Home Culture Arctic Flaneur: Mountain Views and Many Peoples

Arctic Flaneur: Mountain Views and Many Peoples

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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.

On Saturday, August 16, over twenty Anchoragites met to take a biking tour of Mountain View, Anchorage’s most diverse neighborhood. Our guide was Clark Yerrington, a former Vice-President of the Mountain View Community Council who blogs about Mountain View and other urban topics (and was once a guest editorialist here at Alaska Commons). Once again, Kessler explained, this was not a historical tour but rather a sociological one — and once again, understanding Mountain View’s past is necessary to understand its present and future.

 

Mountain View Past

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Like much of Anchorage, what is now Mountain View (after the many thousands of years it was hunting grounds for the Dena’ina Athabaskan people) was once the site of old homesteads where early settlers raised small quantities of crops and livestock; the names of these pioneers are preserved in the street names of Mountain View today, and some of their original log structures still stand, fossils of the rural past embedded in urban strata.

Also like much of Anchorage, World War II brought about drastic changes to the area — indeed, it gave birth to the neighborhood. As vast numbers of soldiers, airmen, and contractors descended upon Anchorage, the three homesteaders of Mountain View — which was and is the neighborhood closest to what became Elmendorf Air Force Base — subdivided their property to make room for the explosive growth. Like Fairview, Mountain View retained a separate governmental identity — and, in the years before development started filling in the forest, was a distinct geographic location (which once included housing now south of the Glenn Highway in the vicinity of Russian Jack Springs, still today sometimes called South Mountain View) several miles down a forested road from Anchorage.

But as Anchorage grew, annexation followed in 1954 — and then two developments in 1965, one local and one national, forever changed the character of Mountain View. Tour guide Clark Yerrington noted that the zoning laws for the neighborhood changed that year — where once only detached single-family homes were allowed, Mountain View now allowed fourplexes and sixplexes in some lots, and even larger homes in combined parcels. This greatly increased the density and population potential of the neighborhood; and the passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, which (re)-opened America’s golden door to immigrants provided a source to fill the residential space.

Not everyone appreciated the changing character of Mountain View. Despite being one of the earliest institutions in the United States to integrate, the U.S. military was apparently uneasy with the increasing presence of immigrants and minorities in the area. Yerrington relayed that he had heard whispers for many years, and from many sources, that for some time the military unofficially discouraged its members from living in Mountain View (and Fairview). This does not seem to be the case anymore, although it is true that the U.S. Air Force sends its dependents not to Mountain View’s Clark Middle School but to Central Middle School, which is farther away from most Air Force housing.

Like many former urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s, as urban sprawl took over and folks spread out to the suburbs, Mountain View became a poorer and higher-crime area; yet still retained its famously vibrant character, winning the distinction of Neighborhood of the Year in 1989, a fact proudly displayed at all the neighborhood’s major street entries. However, Mountain View undeniably became one of the lowest-income, highest-crime neighborhoods in Anchorage, driven not only by petty crime but by gang violence, as well as prostitution and drug trafficking.

Mountain View’s rejuvenation process began in the 1990s and surged in the 2000s, associated closely with the administration of Mark Begich. Begich, who represented Mountain View for over a decade on the Anchorage Assembly, played a leading role in developing such local institutions as the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club; while Mayor, he worked closely with the Mountain View Community Council as well as city, state, and national non-profit and for-profit institutions to implement revitalization projects.

The then-innovative technique of community policing — high densities of police officers walking foot patrols and communicating with community members to focus on preventing, rather than reacting to, crime — was implemented in the late 1990s. In the 2000s the focus shifted to property development and revitalization, public arts projects, and the courting of new commercial enterprises. Many of these and other revitalization efforts are still ongoing, and the Mountain View of today is a bubbling laboratory of experiments in urban revitalization — some less successful than others, but with an overall undeniable positive impact: crime is down, housing values are up, the area is beautified, and parent involvement in neighborhood schools is up.

All this was accomplished without taking away the essential character of Mountain View: unlike some other urban parts of Anchorage, this area has yet to be colonized by yuppies and hipsters. In its present, Mountain View is undeniably an unapologetic, working-class, immigrant neighborhood.

