State's largest city grows up

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ANCHORAGE - In a city where fashion sense has always played a distant second to staying warm, a cluster of boutiques in the budding "SoNo" district, south of Nordstrom, does a surprisingly brisk business in $50 body lotions and $180 designer jeans.

Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

The homage to Manhattan's trendy Soho district is just one of the many signs that this once unruly oil-boom town, perched at the edge of a great American wilderness, has been tamed.

"Anchorage has really changed since I moved here 30 years ago," said Ellen Arvold, owner of a luxury consignment shop called Out of the Closet. "People don't think there's a market for us, but there really is."

Strip malls have replaced strip clubs, big-box stores draw more customers than bars and residential neighborhoods have supplanted the RV parks that once sprawled across the state's most populous city.

"Anchorage has kind of grown up," said Alaska author and longtime resident Charles Wohlforth, who writes the annual Alaska travel guide for Frommer's. "It's left its adolescence and is becoming more of a mature city."

The tumultuous years of oil-fueled booms and busts in the 1970s and '80s, have given way to two decades of steady growth, as Anchorage's economy has expanded to include burgeoning retail, health care and tourist industries. Since the mid-1990s, its air cargo hub has become one of the three largest in the world.

The rise of jobs outside the oil industry and the military are helping to align the city's demographics with those of other U.S. communities, according to Eddie Hunsinger, a demographer for the state.

The old standby statistic, that men far outnumber women in Alaska, has become nearly obsolete in Anchorage. Home to nearly half the state's population, the city of 270,000 counted 102 men for every 100 women in 2006, according to state economist Neal Fried. In 1990, that ratio was 106 to 100.

Leese Lloyd and Ashley Brusven, young baristas who both grew up in Anchorage, said the notion that Anchorage has an overabundance of men is an expired stereotype.

"Where are they?" Brusven joked, as customers in the adjacent New Sagaya City Market surveyed a display case containing stuffed grape leaves, caprese, baklava and other stereotypically un-Alaska foods.

Racial and ethnic diversity also have risen as Alaska Natives from poor rural villages and rising numbers of Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and Asians move in to join family members or find work.

In the city's public schools, the percentage of non-white students had reached an all-time high of 50 percent when classes began last fall. The district counts 84 languages spoken among its more than 48,000 students.

"We've got all the different Asian immigrants, the Samoans, the Hawaiians," said Bill Ho'opai, who moved to Alaska from Hawaii in 1982. He works at a Polynesian restaurant called Hula Hands in a working-class neighborhood near Elmendorf Air Force Base. "This side of town is the Ellis Island of Anchorage."

As its population grows and diversifies, the city is rejuvenating its aging public facilities. Additions to the modest downtown skyline include a $100 million museum expansion, a $93 million convention center and a parking garage with room for 830 vehicles. Private companies are financing a collection of new hotels and glass-plated office buildings several blocks to the south.

"The physical change in the last two to three years has been dramatic all over this community," said Fried, who has lived in Anchorage since the late 1970s.

Development has its critics. Many Alaskans view Anchorage as increasingly out of sync with the rest of the state, prone to sprawl, traffic, crime and the other usual problems of urban life.

"Rural Alaskans have a love/hate relationship with Anchorage," said Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "What they hate is that people in Anchorage don't have a good understanding of rural Alaska, which is a truly different world. But they love that Anchorage has neat things to buy and neat things to do."

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