A city beyond the fog and under one roof

by Jen Kinney

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The entrance to town is a 2.6-mile tunnel, a gaping maw in the mountainside. It bares its teeth twice an hour, allowing cars in to Whittier or out, inhaling them on one side of the mountain and exhaling on the other. At night it closes, leaving Whittier isolated from the rest of the world until morning.

Before the tunnel was widened for cars in 2001, only the railroad connected Whittier to Anchorage, the nearest city at 60 miles to the northwest. Trains ran with passengers and their vehicles just a few times a week. In those days, Whittier’s main attraction was solitude. Enclosed in a ring of mountains and bordered by a fjord, it began as a military port, only to outlive its usefulness and become a near ghost town less than a decade after the construction of the two largest buildings in the Alaskan territory.

Today, the majority of Whittier’s 200 residents still live in just one: Begich Towers, a 14-story monolith condominium. It’s a vertical town, with walls so thin the missionary can listen in on the bartender next door. Police ride the elevator with city council members and drug dealers. Those who don’t live in the tower – in winter, fewer than 40 – live in another condominium just above the railroad tracks, in their boats or trailers, or in hotel rooms in the Anchor Inn, sandwiched between the town’s only year-round restaurant on the first floor and its only bar on the third. The town occupies a thin three-mile crescent of coastline between mountain and water, a stretch just barely longer than the tunnel itself.

“A lot of people don’t stay here because they think it feels like prison,” said Terry Bender, resident of Begich Towers. “I just laugh. I tell everybody, ‘We all live in the same house, we just have separate bedrooms.’”

Bender’s mother arrived shortly after the dawn of Whittier’s founding in 1969, nine years after the army moved out. Fewer than a hundred civilians stayed through the transition, continuing operation of the freight, railroad and oil storage facilities, and occupying infrastructure meant for over a thousand. Entrepreneurs and renegades, they set to work inventing a town. They dreamed of creating the first car-less town in America, with trams that would carry visitors over the mountain. The motto of the local newspaper read, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Whittier.”

These community builders were undeterred by their limited access to the outside world.  New residents who came seeking that very solitude found community as well as seclusion. Today, long-time residents agree that, since those early days, community in Whittier has weakened. Many blame the road. “That road was something done to us, not something done for us,” said Joe Gray, resident since 1994. With the road came tourism and increased boat traffic. Community potlucks dwindled. People who could keep their jobs in Whittier but live beyond the tunnel moved out. A stream of new families arrived for whom Whittier represented opportunity, with its low rent and plentiful jobs at the tunnel, barge, railroad and city. Over the past decade, Whittier has transformed, as many of its original residents leave, while those that remain see new families arrive.

It remains a place where a council runs nearly everything, from the city council to the Begich Tower’s Homeowners Association; where the fire department is volunteer; where the Anchor Inn holds Christmas dinner, and Santa rides the fire truck to Begich Towers. It is a world of its own, even if the road has eroded its isolation. “Whittier magnifies what people are about,” said Brenda Tolman, resident since 1982. Virtues and vices play out large on a small stage, but so too do generosity and forgiveness. There is simply not the space for anything else. “We certainly don’t all love each other here,” said Bender, “But we help each other, and we bond because of whatever it is that attracts you here.”

Jen Kinney is a documentary photographer and writer from New York City. She currently lives in Begich Towers in Whittier. This project is a work in progress and is supported by grants from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University through the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize. Kinney will exhibit these photographs at the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage, AK this May and at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. this October. More of her work can be seen at www.jakinney.com.

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