Originally published in Last Frontier Magazine
How Anchorage’s disreputable playground became a hub for hipsters and artists.
Between Downtown, Midtown and Turnagain, the Spenard neighborhood is and has
always been a unique part of Anchorage, built for the people.
Joe Spenard, a Canadian-born entrepreneur, came to Alaska in 1910. Originally looking to get into the railroad business, Spenard found himself in Anchorage in 1916 with a truck from the REO Motor Car Company and a 1915 Ford Model T, which served as the city’s first automobiles. Using his Ford Model T, Spenard started up the city’s first taxicab service. Dressed head to toe in a bright yellow suit and top hat to match, Spenard drew in customers with his flamboyance. He titled his hauling service “City Express,” complete with a catchy slogan, “Time and tide will not wait, but City Express is never late!”
Legend has it that Spenard Road, an unusually curvy road, was paved over the paths of drunken railroad workers stumbling back to camp after a night of debauchery in Spenard. In fact, from the edge of Anchorage, Ninth Avenue and L Street, Spenard created a primitive road to his 160 acre homestead. This dirt path is Spenard Road today.
Just like any boom-town, Spenard became a haven for bars, drugs and prostitution.
Spenard, a sourdough Gatsby of sorts, built a large dance hall in 1916 on the shores of Lake Jeter, which he later named Lake Spenard, as a form of self-promotion. The dance hall and the lake became a recreational hot spot for Anchorage’s early residents. The dance hall and the homestead were sitting on what was then part of the Chugach National Forest. Before the federal government could get after Spenard, the pavilion burned down in 1917. Spenard left shortly after for California where he died in 1934.
As Anchorage grew, Spenard road offered Anchorage residents a way to move out of the city limits, but still have the convenience of jobs, schools and shops in downtown. In 1950, the population of Spenard was 2,108, by 1960 the population grew exponentially to 9,074, and then in 1970 the population almost doubled to 18,089, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With the rise of industry, particularly with oil, transplants made their way to Spenard. Just like any boom-town, Spenard became a haven for bars, drugs and prostitution.
Working and hanging around in Spenard since the early ‘70s, Mr. Whitekeys has seen the neighborhood scene calm down.
“Spenard was the sleazy part of Anchorage, and Spenard wasn’t very big. In those days things were just entirely different. There were massage parlors everywhere,” Mr. Whitekeys said. “Everybody in town was single, all single construction workers; it was just guys up there trying to take advantage of the booming construction industry. No one ever intended to stay here. They were here to make a quick buck and then go back outside.”
“We’re moving downtown for the first time in 30 years. The problem was that the legislature moved out of their office building downtown to Spenard, and then that made the neighborhood even too sleazy for us, so we decided to move downtown,” joked Mr. Whitekeys.
Sylvia Butcher, a resident of the Spenard neighborhood since the early ‘60s, said, “It wasn’t until the ‘80s with the oil discovery that you would see prostitutes walking Spenard road … quite a great number of them. This end of Spenard wasn’t really sketchy, but the other end was kind of riff-raff with all the massage parlors. [The prostitutes] didn’t bother you very much, you wouldn’t notice them.”
Spenard became famous for crimes of passion; wives killing their husbands became so common that local colloquialism noted the event as a “Spenard divorce.”
“When I first came here I wondered what the Spenard divorce was and then I found out that’s when a woman gets rid of her husband. My father-in-law was an attorney. He mostly was working on the side of the wife and he had acquired all this clothing that had all these bullet holes in them,” Butcher said.
Living in Alaska for over 50 years, Butcher has lived on each side of Spenard, from near the airport to near West Anchorage High School. Currently residing on the West High side, Butcher has seen the neighborhood go from a quiet neighborhood to a full-blown red light district, to the unique neighborhood it is today.
Spenard became a destination with the opening of the world-famous Chilkoot Charlie’s in 1970. People from all around flocked to the Spenard watering-hole.
With close proximity to Anchorage International Airport, Spenard catered to oil men—pockets full of cash, returning from long legs of work in Alaska’s remote regions. This proximity resulted in not only bars and nightclubs, but brothels, gambling centers and other unsavory business ventures.
