Village in the City
by Michael Hankins
Alaska Village (circa 1978)
The serenity of living in a rural Alaska village is something I’d love to experience.
It seems a subsistence lifestyle has distinct advantages. Hunting and fishing to stay alive makes a person stronger both physically and mentally. Clean water and air untainted by pesticides and smog can only be healthy.
One of several Webster’s definitions for village is:
“A self-contained district or community within a town or city, regarded as having features characteristic of village life.”
For a tad over 4 years I lived in such a place within the city. Village residents habituated as close as thirteen feet away. We made weekly trips outside the village confines for food.
Recreational play and sporting events were held in the street. The place I refer to is rarely mentioned these days. A problematic stigma still exists for many people having lived there.
In 1966, before leaving Texas for Alaska, dad informed us we’d be moving to a village. At twelve years of age I didn’t know the true meaning of such. I envisioned living like my childhood heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in a log cabin. Dad stretched things a bit. He’d secured a space at Alaskan Village Trailer Court in Anchorage, Alaska. That’s where we were to park our 10 x 55 foot mobile home.
My father was a military man serving in the United States Air Force. Just like clockwork every 3 years we’d move. Dad deemed it financially prudent for us to live in a trailer. With his meager government salary any means to possibly stretch a dollar was taken.
Our vagabond life began at George Air Force Base in Adelanto, California. From there dad pulled our little home on wheels to Craig A.F.B. in Selma, Alabama. Brooks A.F.B. in San Antonio and Reese A.F.B. in Lubbock, Texas came next. Ultimately Elmendorf A.F.B. in Anchorage was dad’s final assignment. I’m sure some folks referred to us as trailer trash, although I don’t recall hearing the derogatory term. If anything it was spoken behind turned backs.
Our journey to Alaska was an adventure in itself.
Breaking a trailer hitch on the rough and tumble AL-CAN Highway meant a full day of repairs in Fort Nelson, British Columbia (Canada). Coming across the narrow Matanuska River Bridge in Palmer, Alaska - dad got a bit too close leaving a bright green stripe on rusty steel beams.
The morning we rolled into Anchorage was overcast and wet. Misty cold rain helped wash layers of dust from car, truck, and trailer. Our first meal was hamburgers and fries at the Lucky Wishbone restaurant. We spent the night at Mush-Inn Motel on Concrete Street.
Early the next morning dad backed our sun-faded New Moon trailer into Space #299 - 7800 DeBarr Road. I was happy to see kids playing. At our previous home in Texas, my brother Jim and I had to depend on pets for companionship. I sensed this trailer park was going to be different!
Our first week at the new residence was spent ‘skirting’. That was something new to me. Skirting meant taking plywood and insulation, then using it to build a mini-wall completely around the bottom of the mobile home. Not doing so resulted in frozen pipes and a cold floor come winter. I witnessed more than a few people make that mistake. By November most of those procrastinators were outside with saws and hammers. Yellow sawdust sat prominent on fresh white snow. Jim and I became good at skirting and leveling trailers. Our talents were called upon numerous times to help neighbors.
There were many brands of mobile homes within Alaskan Village. Some of the names were most unusual: Schult, New Moon, York, Vagabond, Nashua, and Marlette to name a few. Residents of the park would actually argue what trailer was best. To this day the name Vagabond conjures up gypsies, tramps, and thieves much like the song by Cher.
A fence separated our trailer court from split-level homes. A few home owners forbid their children from walking to “The Village”. That’s what some people called the place. Mom joked those parents probably thought their kids would never be seen again.
I knew one boy trying to woo a gal from the other side. The girl initially took an interest in him, but soon after the budding relationship fell apart. I believe it had to do with concerned parents not wanting their daughter socializing with presumed ‘po folk’.
My brother and I had paper routes for several years. We delivered both The Anchorage Times and Anchorage Daily News. There were winter days when the temperature plummeted well below zero. That could last for weeks. Large bundles of papers were dropped off at the Alaskan Village office. Right outside the office was a small block structure housing a large water pump. An electric heater inside kept pipes from freezing. Water piped throughout the park was supposedly Artesian. To this day I’ve never tasted sweeter.