 

Mountain View Present

In geography, Mountain View is close to a sociologist’s platonic ideal of a neighborhood: one (relatively) walkable commercial strip backed by a small, orderly grid of residential properties. It is a well-defined neighborhood, bounded by the Glenn Highway to the south, Elmendorf Air Force Base to the north, the Boniface Parkway to the east, and the bluffs above Ship Creek to the west. There are only four arterial accesses to the neighborhood: from 3rd Avenue downtown, from Bragaw Street and Mountain View Drive off the Glenn, and from the other end of Mountain View Drive at its intersection with Boniface.

We began our tour not in Mountain View itself but at North C Street on the Ship Creek Flats, riding into Mountain View via the Ship Creek Trail, a long and quiet bike path (it eventually extends all the way to Eagle River) approximately paralleling 3rd Avenue as it rises up onto the Ship Creek Bluffs to become Commerical Drive. Yerrington identified the route as a pedestrian- and bike-friendly pathway that Mountain View residents could use to commute to job opportunities downtown.

The western part of Mountain View, strung out along Commercial Drive, is a heavily industrial area — not one a lot of people would find aesthetically appealing, but noteworthy for its nearly total absence of national chains. We stopped at the intersection of Viking Drive and Elmendorf Access in the industrial backs of the neighborhood, where the municipality has located a snow dump. In the forested areas around the dump are many homeless camps — Anchorage’s on-the-streets homeless problem is not confined to Fairview and Downtown. The municipality’s proposed solution is to thin out the trees, but Yerrington noted that “there has got to be a better way.”

When Commercial Drive intersects with (and becomes) Mountain View Drive, the neighborhood’s character changes immediately: commercial development south and east of Mountain View Drive, and residential to the north. We stopped at the most prominent commercial development, Glenn Square. A major initiative of then-Mayor Begich, Glenn Square lay rather fallow for nearly a decade; only recently, the opening of the large Bass Pro Shops Outlets has begun the development’s flowering.

Yerrington seemed ambivalent about the development, feeling that it has no real connection to the neighborhood, venturing that most visitors to Bass Pro Shops are unaware they are inside the Mountain View neighborhood (or even know what Mountain View is). Glenn Square is difficult to access on foot; Yerrington believes that instead of a large, automobile-focused development (like CIRI’s Tikhatnu Commons further along the Glenn to the east) neighborhoods would benefit more from smaller-scale, more pedestrian-friendly retail developments that encourage both locals and visitors to come spend time in the neighborhood, citing the many shops of Spenard as the beau ideal.

Having seen the new, we next looked at the old — the Mountain View Car Wash on Mt. View Drive, a very old family-owned business which is on the same lot as two houses dating from the 1940s. Yerrington pointed it out as a fine example of residential and commercial mixed-use. Then we looked at the old-turned-new, venturing into a former pawn shop now converted into small art studios/boutiques: the Infante Lyons Studio owned by prominent landscape artist/photographer Linda Infante Lyons and the Magpie Artworks studio owned by Sugpiaq artists Perry Eaton and Alvin Amason. The original property was bought and then renovated by the Anchorage Community Land Trust (ACLT), an organization that plays a dominant role in the recent past, the present, and the future of the neighborhood. Launched in 2003 with seed money from the Rasmuson Foundation, this combination land trust and community-development organization is a top-down effort to rejuvenate the distressed area; its intent, to turn Mountain View into a fountainhead of public art and vibrant community spaces. In addition to the art studio, ACLT owns the Credit Union One building, the first financial institution in the neighborhood in decades; a Special Olympics Training Center abutting Glenn Square; and the Mountain VIew Service center, an office space for a number of nonprofits that do social work in the neighborhood.

After a further ride along Mountain View, we regrouped at an overpass overlooking one of Mountain View’s three neighborhood schools: the unmistakeable Orah D. Clark Middle School, where a football game was underway. The overpass was itself noteworthy — until a few years ago, the intersection of Bragaw and the Glenn Highway was an at-grade stoplight, and Yerrington pointed to the input the community was able to have in the design of the overpass, which included space for non-motorized travel, as a positive for the neighborhood.

But the star of the show at Mountain View and Bragaw is Clark Middle School, standing tall on a hillside overlooking the highway. Brightly painted and designed in what might be termed the “Arctic Modern” style (like many of the newer properties all around Mountain View, including most of ACLT’s holdings), Clark — along with its lot-sharing neighbor, the Mountain View Public Library, its up-the-road neighbor the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club, and its legendary across-the-road neighbor the Red Apple Market — is in many ways the beating heart of Mountain View. Anyone who visits this area — the intersection of Bragaw and Mountain View Drive — on a mid-afternoon will find it teeming with people of all kinds, in every sense of that word: young and old, and from all quarters of the world.

