Anyone who’s been involved with community activism ends up going to a lot of meetings. At all of them I’ve attended about Mt. View redevelopment in the last nine years, when the conversation turns to specific ways the neighborhood could be improved, the number one item is always, why don’t we have a bank?
The last bank inside the neighborhood closed in the mid-1980s [when there were a series of bank closings — Anchorage used to have 17 banks but 13 of them closed during the 1980s recession]. People here have been wanting a bank for convenience [the nearest one is quite a ways away, maybe almost a mile?] but it’s also a symbolically loaded feature, projecting an image of confidence and investment and permanence.
So it was kind of a big deal today when Credit Union 1 broke ground for a branch bank, to be built on the corner of Mt. View Dr. and Bragaw St., diagonally across from the new municipal branch library. Several neighborhood leaders spoke briefly, and Mayor Begich gave a pep talk to the crowd before introducing CU1 President Leslie Ellis.
Ellis is really great. I love this woman! Today and at the Community Council meeting on Monday, she addressed the audience with a spunky, lively enthusiasm. She pounded her fist on the lecturn and said, damn it, we’re going to demonstrate to the skeptics that Mt. View is a great place to do business! And we’re as pleased as possible to be here! She has a real down to earth, scrappy persona [how perfect is that?].
And then they put the wrecking ball to the 1950s former gas station on the property. Credit Union 1 will start construction next April or May.
A reader of this blog took me to task for saying that conservatives don’t care about improving Mt View. While I stand by that statement, I also realized that my goal here wasn’t to get overtly political — that most of Mt View’s burning issues transcend mere politicking, and we have to learn to thrive and grow whether or government is led by progressives or reactionaries.
You can see where I’m coming from by glancing at the links on the sidebar. And overall Mt View is a leftist neighborhood, even while we notoriously under-participate in city, state and national politics. So, at risk of further hacking off moderate and conservative readers, I’m going to go there again, and more forcefully this time.
During her RNC speech, Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocked Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for working as a community organizer — implying that community organizing is a waste of time and pursued by scofflaws without the knowledge, gumption and ability to pursue work that has “real responsibilities”. The cruelty and thoughtlessness of her words are exceeded by their inaccuracy.
Mt View is today a good place to live mostly because of the efforts of Randy Smith [1943-2003], an activist’s activist and the best community organizer we ever had here. [He was also a rock-ribbed Republican, gun owner and redneck.] When the streets weren’t being cleared of snow in the 1980s, he went downtown and banged on some counters with his fists. He would spend all day making phone calls, poke his head into offices, and make noise continuously until he got the action he wanted. I saw him yell into the phone many times, and rant and rave when talking with mid-level bureaucrats at city hall. He was big enough and crazy enough to be an intimidating physical presence, so people paid attention.
He turned his energy to various different topics, and worked on each one with a thoroughness and ferocity that was flat-out stunning. He started a community patrol, to keep an eye on goings-on and identify problem people, activities and properties. He monitored and confronted residents of homeless camps in the woods around the neighborhood. He started an annual cleanup that moved 200 tons of trash and recyclables, even crushing cars right in the neighborhood on a vacant lot. He cared about this place deeply and purely at a time when 99% of the rest of Anchorage had written it off. No one in city government at the time was even close to being engaged and effective regarding Mt View and its problems.
Every recent investment in new infrastructure, housing, public facilities and social programs happened because Randy and his co-conspirators laid the groundwork; and all would not have been possible without his accomplishments and advocacy.
Unpaid volunteers, whether self-appointed or part of an organized movement are the backbone of America. Indeed, all the best and most loved parts of a city can be traced back to people caring about them, and showing up for meetings and workshops and forums when they didn’t have to; a constant pushback and a grounded, grassroots effort — one that assures the powers that be don’t intentionally or accidentally ruin lives and drain value out of settings and local experiences.
To have Palin stand there and try to make a snide joke out of community activism was tragic. She should have known better. She probably actually does.
Update 9/13/08: The Anchorage Daily News published a similar version of this rant as a guest column. There was also a third version of it on Daily Kos. I wrote it a little differently for each audience.
Helen Howarth of the Rasmuson Foundation is a longtime supporter of the arts in Anchorage and has been a driving force behind the idea of an arts district in Mt. View. Helen and her sister Carol lived in the neighborhood when they were young. Together they created the Garden Art Park next to the Success By Six building in 2001 and dedicated the park to their late mother, a pillar of the neighborhood.
This brief interview was conducted via email.
