For most Americans, and maybe even for most Alaskans, the word “Alaska” conjures images of vast glaciers, ferocious wildlife, remote islands, and endless acres of trackless forest and tundra–that is to say, of wilderness. But Anchorage is a city of over 300,000 souls, and it contains the three most diverse census tracts in all of America; it bubbles with the perils and promise of other urban spaces.
To focus attention on Anchorage’s surprisingly urban character, the Center for Community Engagement at UAA created the Urban in Alaska Initiative, an effort to foster engagement and discourse between campus and community. One such program, held in conjunction with Anchorage’s Centennial Celebration and funded by the Alaska Humanities Forum, is a series of Saturday-morning walking and biking tours of some of Anchorage’s oldest and densest neighborhoods: Fairview, Mountain View, Spenard, and Government Hill.
The program is managed by Bree Kessler, an Associate Professor at UAA’s Department of Health Services with a passion for urban spaces; each tour is led by interested members of the community. In describing the concept of these tours, Kessler introduced the term flaneur, a delightful French term for people who wander about a city and admire its ever-changing neighborhoods (although, as she pointed out, the term was traditionally used for well-to-do outsiders who came to visit a neighborhood, modern flaneurs can discover their own neighborhoods). This is the first in a series of reports about these tours and the communities they explore.
About 20 Anchoragites gathered on the sunny morning of Saturday, July 17th, at the Fairview Recreation Center at 10th and Karluk — many of them current or (like me) former residents of Fairview. After introducing the concept of the tours, Bree Kessler introduced our tour guides: Klaus Meyer, a local architect and resident of Fairview; and Christopher Constant, current President of the Fairview Community Council and founder of the Fairview Business Association [disclosure: a longtime friend and sometime tennis partner of the author]; also present was Karen Larsen, a Fairview resident who was compiling a neighborhood atlas: a community-generated online compendium of notable homes, businesses, and other urban spaces in Fairview.
Kessler clarified at the outset that this was not a historic tour. Rather, it was an exploration of the sociology, spaces, and character of Fairview as it currently exists. However, having been trained as a historian, I believe that it is impossible to understand the current nature of a place without understanding its history. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead; it’s not even past.
With that in mind, I first will briefly describe Fairview’s history — much of it explained to me as we walked by tour participant Darrel Hess, former Historic Preservation Officer for the municipality and a past president of the Fairview Community Council (more information is available here). Next, I’ll describe the Fairview of today, as we saw it on the tour; and finally describe what is in store for the neighborhood in the future. Taken together, the story of Fairview is the story of urban America. It shows how the ways an urban space is physically constructed and arranged has a profound impact on the people there, and the ways they live together.
Fairview is a compact neighborhood south and east of Downtown Anchorage; its approximate boundaries are Ship Creek in the north, Chester Creek in the south, C Street in the west, and Merrill Field in the east. It was born during the great growth and expansion that Anchorage experienced during World War II. It blossomed, like so many other places, during the decade of prosperity and growth that followed the war.
In the 1950s, Fairview was the heart of Anchorage’s African-American community, in large part because — through the nefarious practice known as “redlining” — it was the only area they were allowed to own homes. The first African-American church in Anchorage (Greater Friendship Baptist Church, which still stands at the corner of 13th and Ingra) was in Fairview; so too was the first Alaskan chapter of the NAACP.
Gambell Street between 9th Avenue and Chester Creek was once a bustling avenue of storefronts and local businesses; other areas of Fairview were home to military families as well as aviation pioneers like Bob Reeve and Ray Petersen. In fact, in many ways Fairview was a separate community from Anchorage — it was not incorporated into the city for many years and Anchorage municipal building codes did not apply (which explains the sometimes slapdash appearance of older Fairview homes). The only government authority was the Fairview Public Utility District. As Anchorage expanded, Fairview resisted incorporation, and did not become part of the city until losing a lawsuit that went all the way to the State Supreme Court in 1959.
The golden age of Fairview came to an end soon thereafter, with the construction of the highway connection between the Glenn Highway and the Seward Highway. Rather than building the connection along the originally-proposed route — through what was then boreal forest and what is now the grounds of Alaska Regional Hospital — the city chose to build it through Fairview. Perhaps this was in retaliation for the litigation — as Hess suspects — or perhaps (a conjecture on my part) because Fairview was, as mentioned, the heart of Anchorage’s African-American community.
In any case, the project devastated Fairview. It split the once-walkable neighborhood in half; turned Gambell Street from a pedestrian commercial strip into a four-lane, one-way auto route; did the same thing to Ingra Street; and turned Hyder Street, in between, into a no-man’s land where no commerce could survive — at least, no lawful commerce. The area between Gambell and Ingra turned into a hotbed of prostitution and drug trafficking. The rot spread, and in the following decades, Fairview became notorious for its open-air drug markets and high crime rates.
