Home Culture Arctic Flaneur: Ghosts of Downtown

Arctic Flaneur: Ghosts of Downtown

Tour Guide Rick Goodfellow leads the procession down 4th Avenue. Photo by Ivan Hodes.
Tour Guide Rick Goodfellow leads the procession down 4th Avenue. Photo by Ivan Hodes.

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 is a series of Saturday-morning walking and biking tours of some of Anchorage’s oldest and densest neighborhoods

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.

Not covered by the UAA tours is Downtown, as it is not a residential neighborhood; however, as the central business district of Alaska’s largest city it merits the attention of anyone interested in urban studies. Fortunately, a small commercial enterprise offers near-daily walking tours of downtown: Ghost Tours of Anchorage, owned and operated by longtime Anchorage resident and local historian Rick Goodfellow. In the continued spirit of the flaneur, I joined Mr. Goodfellow’s tour to learn about the ghosts of Downtown’s past.


I should aver, at the outset, that I do not believe in ghosts. To put it in slightly more accurate terms, I have never seen persuasive evidence that ghosts or spirits exist, and as a science educator I reject supernatural explanations for worldly phenomena. Nor did anything I see or hear on the tour change my mind. With that in mind, I’m not going to write much about supernatural Anchorage — the Lady in White at the 4th Avenue Theater, the murdered police chief who gazes out at Bootlegger’s Cove, the infamous ghost in the ladies’ room at the Captain Cook. Those who are intrigued should take the Ghost Tour; it is a worthwhile investment of $15 and two hours of your time.

In a figurative sense, though, I do believe in ghosts, in the sense that I believe history matters — because in that the choices we make, and the things we do in our lives, have effects which persist long after we are returned to the earth. In this way the dead can reach from beyond the grave to impact the world of the living. With that in mind, the Ghost Tour was an illuminating exploration of the ways that the ghosts of Downtown’s past have determined its present, and will continue to shape its future.


Downtown Past

downtown anchorageDowntown is the oldest section of the city, soon to celebrate its centennial. It was born because of the Alaska Railroad, the Federal project to connect the resource-rich interior of Alaska to a deep-water port at Seward. The anchorage at Ship Creek, despite its muddy and windy site, was chosen as the construction headquarters and staging yard for the project, as it was ideally situated between the two terminuses. Initially a tent city along the banks of Ship Creek, settlement at the camp was soon relocated to 240 acres on the bluffs to the south–today’s Downtown, which were parceled out and sold by the federal agency operating the railroad project.

Goodfellow pointed out, as we looked down the extent of 4th Avenue towards the Chugach Mountains, that all this meant nobody expected Anchorage to last. Once the railroad construction was over, Anchorage would have no further purpose and was expected to wither away like so many Gold Rush boomtowns had before (and would in the future). Very few buildings in old Downtown were built to last, meaning that few buildings in the area date as far back as 1915 or 1916; but they are there if you look for them, studded like seashells amongst a great beach of glass and concrete towers — one notable example on 4th Avenue being the Pioneer Bar of disrepute. Goodfellow also pointed out the site of an important longer-term survivor, one of the few concrete buildings constructed in that era — the Empress Theater, built for the entertainment of railroad workers by entrepreneur Cap Lathrop, a man whose ghost looms large in the story of Downtown (in more ways than one).

The ultimate fate of the Empress is a powerful and ironic metaphor for the links between Anchorage’s past, present, and future.

pioneer bar
The two surviving buildings from 1915.

Anchorage very nearly dried up and blew away after the railroad was completed, as many had predicted. Its population dropped sharply in the 1920s and 1930s. Small roles providing supplies to agricultural and mining enterprises in the Matanuska Valley; the beginnings of its aviation industry with the construction of Merrill Field; and vigorous boosterism by the likes of Lathrop and Robert Atwood kept the city alive in those decades.

It was the military development associated with World War II and the Cold War that turned Anchorage into the largest city in Alaska, with a commensurate Downtown. Cap Lathrop’s most visible legacy was a product of that era: in the 1940s he opened the much larger 4th Avenue Theater (which also housed the business offices of his considerable industrial and media empire, as well as radio station KENI). Goodfellow showed us amazing photos of its grand interiors, which were decked out with murals depicting Alaska as Lathrop envisioned it — a highly-developed beehive of industry and transportation.

In the 1950s, Downtown Anchorage was a thriving mixed-use neighborhood, with residential areas, local businesses like banks, grocery stores, and the aforementioned movie theater — the kind of downtown associated with prosperous mid-sized towns in the American heartland. But, like so many other of these towns, Anchorage was afflicted by sprawl as the 50s rolled into the 60s. Residents moved out to suburbs being carved out of the boreal forest, and prominent businesses followed suit, setting up shop among the glass towers of Midtown.

Downtown suffered a further blow in 1964, when the Good Friday Earthquake caused immense property damage — destroying for example the J.C. Penney located where the Fifth Avenue mall now stands — and made investors and developers wary of building there again. Enter Walter J. Hickel, whom Goodfellow described as the Cap Lathrop of his era. Hickel, a former construction worker turned construction-company owner (having made his fortune subdividing Fairview) was a pioneer in building a new Downtown atop the ruins of the old.