The city of Spenard became a part of the ever-expanding Anchorage Municipality in 1975. Years later, in the post-pipeline days, the municipality made an effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood—bringing us into the Spenardian Renaissance.
With boom comes bust and Spenard was no exception. The neighborhood’s bars and nightclubs are still a part of the neighborhood appeal, but while the less-wholesome businesses disappeared or went underground, new businesses made their way into the neighborhood. REI, Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking and numerous bike shops appealed to younger, active crowds. The Denali Theatre became The Bear Tooth Grill, an independent movie theatre with a full service restaurant and bar. A local favorite, the theatre attracted patrons from all over the city to eat gourmet pizza and watch indie films.
“Bear Tooth has helped make the Spenard area cool. REI helped bring a different kind of people. You saw different things come up with Middle Way [Cafe] and Title Wave [Books] that brought all kinds of different people that didn’t used to be here,” Butcher said.
These days the Hells Angels and Alaskan sourdough types tend to keep quiet, and it consists of mostly hipsters trying their best to gentrify the neighborhood.
The Piggly Wiggly grocery store is gone and divided up into numerous little shops. A used sports equipment store, a popular diner, a soon-to-be marijuana retailer, a yoga studio and a local yarn store/club—the strip mall is as diverse as the neighborhood it inhabits.
Local residents, some with vague memories of Spenard’s past, have observed the neighborhood renaissance in full-force. Whether this is seen as a renaissance or gentrification is up for debate.
“Some would call it a wretched hive of scum and villainy due to the fact Spenard has always had a rich underbelly of prostitution, crime and drugs. I only caught the tail end of it growing up. These days the Hells Angels and Alaskan sourdough types tend to keep quiet, and it consists of mostly hipsters trying their best to gentrify the neighborhood. Still, at the end of the day Spenard is one of the last bastions of old Alaska, the atmosphere has never left,” Jacob Thompson, a Spenard millennial, said.
The owner and operator of Bella Boutique, Annie Ciszak Pazar, has been working in the neighborhood for nearly ten years. Selling local art and goods out of her boutique, she has seen the neighborhood grow, in a positive way.
“This section of town is sort of up and coming and I wanted to be a part of the Spenard renaissance and regrowth,” Ciszak Pazar said. “It’s a super diverse neighborhood. It has all sorts of great characters, usually in a good way. It’s one of the only areas in town where you can park your car easily and walk to different things. You can shop, you can eat, and you can see a movie. It’s hard to do that anywhere else in town.”
In October 2016, Buzzfeed named Spenard the most ‘hipster’ neighborhood in the state of Alaska, referencing Black Cup as the place to hang out. Unfortunately, Black Cup is actually in Midtown, but plenty of other things make Spenard hip: the annual Spenard Food Truck Festival, the Spenard Farmer’s Market, the adopted windmill that serves as a beacon to its inhabitants, and the numerous local shops sprinkled around the neighborhood.
“It’s gotten awfully nice and awfully clean in a lot of places, but still it’s sleazier than any other place in Anchorage. It can’t hold a candle to what it used to be,” Mr. Whitekeys said.
Bookstores and art galleries offer venues for local artists to display and sell their work. Unique shops are popping up all around the neighborhood. From Denali Dreams Soap Company, to Dos Manos Art Gallery, to Anchorage House of Hobbies, to the Enlighten Alaska marijuana retail shop—Spenard is specializing.
One notable business that, quite literally, illustrates “out with the old and in with the new” is The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café. In the summer of 2016, volunteers and artists from around the city and in the neighborhood gutted and cleaned the former “Adults Only,” a porn shop that had existed in the area for decades. The building, which consisted of two trailers pushed together, was occupied by artists for weeks. Local art was put on display for a three day festival and fundraiser, and members of the community were welcomed to walk through. The building sits vacant at the moment, but plans to tear down what many believe to be “the last vestige of old Spenard,” are set to begin in the spring of 2017.
Although his time in Alaska was short-lived, Joe Spenard impacted the neighborhood for generations to come. Whether you consider yourself a hipster or a sourdough, Spenard has something to offer all of us.