Indeed, Mountain View is the epicenter of ethnic diversity — not just for Anchorage, or even for Alaska, but for all of the United States. As we never tire of reminding our friends from New York, the three most diverse census tracts are in none of the five boroughs but rather in Mountain View and Fairview — and as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey learned on his recent visit here, the people of this neighborhood are immensely proud of this fact. This demographic fact astounds many people both inside and outside Alaska, but its reasons are fairly easily understood.

In addition to the “typical” mix found today in immigrant- and migrant-heavy communities around the United States — Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans, and Hispanics — Mountain View is also home to a sizable Alaska Native population (not something you’d ever find in Flatbush) and also retains a comparatively high population of black and white families, because not everybody fled to the suburbs.

Mountain View’s astonishing diversity is on prominent display in a number of locations: at the library, where greetings in Hmong, Samoan, Tagalog, Korean, are painted on the walls; and at the Faces of Mountain View, a public art display on Bragaw which, in presenting bronze casts of the faces of Mountain View residents, showcases a globe-spanning array of phenotypes.

But is perhaps best on display a few short blocks east of Bragaw at the intersection of Mountain View and Klevin, where you can look around and see Juba Market (an African halal market), two Samoan churches, a Dominican food truck, Jamico’s Pizzeria, the Mountain View Diner (an ACLT property staffed by residents of Chanylut, a Mountain View halfway house run by Cook Inlet Tribal Council) the Talaleili Island-Style Sewing Shop, Alaska Pho Restaurant, the New Asian Market, the Centro de Service Hispano, Talofa Samoa Sewing and Fabric Store, and the Mekong Restaurant (“Authentic Thai and Polynesian Food”). That is to say, you can look around you and see the pure products of America.

Just a few blocks east of this great intersection stands one of the many properties in this neighborhood by Cook Inlet Housing Authority, which plays at least as important a role in Mountain View as ACLT. Mountain View Village Lofts, also in shiny “Arctic Modern” stye, is of surpassing rarity in Anchorage — retail on the bottom, apartments on top. This is the kind of development that dominated — indeed, almost defined — urban neighborhoods of a bygone era, and is much beloved of urban planners and sociologists due to the sense of interconnectedness it builds between businesses and residents. Yerrington called it the best thing Cook Inlet Housing has done for Mountain View.

However, Mountain View Village Lofts is underpopulated, something Yerrington attributed to the heavy traffic in the vicinity, which detracts from the walkability-centered aims of the project. He believes that traffic-calming measures such as are already in place elsewhere in the neighborhood would improve this location as well.

After a brief foray down Bragaw, across the Glenn to the Russian Jack neighborhood to look at an original log cabin from the homesteading era, we returned to Mountain View proper and ventured into the green spaces which fortify its east end.

Mountain View Lions Park at the east end of the neighborhood is home to a couple of softball fields and what is surely the largest playground in Anchorage — all built and maintained by a private charity, the Mountain View Lions Club, whose lodge sits immediately north of the park. It is a worn-down and unshiny place; its many metal edges and concrete pads might give some parents nightmares. But it is clearly a well-loved neighborhood institution. When we visited, it was abuzz with activity: families barbecuing, children playing. There was a minimum of trash, and Yerrington pointed out that it has kept its original “rocket ship” play area — unlike the better-known rocket at Valley of the Moon Park on the west side, which has had to be replaced four times due to vandalism.

Immediately adjacent to the east is the larger and less-developed, municipality-owned Davis Park, little more than a large clearing with a few picnic shelters. Beyond it, a large and undeveloped parcel of forest which serves to provide a green buffer between the neighborhood, busy Boniface Parkway to the east, and Elmendorf and an FAA facility to the north. Riding a short bike trail through these woods, we saw a few tents and empty bottles of booze: visible signs of the homeless presence that remains in Mountain View.

The trail took us into the more purely residential terrain of Mountain View. Pine Street, the easternmost residential street, is broken up by traffic-calming measures but passable by bikes and pedestrians. We rode up to the curved intersection of Pine and McPhee, the northernmost street in the neighborhood. This intersection is home to the McPhee Community Gardens; the wide variety of plants and herbs grown there are another testament to Mountain View’s cultural diversity.

