alberta knew that realizing her lofty goals would require tireless work. She spent much of her time attracting wealthy investors willing to gamble their money on affordable housing — not a sure-thing investment by anyone’s standards. To foster relationships with the regions moneyed and powerful, Alberta served on the Boards for The Bellarmine School, Tacoma Community College, the Hilltop Housing Consortium, St. Joseph Community Health Council, and many other neighborhood Housing Associations.
But her daughter was quick to remind us that while Alberta stayed busy with actual executive duties, she was not above rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty. In fact, “she could often be found on her hands and knees, wearing rubber gloves scrubbing a floor, or cleaning up a yard to make a home beautiful for someone who had never lived in one before.”
A Battle is Lost — A Scandal Erupts
By all counts, Alberta’s hard work was winning the battle to improve the Hilltop. But in 1999 she lost her personal war with cancer. Her beloved MLK HDA was handed over to a successor. For a time, even without Alberta at the helm, the Association continued successfully carrying out her dream. Until the day it all came crashing down.
In 2009, MLK HDA Executive Director, Felix Flannigan, and Chief Financial Officer, Val Tiller found themselves at the center of a financial scandal. The Board of Directors discovered that the Association was drowning in $1.3 million in debt. Records show that friends and family members of executive staff were sometimes paid exorbitant salaries, sometimes for doing a questionable amount of actual work. The board became aware that bills on many of the Association’s properties were months past due, and properties were already in foreclosure. Flannigan and Tiller were accused of misusing the non-profit started by Alberta, and were using it as their personal piggy bank.
When the trouble began at MLK HDA, Flannigan apparently took some measures to right the organization. He cut employee benefits and laid off non-essential staff. But according to a News Tribune article from 2009, as the association’s difficulties worsened, Flannigan continued collecting every penny of his six-figure income. The Board also discovered that Flannigan and his CFO had attempted to conceal the Association’s financial trouble from the Board of Directors.
There’s no evidence that criminal charges were ever considered or sought for Flannigan and Tiller. However, the Board quickly dismissed the two men from their positions. Then just as swiftly, the dust was swept under the rug and the Association got back to business. But it never regained its momentum or its respected position in Tacoma.
The MLK HDA seems to live on in name today, but maybe little more. Multiple websites that list non-profit organizations that are seeking funding do include a listing for the Association. But information is often incomplete and out of date. Several gave the Association a one-star rating. A further web search showed online complaints against the organization, including one calling them “slumlords.” A lawsuit filed in 2009 alleged the Association maintained buildings at a substandard level and that it had evicted a disabled resident who brought the authorities’ attention to those poor conditions.
The MLK HDA web address (www.mlkhda.org) currently shows a static message that a website is coming soon. Phone calls to the Association went to voicemail, and calls were not returned. A personal visit to their office during posted business hours was met with a locked door. It seems Alberta’s dream of the MLK HDA contributing to a better Hilltop may have reached its end.
Postscript and Legacy
Hilltop continued to change after Alberta’s death, and continues to change with or without the MLKHDA. Tacoma has changed as well. Some of it is for the better. Some is for the worse. It depends on who you ask really. But everyone agrees that the changes happening to Hilltop today will alter the neighborhood forever. The question is what will be lost and what will be saved that will keep Hilltop so special?
In this age of selfishness and materialism, Hilltop residents are not so different from the rest of the country. Many of us feel divided, mistrustful, and without the power it takes to drive change in a positive direction. But Alberta J. Canada reminds us that an individual can rise above feelings of powerlessness to lead the charge, and to affect the change we want to see in the world. She may not have lived to see the reality of a healthy and prosperous Hilltop neighborhood — as she envisioned — but she did teach us that a single person can and should take a stand and fight for what they know is right.
Note: The Canada family was approached to fact check and provide details for this story but declined to participate. Quotes from Ms. Canada and her family members were gathered from historical documents. If this article is inaccurate in any way, the fault lies in our ability to gather accurate facts and not in our intent.