Just over eight years ago, I moved to Alaska. It seems like yesterday, and it’s felt that way the entire time. Yet, in these eight years, I’ve lived in 4 different houses in 3 different cities/towns, and two distinctly different neighborhoods in Anchorage. I bought a condo in Girdwood my second year here, and I’ve gained some pretty valuable experience being a landlord, vacation rental manager, and homeowner. I spent a winter in balls-ass cold North Pole, and then spent a year living in a spare bedroom of my friends’ place. I spent one entire summer with no residence and just bummed around with the dog. Most recently, in 2019, I relocated to the Eastside of Anchorage, which has a pretty unsavory reputation. As shocked as I am to say this, I’ll be moving out of this glorious house sooner than later, and I’ve been looking for where to live next: I recently found a huge new townhouse down the street off Muldoon, 2 miles from where I live now, and yet as is common in Anchorage, 2 miles is enough to see vast demographic changes around you. One of the most endearing things about this very aesthetically ugly city is that in most places, people of all socioeconomic walks of life are smashed together, and that is especially true in this part of town.
I was initially skeptical about moving here, though I had really disliked living on the Southside (I chose this, and my friends were kind to let me crash there, as I really didn’t need much more at the time than a bed to occasionally sleep in between travels). I also moved there out of curiosity; I felt I was becoming too spoiled with bourgie accommodations and should slum it for a bit with regard to interior amenities… the dog and I pretty much lived entirely in a bedroom for a year. The house was in a nearly all-white suburban neighborhood where all the houses looked (to me) exactly the same, and I got lost constantly, right up until the day I moved out. I had never lived in a place like this before, and there was something deeply unsettling about an area where people only reside, but can’t really do anything else (there are no stores, no bars, no nothing right there, just houses and houses and houses). It reminded me of learning about Levittown, NY in elementary school.
I didn’t think much about this for most of my adult life: I lived in rural (though diverse) downstate New York, and during that time I lived both “in the woods” and also in the heart of the town centers, where everything could be reached via walking. I also lived in Allston-Brighton, in Boston, which is the same; and even tiny Girdwood is completely walkable, and people commonly choose to walk instead of drive: to the store, to the post office, to the bar or restaurants. South Anchorage is not a walking part of the city, unless you are walking your dog. You can’t get anywhere to get anything; you can just go for a stroll (and hopefully not get lost, as I did also managed on foot, embarrassingly).
I came across this phenomenon in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explained that urban planning in the 60s destroyed what were neighborhoods of people fully living their lives (laundromat, grocery store, bar, hardware store, etc) by separating retail and business establishments from where people lived and slept. She explained (speaking of the North End, in Boston, a historically Italian neighborhood) that people used to linger where they lived, because things were there, and now people have to travel to run errands and accomplish the minutiae of living, which causes them to be less invested in the well-being of the community. This book and her critique of these policies and the resulting damage they did to communities blew my mind at the time. It suddenly all made sense.
I told my younger sister when she was visiting last month about a time that a woman called the cops in South Anchorage on two Latino kids riding their bikes in the neighborhood; they also reported a guy with a neck tattoo who wasn’t bothering anyone (they thought he was casing houses). She was has horrified as I was at the time, and told me she also would hate to live in a neighborhood like that, where people are up each other’s asses. She and her husband live in Belleville, an outskirt of Newark, and operate their business in a high-end zip code where they can cater to wealthy people. I asked her if she still likes living where she does, and she said absolutely yes: people leave each other alone, everyone is friendly, it feels like a level and non-judgmental neighborhood. For whatever reason, our preferences run parallel despite different experiences in our adult lives. Given the opportunity (financially) to live in “nicer” neighborhoods, we’ve both chosen to not. All said and done, Anchorage has high crime everywhere, and cars on the Southside were regularly rifled through at night and/or stolen.
