Anchorage, meet Fairbanks: A tale of two cities
By K. W. M. Farmer
I had a revealing experience this past winter at a party near Fairbanks. There was a huge bonfire. Parked cars stretched for miles up and down the road. The mob of partygoers stretched in a loose pack across two neighboring cabin yards, everyone boozing by the gallon and jumping to the thump of the band. It was well after midnight when some young sport from the university climbed onto a buddy’s shoulders and bellowed at us to listen up!
Juneau rules!; he roared.
His posse of Juneauites wolf-howled their approval.
I sighed and looked up at the sky. I don’t ever get to do that.
I’m from Anchorage. In Fairbanks, were I to climb up on a stump and screech Anchorage rules!; I’d be lucky to make it home in one piece.
In Coming into the Country, John McPhee calls the Anchorage-Fairbanks rivalry intense to the point of unseemliness.; Yet when I left Anchorage for Fairbanks at the tender age of 18, I’d never heard of this supposed rivalry, despite having lived my entire life in Anchorage.
I’ve always loved Fairbanks. When I was a kid it was the most wondrous place on earth. We had good friends who lived in Goldstream Valley, just north of town; visiting them was the highlight of the summer. My friends and I could play commando in the muskeg and black spruce forests all day long. In the heat of the afternoons we’d go for a dip in the beaver ponds, always with a jar of salt for the leeches. We’d ride our bikes up to the old Valley View store for beef jerky and bubble-gum cigarettes. Come evening, everyone would gather in the screenhouse for dinner. Nights were spent in a tent at the edge of the yard, talking late and not thinking of the future. Dogs, mosquitoes and an annoying little sister were our constant companions.
It was like summer camp without any rules or structure. I was brown by the end of each two-week stay, both from the sizzling Interior sun and the thick layer of dirt on my skin. My folks would have to drag me down the driveway and stuff me into the car, because I knew that by the end of the day I’d be back in the conformity factory of South Anchorage.
Not long after that bonfire party, I shared a beer in Ester with a young firefighter-in-training, a lifelong Fairbanksan. I mentioned that I was an Anchorage lad by birth. Man, we got a pack of you guys down at the firehouse this week, he said. All they do is bitch about Fairbanks. Bunch of wankers.
Aahh, don’t lump me in with them,; I said. I like it up here. Some of my best memories are of Fairbanks.
He took a pull on his pipe. Well, you’re about the only one I’ve ever met.
Fairbanksans seem to dislike Anchorage for all that it represents -concrete, urban sprawl, staggering property taxes, asinine building codes, crime, traffic, and the relentless creep of urbanization. Anchorage is just a suburb of Seattle, the saying goes. Anchorinos apparently despise Fairbanks because it’s dull, cold, and lacks any kind of quality entertainment; after all, we’re talking about a town that just a couple years ago was all abuzz about Great White playing downtown. According to one recent expert, Fairbanks is full of redneck dickheads in need of an ass-kicking.
I suspect you can trace this rift back to the two towns’ differing histories.
When Fairbanks was founded in 1901, it was a cluster of cabins on the Chena River: a mining camp, a boomtown. Like other mining towns in the American West, there was little or no civic planning. If you wanted a place in town, you walked to the edge of the clearing, chopped down some trees and built a cabin. If you needed a wagon road to get to your mine, you just carved it through the woods however it suited you. The liberty of the individual to pilot his life was paramount. Over the decades, the pattern of Fairbanks’ civic planning has consisted largely of the borough scrambling to impose some order.
Anchorage, when it was founded in 1915, was a railroad town. Like other railroad towns in the West, it was platted, surveyed, planned and organized from its inception. Railroading was the dominant force in the town’s early days, and trains operate on schedules, with rules and regulations. Even better, the railroad was built and run by the federal government.
Fairbanks sits in a broad, flat river valley. There isn’t much to look at, but there’s plenty of room to stretch out. The only limit is how far you’re willing to drive to get to work. There are only so many people in the world willing to live in a place where the mercury regularly hits 40 below in the winter.
Anchorage is wedged onto a tiny triangle of land at the base of the Chugach Mountains, and it’s bursting with people. It’s not difficult to see why so many choose to live there. If you searched the length and breadth of Alaska, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ideal place for a city than upper Cook Inlet. It has the best balance of all that Alaska has to offer – the summers aren’t too hot, the winters aren’t too cold. Spring comes a good month earlier than in the Tanana Valley and the termination dust falls later. Mountains shield the area from the excessive rains of the coast, and there’s no shortage of scenery. Because of all this, Anchorage has grown to the point where it feeds off its own inertia. If a new business moves into Alaska, it will be headquartered in Anchorage, because Anchorage is the economic hub of the state. It can just sit at the base of the mountains like a chubby, smiling Buddha, sipping a latte and admiring the morning sun against Sleeping Lady.
Fairbanksans can be the most provincial of Alaskans. I suspect this is where the redneck-asshole reputation comes from. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the end-of-the-road syndrome, but one runs across this attitude all the time here: Every other place in the world is completely fucked up, and Fairbanks is the only part of Alaska that’s worth a damn any more.; In my younger years, I went through a phase when I jumped onto the Anchorage-bashing bandwagon. But now, after 10 years of calling the Golden Heart City home, I am so over Fairbanksans’ certainty that they are the keepers of the True Alaskan Way.
If you’re a lifelong Fairbanksan who is preparing to sling this newspaper across the room, perhaps you need to get out more. There’s much more to Alaska than Fairbanks, and it gets old hearing people badmouth your hometown, especially when they’ve never spent more than three or four days there at a stretch. I don’t like Anchorage that much, but I spent 18 years there, so I’ve got the qualifications to talk shit about it when the need arises. And the need arises often when you travel away from the feet of the Buddha – Fairbanksans are by no means the only Alaskans who intensely dislike Los Anchorage.
Then again, I don’t know anyone who bitches about Anchorage more than the people who live there. Instead of the Alaska of dreams, they have the Alaska of regulations: Don’t walk on the landscaping. There’s a fee to park there. I’m sorry, you can’t urinate on that statue of Ted Stevens.
Still, I remember the bad old days when Seattle was the closest outlet for good books and music; now Anchorage has real bookstores and music shops. The city’s inertia also generates high-quality music and art that transcend the belittling label local.; A trip to the international eateries around town is always a highlight of my Anchorage forays. And I hold dear a memory of strolling down Sixth Avenue to the Performing Arts Center one sunny evening in June when there was nowhere else on earth I’d rather have been.
Yet it’s Fairbanks that fires my imagination with the possibilities of Alaska. Life’s not easy up here, and not just because of the weather. Good, year-round jobs can be thin on the ground. The male-female ratio hovers somewhere around six to one, a situation that has been known to spawn legendarily erratic behavior on both sides of the gender divide. In many ways it’s as if time stood still in 1901. The freedom of the individual is still paramount, though, and you can park pretty much anywhere you want.
But what I like best is this: You can’t necessarily purchase a good time in Fairbanks. You have to make it. No A-list bands come to town? We play our own music. No scene; in Fairbanks? We make our own scene, in our living rooms and around our backyard fire pits. If you think this makes us a bunch of redneck misfits, get off your yuppie high horse
and get to know us.
Just make sure you head back south of the Alaska Range when you’re done.