Most of the 200-odd residents of the Alaskan town of Whittier all live in the same 14-story condominium – Begich Towers – located on the edge of town. The former Army barracks is often described as a ‘vertical town’ with walls so thin that keeping secrets is simply out of the question.
Apart from residential apartments, the one-of-a-kind settlement also houses a police station, a health clinic, a convenience store, a laundromat, and a church in the basement. It really is inconceivable how missionaries, bartenders, city council members, policemen, and even drug dealers can co-exist in the same building, share the same facilities, and ride in the same elevator.
As eccentric as this living arrangement sounds, it really does seem to work out for the residents of Whittier, mainly because of its size and the weather conditions. The town is rather inaccessible – you can only get there by sea, or take a long, one-lane tunnel through the mountains, which only runs one way at any given time. At night, the tunnel is closed completely.
Whittier spans a thin three-mile crescent of coastline between mountain and water. The weather can get pretty brutal in the remote town, with winds reaching up to 60 mph and snowfall up to 250 inches. So it actually makes sense that the residents of Whittier have everything they need under one roof. The place has a strange intimacy about it – residents can be spotted shuffling about the building in slippers and pyjamas, even when on official business. At any hour, a resident can knock on the door of the police chief, and students can get help at a teacher’s kitchen table.
And believe it or not, they even have room to accommodate tourists! Resident June Miller owns and runs a bed-and-breakfast on the building’s top two floors. The comfortable rooms are all equipped with binoculars, so tourists get to watch ‘whales breaching and mountain goats grazing’, and stuff like that.
Writer Erin Sheehy, who visited Begich Towers for The California Sunday Magazine, said that the building felt strangely like the halls in her high school, and the post office was a lot like her principal’s office. “There were bulletin boards along the hallway entrance,” she said. “It’s concrete blocks that look like cinder block, and they were all painted pale yellow.”
As much as it resembles a school, Begich Towers doesn’t house one. The kids in the community attend school in a building located behind the tower. And because of the brutal weather, there’s only one way for them to get to school. You guessed it – an underground tunnel!
Despite the benefits that Begich Towers offers its residents, there are still a few people in Whittier who prefer not to live there. A few of them live in another, smaller condominium just above the railroad tracks. Others just live in their boats or in trailers. “A lot of people don’t stay here because they think it feels like prison,” said Terry Bender, a Begich Tower resident. “I just laugh. I tell everybody, ‘We all live in the same house, we just have separate bedrooms.’”
Erika Thompson, a teacher who has lived in Begich Towers for five years, said that to the residents of Whittier, life is pretty normal. “Some people love it because it can be really social, and some people love it because it can be reclusive,” she explained.
Photo: Dean Stucker
“For me it’s just home,” she added. “For the most part, you know everybody. It’s a community under one roof. We have everything we need.”
Founded in 1969, nine years after the army moved out, Whittier was built from scratch by the few hundred civilians who chose to stay behind. They continued the operation of freight, railroad and oil storage facilities, occupying infrastructure that was meant for a thousand. So they set to work creating a new town for themselves; they dreamed of creating the first car-less town in America, with trams that would carry visitors over the mountain. In fact, their motto was: “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Whittier.”
Although many of the old residents have left town, and the ones that remain complain that the road has eroded their isolation and sense of community, Whittier still remains a tight community. According to Brenda Tolman, a resident since 1982, “Whittier magnifies what people are about. We certainly don’t all love each other here, but we help each other, and we bond because of whatever it is that attracts you here.”