A further blow, according to Hess, came with the Downtown revitalization process undertaken when Tony Knowles was Mayor in the 1980s. Although Knowles succeeded in cleaning up Downtown and turning it into the prosperous, tourist-friendly central business district we know today, he did so in part by simply displacing the chronic public inebriates who formerly vexed the area into the next neighborhood over: Fairview.
Finally, and also starting in the 1980s, Fairview found itself the reluctant host of a very large number of social-services facilities for the indigent: the Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Cafe, the Alaska Mental Health Consumer Web; and, most recent and controversial, Karluk Manor, a “housing-first” long-term shelter for chronic inebriates.
Standing at the rounded corner of 10th and Medfra — which, as Constant pointed out, is the literal epicenter of ethnic diversity in America — we first examined some ways Fairview has used principals of urban planning and street design to combat the crime problems described above.
Fairview was originally a network of orthogonal streets much like Downtown, and this geography allowed for the establishment of classic drug markets, familiar to viewers of The Wire: lookouts could warn dealers of approaching police, allowing drug crews to rapidly disperse. Fairview’s response used the urban-planning concept of “defensible space,” creating rounded corners which slow the flow of traffic and limit the ability of vehicles to pass rapidly in and out of the neighborhood. The curved sidewalks at these modified corners are also opportunities to put in small decorative gardens and other aesthetically-pleasing designs, like fencing in the community colors of Fairview: fireweed and green.
Next, we looked at a few residential buildings in eastern Fairview. Atlas-writer Karen Larsen took us around the exterior of the home she built with her partner, S.J. Klein. Clean and modern in design, and striking in its contrast with the ranch style of most of the rest of the neighborhood, the property was also remarkable for its yard: the owners elected to keep all of the trees they found on the lot, giving visitors a visual reminder that the urban space they are walking through was once dense boreal forest traversed by Denai’na hunters on their way to fish camp.
Land in Fairview is — not cheap, exactly, but the cheapest in Anchorage at 70 cents a square foot. For this reason (and as crime declines) the neighborhood is beginning to attract young professionals like Karen and S.J.
Also supporting the revitalization of Fairview is the Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA), the quasi-governmental agency whose mission is to provide affordable housing in the greater Anchorage area. CIHA has recently demolished three distressed properties in Fairview and built new ones in their places — gorgeous, modern, and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the inside, but designed as ranch-style homes to blend in seamlessly with the historic character of the neighborhood on the outside. The flaneurs got the chance to go inside one of these for-sale properties and meet with CIHA realtor Daniel Quiales.Fairview Elementary School with Merrill Field and the Chugach Mountains in the background.
Our next stop was Fairview Elementary School, the neighborhood elementary school, at 13th and Nelchina. Meyer pointed out the ways that it effectively used architectural design to fit into this dense neighborhood — it is the only two-story elementary school in the District — while Constant pointed out its location in the most sheltered, pedestrian-friendly, secure part of the neighborhood. For this reason, and because of the obvious symbolism of an elementary school as representative of the future and potential of a neighborhood, Fairview’s annual Block Party (this year’s occurred a week later on Saturday, July 26th) is held on Nelchina Street in front of the school. Being at Fairview Elementary also put us within sight and sound of Fairview’s eastern neighbor, Merrill Field. This busy small-plane airport is a source of both potential and strife for Fairview. Noise pollution constantly vexes its residents; and, more traumatically, several plane crashes have resulted in damage to or destruction of buildings and homes in Fairview.
From the school we turned westward along 13th Street, passing by a number of very old Fairview homes, including a few log cabins, as well as Greater Friendship Baptist Church. There were signs of poverty here, but also signs of renewal and community spirit, with many homes that had obviously been freshly repainted and were well-tended with gorgeous gardens that included fireweed, geraniums, and other native plants. There were also a handful of small local businesses, such as Tyrone’s Auto Repair; Fairview is a “mixed-use” neighborhood, meaning both residential and commercial properties are authorized within the same blocks (there is also a small industrial sector in the northern parts of Fairview). Kessler explained that this is seen as the ideal for modern, walkable urban neighborhoods.Local business on 13th between Juneau and Ingra.
As we crossed Ingra Street, Constant informed us that we were entering Fairview’s more commercially-oriented area, as well as the Fairview Revitalization Zone, an area targeted for future commercial growth by the city. We reached the corner of 13th and Gambell, rather notorious for the large numbers of chronic public inebriates who frequent the vicinity. Indeed, there were already some passing by at 11 in the morning. We turned north up Gambell Street and walked along a highly-exposed, narrow, utility-pole studded sidewalk abutting the busy highway, past low-rent motels, seedy bars, and weedy abandoned lots. Clearly, Fairview is still in some distress; and this tour did not even venture (as Constant and I once did) into the northernmost parts of Fairview, home of the Brother Francis, Bean’s Cafe, and an immense homeless encampment on the razed grounds of the old Alaska Native Hospital.