Clark: Subsequent to completion of the first phase of the recent feasibility study, the Rasmuson Foundation came forward with an intention to fund the construction of a multidisciplinary art center in Mt View. What led to this resolve? [A lot of people have been advocating for funding for years, but there were some fits and starts.]
Helen: From its founding in the early 1950s, the Rasmuson Foundation and its trustees have always demonstrated a commitment to the arts. The Foundation was involved in the arts center planning from the very beginning and supported both Bruce Farnsworth’s investigation of other similar facilities around the country and the development of the two arts center planning documents. Moving the project to reality presents a chicken/egg paradox. There needs to be a strong organization to sustain an arts center or it will fail. The newly formed Trailer Art Center is working to fill that role but is still a young organization that needs time to develop. Certainly none of the folks involved with the project are comfortable with the “if we build it they will come” argument. The planning work is very important to everyone. Our Chairman, Ed Rasmuson, knows about the arts center plans and has visited Mt. View many times. Recently he suggested the Foundation see what it could do to move the project closer to construction. I cannot say there is a commitment to fund the arts center YET, but there certainly is a desire to help move it to the next steps. Our board is impressed by the artist community who have been steadfast in their commitment to the project.
Clark: I’ve previously asserted that although $200 to $300 million has been invested in Mt View in the last five years, it hasn’t paid back in terms of real vibrancy, energy and especially in the sense of an outside draw, or destinations. And that a multidisciplinary art center could provide that interest, and thus legitimize and intensify all of the previous investment and improvements. But that was more of a gut feeling than a well-researched posit. What information do you have about how the center could be key to revitalization?
Helen: All across the country cities are looking to the arts to revitalize their communities. Success stories abound: from the Pearl District in Portland to DUMBO in Brooklyn, from Portland Maine to SOHO. The interest is not waning but building. Maryland is developing arts districts on a statewide basis and offers tax credits as incentives. Brooklyn is in the midst of a $650 million project to develop the BAM Cultural District. Communities like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have arts districts and the list of communities goes on and on. To get a sense of what is happening across the nation, I encourage folks to search “Arts Districts” on the web. Thousands of links pop up. This says to me that the significant role the arts can play in community and economic development is firmly recognized.
Clark: There is a developer and architect engaged with members of the Trailer Art Center board of directors. Is there a schedule for completion of design work? Construction?
Helen: The schedule for this project has to be driven by the Trailer Art Center. The Rasmuson Foundation is well aware there is no point building a facility that can’t be sustainably programmed. That said, the Rasmuson Foundation board of directors meets twice a year to make funding decisions so I believe the arts center planning committee is working hard to have a project that can go before the Foundation in the next six months.
Clark: How should the art center engage the neighborhood, and city and state? What will be crucial features of its relationship to schools and other community partners?
Helen: Arts centers around the country, by their very nature, engage communities. How, is totally dependent on the types of programming offered. If there are open studios or classes the community [broadly defined] will connect through direct participation. If the public programs include gallery shows and performances, communities will also connect through their attendance. It is my understanding that the arts center plans include both types of activities.
Clark: What’s the most worthwhile aspect of the proposed art center? What aspects [programs, initiatives, education, outreach] might improve the most, after implementation and an incubation period? Will it be structured and managed to shift emphasis/change course readily?
Helen: The obvious benefits of an arts center is to the arts community. But I believe the most worthwhile aspect is going to be the community and social benefit the arts center will bring to Mt. View. Right now people are afraid to go to the neighborhood. The arts center will encourage people to visit, to participate and to experience Mt. View in a new way. The programming will play an important role in developing that interest so maintaining nimbleness and being willing to adapt to change while the organization develops is very important. Artists, in my experience, are good at that.
Clark: You have a family connection to Mt View. Any interesting memories?
Helen: It’s funny but Halloween comes to mind. I remember going out with my sisters and friends trick or treating in the snowy cold all throughout the neighborhood. We went house to house, street by street, meeting neighbors, getting scared by the occasional dog, and coming home hours later loaded with bags of candy. We got to know which houses had the good candy and which houses to avoid. To me, the fact that children can’t go out on their own and explore their neighborhood at Halloween [or any other time for that matter] is a great loss. Neighborhoods need more opportunities to connect person to person.
A more recent favorite was when my family moved back in with my father while we remodeled our house. There was a Samoan family that lived in an apartment building across the alley. On sunny evenings the men would gather around a hibachi in the parking lot and sing. They had fantastic voices and we would go to bed serenaded by Samoan song.