Knowing how to slyly get inside that locked structure was taught to us by a previous paperboy. A screwdriver hid inside a cracked cinder block was the key. These toasty confines saved our butts numerous times when the temps were frigid, and papers were late. Having 2 paper routes at the same time during school months was not conductive to good grades. My Clark Junior High report cards are a testament to such.
Since there was no playground, village kids hung out in the street. It wasn’t unusual to see them playing baseball or badminton. Jump rope was another favorite activity. The speed limit was 5 MPH so vehicle danger was of little concern. During winter months those fortunate enough to own snow machines drove them for transportation. My brother and I used ours to deliver papers. Of course with it being noisy, we didn’t fire things up on the morning route.
Some of the names I remember from my paper route days are: Sanborn, Cloud, Rooks, Malone, Staley, Leland, Jones, Bingaman, LaCau, Greene, Maya, Kunda, Northcutt, McElveen, Roberts, Clapp, Giland, Rich, Dyer, Fostervole, Collyer, Martinez, Wardlaw, Vincent, Giradet, Kennedy, Fisher, Chron, Hahn, and Zobel.
Hooky bobbing was a common village activity during winter. If a car drove past with snow on the back window, it was easy to run up and grab the rear bumper. With slick icy streets a kid could get pulled quite a distance without the driver knowing. As dangerous as it sounds I do not remember anyone getting hurt.
There was an ongoing rivalry between trailer courts. Rangeview Mobile Home Park was approximately 3/4 mile down Muldoon Road. There were guys from Rangeview who liked to bully Alaskan Village kids; vice versa. One of the Rangeview clan wore a thick metal chain around his waist. He had a reputation as being tough. There came a day that my brother went berserk, tired of this fellow’s pushing and shoving. We had to pull Jim off the boy after so many lashings. Bullying ceased; at least from that fellow it did. I wouldn’t call such gang activity, but it was definitely a turf war.
We moved out of Alaskan Village in 1970. Within 10 years the park started going downhill. The trailer court originator and developer Roy Metcalfe died. Kids called him “Old Man” Metcalfe. Mr. Metcalfe took pride in his sprawling endeavor. He’d cruise slowly through it each evening in a blue Ford Thunderbird. A detailed park map tacked to his office wall had a cluster of trailer spaces circled in pencil. Mr. Metcalfe deemed this ‘the trouble zone’. Space #299 was smack dab in the middle. I only knew this because a friend’s mom worked there as secretary.
There were close to 400 trailer spaces by the time Roy Metcalfe passed away. Infamous real estate developer Pete Zamarello purchased the facility soon afterwards. He let things quickly slide into decay. By the time Zamarello died the village resembled a war zone. Burnt and unoccupied trailers were everywhere. Crime was rampant. City officials including most people living in the area were glad to see the village closed.
Today very little remains of my old haunt. Walgreen’s occupies a portion of the grounds as well as Begich Middle School. A new fire station takes up a small spot of land. Townhouses have been constructed with more development planned. A Krispy Kreme Donuts, Body Renew Gym, and BurgerFi Restaurant now occupy the general area where the block well-house once stood. I’m sure that Artesian stream still flows unobstructed many feet below the structures.
For the most part kids I grew up with in Alaskan Village turned out to be successful. They enjoyed careers in business, education, management, ministry, law enforcement, construction, military, and health care. One lucky fellow went on to fly 747’s.
In another 30-years undoubtedly all memory of Alaskan Village Trailer Park will be erased. The majority of folks having lived there will be history as well.
I doubt there’ll never be another place like it.
Trailer parks are quickly becoming extinct. In 1966 had the choice been mine, I would’ve chose a rural Alaska village to live in. There’s no doubt Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone would do the same. Fate placed me at this village in the city. It was still an Alaskan adventure; an experience that I’m thankful to be part of!