And yet, there were glimpses of a brighter future. The section of Fairview along Gambell between about 5th and 15th Avenue was once — as recently as when I myself first moved to Fairview in 2007 — thoroughly dominated by car dealerships due to the cheap land. Now, these pedestrian-unfriendly and not very aesthetically-pleasing businesses are moving their businesses to spacious South Anchorage.
Gradually, more locally-oriented businesses are taking root, like the Anchorage Athletic Club, the Downtown Grill, and a charming food trailer called Inka Chicken, which offers, (as far as I know) the only Peruvian cuisine in Anchorage. In commercial as well as in residential Fairview, revitalization is aborning.
All throughout the tour, Constant, the Community Council president, presented his vision for the future of his neighborhood. When I spoke with him afterward, he saw Fairview’s revitalization as linked to three separate but interrelated projects, each attempting to remedy the mistakes of the not-so-dead past. First was the above-mentioned Fairview Revitalization Zone.
Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who represents Fairview (as well as Mountain View, Government Hill, Downtown, and South Addition), recently sponsored a municipal ordinance which would give tax credits to businesses west of Ingra Street which, as part of their construction or renovation costs, improve municipal infrastructure such as sidewalks or waterlines. These costs are normal borne by the developer, so allowing them to be tax-deductible would create a major incentive for businesses looking to start up in Fairview. When we took the tour, this ordinance was pending before the Assembly; it passed unanimously three days later and the Fairview Revitalization Zone is now a reality.
Second is a comprehensive plan to deal with Fairview’s most visible problem, the chronic public inebriates. The Community Council wants to solve the problem of homelessness and chronic drunkenness in its neighborhood, but does not want to merely displace these at-risk populations to the next neighborhood over.
One step is a plan to restrict the sale of alcohol, city-wide, to citizens who have had multiple citations for public intoxication. A more comprehensive approach is the Fairview Initiative. The state legislature recently authorized $4 million in funds to the Division of Behavioral Health (part of the state Department of Health and Human Services) to plan and implement a comprehensive solution to the chronic-inebriate problem. Using a model known as “wraparound services” or “assertive community treatment,” the plan is to provide very robust, heavily case-managed care to citizens with substance abuse and other mental health problems.
This model promotes smaller-scale assisted living facilities, affordable housing with in-home visitation by mental health professionals, and other programs designed to distribute mental health care throughout a neighborhood and a city, rather than concentrating them in a small number of large, high-profile facilities.
Finally, Fairview hopes to transform the transportation infrastructure in the area. This is a two-step process, the first of which is well underway. Step one is to reduce Gambell Street, currently a four-lane, one-way road (the southbound link between the Glenn and the Seward Highways), to three lanes, widening the sidewalk to 9 feet on both sides and moving all of the powerlines underground.
The Fairview Business Association recently funded an engineering study showing that, because each of the three lanes in their proposal would be wider than the current lanes, there would be no disruption to the flow of highway traffic. This proposal was put forward to Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transit Solutions (AMATS), a multi-agency authority which plans and implements transportation projects in the Municipality. As with the Fairview Revitalization Zone, the future of this proposal was pending when we took the tour, but on Thursday, July 24th, AMATS voted (also unanimously) to adopt the project.
The second step depends on the completion of the Highway to Highway (H2H) project, the long-planned connection that will link the Glenn to the Seward without requiring motorists to go through the dozen or so traffic lights on 5th and 6th Avenues and Gambell and Ingra. This project is planned to take the highway, in both directions underneath Hyder and Ingra Streets via a “cut and cover” underpass. This would end Gambell’s role as part of the highway system and allow it to be reduced to a two-way, two-lane street with broad sidewalks on both sides: that is to say, to become a pedestrian thoroughfare as it was in the golden days of Fairview in the years after the war.
As Constant noted, the successful completion of these projects and the restoration of Gambell Street would provide a satisfying symmetry to the past and future of Fairview: a transportation project (nearly) destroyed the neighborhood, and a transportation project will allow it to rise from the ashes.
Taken together, this tour, with its insights into the past, present, and future of Fairview, provided all of us flaneurs with fascinating information about urban planning and urban life in general.
Fairview is a unique neighborhood, and the fine details of its struggles and hopes are different from any other place in America — but there are universal themes in the Fairview story. It turns out that the ways an urban space is physically constructed and arranged has a profound impact on the lives of the people there, and by paying attention to the way geography impacts lives, we can improve the ways we all live together.