Here on the Eastside, we can walk to multiple grocery stores, to food outlets, to the post office. Such is the case with Anchorage’s other “higher crime” neighborhoods: Spenard, Mountain View, Downtown, Fairview. In fact, the safest neighborhoods are ones where you can’t get to a whole lot of other places: Rabbit Creek, Hillside, Bayshore/Klatt, Oceanview. There are doubtless many reasons for this: affordability, welfare and public assistance, transportation, the eternal debate over whether cultural diversity will always cause conflict because people have competing values. Many parts of Anchorage run the gamut, with a shitty house next to a nice one, and then a trailer park and then high rise condos. There are pockets of wealth and poverty everywhere. I love this. I love that many wealthy people don’t flaunt, that you never know who has money, that people all live together in these neighborhoods. It’s certainly way more pronounced here, and of course inequality in and of itself opens up opportunity for crime.
They say people always revert to what they know, and this preference likely traces at least partially back to our childhood: we spent a majority of it in a (rural) town in one of the poorest counties in New York State… but everyone was roughly socioeconomically equal, so it didn’t feel like anyone was suffering. Everyone had the same experience. At a friend’s wedding years ago, another attendee spoke of growing up poor among rich people, and how hard it was for her– we had no such experience. I’m not sure that not having money is what causes the problem, it’s not having money when other people have a lot of it. I had no sense of having a modest upbringing until I went to a private university and had to rip dollars in half and quarters to ride the subway. I never saw a rich person’s house when I was a kid. Going to a fancy college and having this realization at 17, 18 years old was the beginning of one of the most brutal reality checks of my life. For many years I agonized over where I’d end up, how far it should be from where I came from, and how far it should be. I read about this many years later in Hillbilly Elegy, and that book was a huge comfort to me (though somewhat demonized in the media): it wasn’t the societal reflections in the book that resonated with me, but the very personal experience of feeling completely lost while moving up in life (it even makes me uncomfortable to call it “moving up,” because it seems disparaging to people who choose to stay put).
It’s been interesting to intersect with so many different kinds of people and their preferences as I grow older and move around (and move “up” in my career): a good friend of mine told me recently he’d love to live in South Anchorage because people look out for themselves and that’s how he grew up in Oklahoma. I have other friends who have also admitted they’re more much more comfortable living around like-minded people. I’m actually not entirely sure what this means, to be honest. I’m not sure I ever felt like I lived around like-minded people, nor wanted to/should. Based on my life choices, I seem to have a somewhat contentious relationship with familiarity. When I was a kid, I wanted to bail out of our one-horse town and live a cool and interesting life; when I lived in the city I missed the woods. I now live in a grubby city hub in the most sparsely populated state in the country, I’d say I’ve finally found a good balance and the grass is no longer greener on the other side.
As I see people self-sort in my life, my aversion to the ‘burbs has found a bit of a moral stronghold. I’m no champion of the poor, nor am I on board with excessive public assistance, housing vouchers or affirmative action, but I do believe sequestering ourselves with people who look like us and act like us has helped create more microtears in the American identity. And maybe it’s just that life was always this way in America, and I never really lived in a place like that, but I’d always choose an immigrant neighborhood over a suburban one. And I don’t know much about the culture of the South; I can’t speak to ingrained racism and segregation as I never have been exposed to anything like that. I told my roommate recently that the diversity I saw even just walking through the next house I’ll live in and its immediate neighborhood warmed my heart and reminded me of New Jersey. It’s certainly not as “safe” as the ‘burbs, but as someone on the Anchorage subreddit said, if a “nice place to live” is living in a homogenous, white neighborhood, move to the Southside. If it’s diversity you want, come to our neck of the woods. There has been quite a lot released over the past handful of years about the surprisingly diverse demographics of some Anchorage neighborhoods.
I’m not sure how people make peace with one another in the long run. If you look at a place like the Balkans, you see that divisions are not always ethnic: they come from propaganda and belief systems that pit people against one another. Whether it’s being from a very plural part of the country (plural on all accounts: ethnicity, religion, race, socioeconomic status) or having a litany of competing experiences growing up is unknown. Perhaps part of it is feeling like an alien having done fairly well in my life while my siblings have stayed on the same (equally respectable) rung of the ladder. I think a lot about familiarity and difference and I’ve always tried to check myself when I feel I’m snubbing my roots. Further, in a time where the political climate is getting crazier and crazier, and people are becoming angrier and more suspicious, I’m pretty pleased to be staying on the humble Eastside, and eternally grateful to continue to eek out a life up here in Alaska when a lot of people are leaving / going home / returning to the familiar in times of unbelievable uncertainty.