Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My old home

Last night Keith Olbermann had Wayne Barrett, the senior editor for The Village Voice, on to discuss the latest Sarah Palin scandal. Barrett has been looking into the big new home that Palin's husband Todd says he and a few "buddies" built on Lake Lucille near Wasilla. Barrett has uncovered evidence that the "buddies" who helped Todd may have included the same contractors who got the contract for the expensive sports arena she committed the town to building and which left Wasilla $25 million in debt when she moved on to greener pastures.

This is the kind of mutual back-scratching corruption that destroys political careers everywhere and, in this case, includes many names familiar to those following the Ted Stevens corruption trial. But one name made me sit up and shout at the teevee.
And it turns out that, at least I was able to clearly establish one contractor, the big, building supply contractor who supplied the building materials for the complex is the same guy-Spenard is the name.

"Arrrgh! Not 'some guy' Spenard." I shouted.

Clever Wife and the little cat, Marlowe, stared at me and scooted away on the couch.

The "guy" Spenard died in 1934 and had nothing to do with new homes for Stevens and the Palins. The Spenard involved in the Palin story is not a guy, it's a company, Spenard Builders Supply. But it was not the mere incorrect historical identification that bothered me, Spenard strikes at the core of my Alaskan identity.

First some history. Joe Spenard arrived in Alaska in 1916, a year after the Alaska Railroad created a supply depot called Anchorage on the Cook Inlet. Spenard was that type of combination frontier entrepreneur and civic booster that is an important and familiar character in the founding stories of most western towns. He had one of the first trucks and first cars in the town. He put the latter to work as the first taxi in Anchorage. In order to have some place to drive people, he built a road to a small lake five miles south of town and built a dance hall and bathing beach there. The lake, which till then had been called Jeter Lake after a homesteader with a farm on one side of the lake was forever after known as Spenard's Lake, or Lake Spenard. It is currently part of the busiest float plane airport in the world. His road became Spenard Road. Despite attempts by generations of city planers to level and straighten it out, it stands out as the most crooked road in the town, sprawling diagonally across the otherwise neat rectilinear grid of Anchorage. The neighborhood around his road naturally became known simply as Spenard. Joe's lodge thrived for a few years, then burned down. He hung on in Anchorage taking care of his other businesses, but left at the beginning of the Depression and died at the home of one of his kids in Sacramento in 1934.

Spenard the community lived on. When Anchorage incorporated in 1920, Spenard was far outside its limits, separated by the small, muddy canyon of Chester Creek and a couple miles of scraggly forest. Spenard developed a separate identity which was recognized by the federal government in 1937 when they assigned the community its own postmaster and post office. Like many across-the-line communities, Spenard developed a thriving trade in whatever pleasures the authorities in the city were trying to suppress. At any given time, Spenard might not have had more bars and strip joints that its main competitor, Fourth Avenue, or more massage parlors than Mountain View, but its unique combination of treats gave it a reputation as a one stop shopping place for fun. The fun wasn't limited to conventional vices. Spenard had bookstores, its own shopping district, Cap Lathrop built a movie theater there, and it was home to one of the all-time, great hobby shops--Spenard Hobby, among whose cluttered shelves any kid could find the ingredients for the school project of his dreams.

My family moved to Spenard in 1969, a time that I refer to, in the age-old tradition of bookending local history epochs by disasters, as after the earthquake and before the pipeline. Local politics at the time perennially revolved around the question of annexation. The Anchorage urban area, by then, had spread across Chester Creek and beyond Spenard, but the city limits only extended to the edge of Spenard. Most Spenardians wanted no part of the Anchorage government, preferring to either remain under the borough (as counties are called in Alaska) or to incorporate as a real city. Each election produced a three-way tie stalemate. The issue came to a head after a fatal hotel fire on the city limits that might have been controlled except for the turf fighting between the city and borough fire departments. The solution was essentially to abolish the city in 1975 and reincorporate the entire borough as a single municipality. Sadly, they chose to call it Anchorage instead of Greater Spenard. For most of the twenty years I lived in Alaska, I lived in or around Spenard. I was a died-in-the-wool Spenard patriot. I insisted in using Spenard in my mailing address instead of Anchorage.*

During my last five years there, I lived a block away from Spenard Builders Supply. SBS has nothing to do with Joe Spenard except for the fact that it's located in his town. It was established seventeen years after he died on a convenient railroad siding a few blocks off Spenard Road. When I was a kid, it had just the one location and supported my high school drama club with gifts of lumber and paint for our sets. Since then, it's become a construction giant. They have thirty-some locations around Alaska, a truss factory, and supply most of the home building industry in the state. It's sad that they got caught up in politics, but not surprising. Since the economy of Alaska is a boom and bust economy based on resource extraction and construction, their business is implicitly political and every development decision in the state potentially affects them.

So now Palin has not only made he state of Alaska a national laughing stock, she's brought shame on the good name of Spenard, my sleazy, old neighborhood. That's it; the woman has to go. Fortunately, there are intrepid Alaskans working on that. A group called Alaskans for Truth is looking into the technical requirements to start a recall (that is, if the legislature doesn't impeach her first). I hate to get my hopes up, but it's beginning to look like there is just enough justice in the universe to make sure Palin's career is toast.

* It's a little known secret that it doesn't matter what you write as your town and state on a letter; as long as the zip code and street address are correct, the mail will find its destination. When I was living in Spokane, WA, I received a package addressed to me in Tacoma, Oregon. But it had the right zip code and street address.

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