In the years after the earthquake, the three towers of the Captain Cook Hotel (one for each of the good captain’s ships) were both symbols of hope (a topic given considerable attention at the Anchorage Museum’s current exhibit on the quake and its aftermath) and a harbinger of the new, tourism-oriented Downtown aborning. In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts by Mayors Tony Knowles and Rick Mystrom to rejuvenate the district — projects whose unintended consequences were discussed in the first edition of this series — completed Downtown’s transition to the tourist-oriented central business district we walked through.


Downtown Present

On the official map, Downtown extends from the Park Strip between 9th and 10th Avenue (which was first a firebreak, then the community’s first airport) all the way down to the banks of Ship Creek, and includes the Port of Anchorage; and in the other direction between L Street and the Gambell/Ingra highway interchange. The commercial heart of downtown, though, is a much smaller rectangle with one corner at 3rd and L’s Resolution Park, where Captain Cook’s statue looks out on the inlet bearing his name, and the other at about 7th and A — with historic 4th Avenue as its central corridor. The tour took us almost entirely down 4th Avenue, from the Snow City Cafe at L to the Historic Anchorage Hotel on E Street.

The legislative office expansion, under construction at the former site of the Empress Theater.
The legislative office expansion, under construction at the former site of the Empress Theater.

Today’s Downtown presents a pleasant, if sometimes tacky, face to the world. One clearly oriented towards tourism — Alaska’s second-largest industry. Goodfellow described the district, somewhat unkindly, as “restaurants, t-shirt shops, and more restaurants.”

There are almost no residential properties or local-oriented businesses left, with the partial exception of the Fifth Avenue Mall. The year-round population of Downtown consists of the lawyers, government officials, and businesspeople who are only daytime commuters — aside from the chronic public inebriates.

That is to say, behind the facade Anchorage presents to the tourists who come in by cruise ship and passenger train every summer, the same issues of poverty, homelessness, and alcohol that afflict Mountain View and Fairview trouble our central business district, too. The Transit Center is a notorious congregating area for the homeless and chronic public inebriates; many Downtown bars have well-deserved reputations as centers of alcohol and drug-fueled violence. When I walked back through the Park Strip after the tour, chronic inebriates were already out and about, and teenagers were smoking marijuana openly on the lawn.

Ironically, the most immediately visible crack in Downtown’s facade is at Cap Lathrop’s crown jewel, the 4th Avenue Theater. The Art-Deco building is still impressive, but its exterior is cracked and in poor repair; it has sat vacant for years. A covered walkway between it and the old First National Bank Building has become a notorious hangout for vagrants and inebriates (chronic and otherwise); recently, the property-owners put up a locked gate barring access, which Goodfellow described as an abandonment of all sense of civic responsibility. The older Empress suffered a less sordid but perhaps sadder fate. Most recently in use as the Anchor Bar, it was torn down only last year to make room for the controversial expanded Alaska Legislature offices.


Downtown Future

The fates of Lathrop’s two great edifices are so ironic because, in many ways, they reflect what he would 4th avenue theaterhave wanted, the vision of Alaska presented in the 4th Avenue Theater mural: development, development, and more development, the leaving behind of the past and moving on to new things. Instead of preserving and rejuvenating old properties, the general tendency in Anchorage — especially Downtown Anchorage — is to tear down and anew. Mayors make their marks not by preserving old properties but by building shiny new ones: the Egan Center; the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts; Mark Begich’s Dena’ina Center. The ghosts of Anchorage’s past are real-estate developers, and they haunt us yet.

Consider, for example, the current administration’s ambitious plan for developing Ship Creek (the area below the Downtown bluffs, currently occupied mostly by distressed industrial properties): literally building new land through filling Knik Arm, creating shiny new dock facilities, retail spaces, and train terminals. The old is abandoned and something new built instead.

There are reasons of political economy for this. As Goodfellow pointed out, new public buildings can often be funded with “free” federal or state money, but maintenance must be done with tax dollars, and Alaskans don’t like taxes. But there are also cultural reasons. Alaskans like Lathrop and Hickel saw themselves as pioneers, and we see ourselves as pioneers yet, looking forward into the future and not back into the past. Downtown Anchorage’s future is tourism, and so “the storm we call progress” demolishes the things that were built for the railroad and the war, clearing the way for the newest industry.

Development is essential to the future of Anchorage and of Alaska in general. There can be no economic growth without development, and buildings like the Performing Arts Center do enrich civic and community life. Development, though, comes with a price. Alaskans are well aware of the environmental and social costs of development, as debates rage over Wishbone Hill, the Susitna-Watana Dam, and the Pebble Mine. But there is also a great cost to the human past. Having a sense of shared past is part of what binds people in a community together — and in the urban environment, historic buildings are the physical manifestation of that past. When When we tear down the old to build the new — when we demolish a movie theater from 1915 to make room for a legislative office — we lose a little piece of that common culture, and are impoverished by that loss. As Anchorage enters its second century and we, citizens in a democracy, consider what we want the future of our community to look like, we ought to keep the ghosts of the past in mind.