Next, we rode west across Thompson Avenue, right in the center of the residential section of the neighborhood; it comes to a dead end at the bluffs overlooking Ship Creek near William Tyson Elementary School. Habitat for Humanity, another major partner in the revitalization effort, owns several lots at the base of the bluffs, which have the potential for development as houses as well. Riding south past Tyson, we also went by the burned-out hull of Glynwood Manor, a testament to the distressed past of Mountain View. Along with the signs of the homeless we saw in the park, this reminded us, as we headed back to Mountain View Drive to conclude our tour with a lunch, that the neighborhood’s troubled past is still with us, and that its future holds challenge as well as promise.

 

Mountain View Future

It is sometimes said that Mountain View is now where Fairview will be. Fairview is in the early stages of its rejuvenation, while Mountain View is further along — but challenges remain, as the homeless camps visually reminded us. Violence, gang-related and otherwise, is still a major problem. Mountain View has recently been on the wrong end of media attention as the site of a horrific crime which is figuring in the contentious U.S. Senate race; earlier this year, the tragic murder of 15-year-old Precious Alex dominated Anchorage headlines for some time. Yerrington does not believe this problem is specific to Mountain View and believes that increased community policing (including bike patrols), along with school-focused programs and the federal “Weed and Seed” community-based crime reduction program will take the city in the right direction.

Beyond the problems of violence, though, Mountain View is to some extent a victim of its own success: As it has become a more desirable place to live, it has begun to suffer from the same housing crunch currently being experienced across all of Anchorage.

Furthermore, the great success of Cook Inlet Housing Authority in rejuvenating the area has come at a price: the organization now owns a sizeable proportion (over 25%) of new housing stock in the area, and holds much of the real property in 99-year leases. Although Yerrington appreciates some of the development CIHA has done, especially at Mountain View Village Lofts, he finds their destruction of so many historic properties troubling, and the domination of a whole neighborhood by a single agency is enough to give anyone pause. He asked, rhetorically, “Would you find this acceptable in your neighborhood?”

In general, Yerrington believes that the more attractive and pedestrian/bike-friendly a community is, the fewer issues of social malaise it will have. This is the urban-planning concept of “Complete Streets,” the notion that streets should be equally accessible to cars, bikes, pedestrians, and public transportation alike; it also requires a neighborhood to have attractions that are both commuter-friendly and appeal to the neighborhood.

Yerrington is a proponent of the “infill” method of development in Anchorage — putting developments in already-developed areas rather than clearing boreal forest and wetland, as was done in Tikhatnu Commons or at the Elmore Road extension. Rather than thinning out forest to flush the homeless out, as the Sullivan administration proposes, Yerrington believes instead in making the forest, and the community it buffers, into a place that people care about and want to make good.

Trails, shopping centers that draw in residents and visitors equally, and a public space like a theater would all enhance the neighborhood. He believes specifically that an artist’s housing development, somewhere in the vicinity of the cornerstone intersection at Bragaw and Mountain View, would create a cascading effect of amelioration. This concept, which has been tried with success at the Hiawatha Lofts in Anchorage’s big sister to the south, Seattle, combines housing for artists with gallery, performance arts, and informal-education space. Such a space draws visitors of an evening, and creates demands for restaurants, coffee shops, and all the things that make a neighborhood pleasant for most visitors.

The corollary is that when a neighborhood has value to many people, and high-value attractions, the neighborhood will be better taken care of: thus, in addition to boosting the economic and cultural value of Mountain View, a development like this would have the additional effect of reducing crime and homelessness.

Mountain View, with its many peoples, is a vision of the future America. Demographic change is inevitable — white folk can try to flee to ever-more isolated refugia at high elevations, but the future of this country is multiethnic and urban. Mountain View is by and large a success story in the making.

When you are standing at the corner of Klevin and Bragaw, with its astonishing expression of the world’s cultures all come together, It is hard — if you are the kind of person who believes that diversity and community are what makes America great — not to rejoice. But building a cohesive, successful community like this takes a sustained effort, and the work is never done. The Mountain View of today required an active community council, an engaged Mayor, a school district willing to invest in the community, and an array of dedicated organizations and businesses to bring it out of its troubled past. The Mountain View of the future–and the country of which it is a microcosm–will require just as much love and labor.