In December of 2012 we traveled to Whittier, Alaska, a town where nearly everyone lives in the same building. The fourteen-story high-rise—called Begich Towers, or BTI—contains a post office, a police station, a grocery store, a Laundromat, a health clinic, and a church. (There once was a combination video rental store and tanning salon, but it’s been closed for a while now.) Built by the US Army in the 1950s, BTI originally housed officers and their families, and though its concrete walls have since been given a cheerful paint job, the fortress-like, institutional feel remains.
Whittier sits on the western edge of the Prince William Sound. To get there we drove some 60 miles from Anchorage, and then waited for nearly an hour to pass through a 2.5 mile-long, one-lane railroad tunnel that cuts through the middle of a mountain. During winter months, auto traffic is allowed through twice an hour—fifteen minutes for outbound traffic, and fifteen minutes for inbound. But when the temperature dips below freezing, that window narrows to five minutes. At 11 pm the tunnel is locked for the night. (Whittier has an EMT team but no hospital, so in the case of a nighttime emergency, a police officer has to run ahead of the ambulance to unlock each of the four gates inside the tunnel.)
The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Whittier was the wind—we were barely out of the car when a powerful gust pushed us down the hill. People in Whittier get out of their cars carefully; the wind has been known to shatter windshields and bend car doors backwards. Because the weather can be so extreme, kids often walk to school via an underground tunnel. The town averages around 250 inches of snow annually, but some recent years have seen closer to 400 inches. Two winters ago the snowdrifts near Whittier School were piled so high that the principal let students go outside to take pictures of one another hanging from a street lamp.
During World War II the US Army set up military facilities in what is now the town of Whittier. The location was strategically important because of its deep-water port, which stayed ice-free all year long, and its lousy weather: the near-constant cloud cover made it difficult for enemy aircraft to spot. In the 1950s the Army began construction on BTI (then called the Hodge Building) and another barracks, the Buckner Building, which was built for enlisted men. The Buckner Building housed, among other things, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a shooting range, a barbershop, and a six-cell jail. It was promoted as the “City Under One Roof.”
When the Army pulled out of Whittier in 1960, the handful of remaining residents turned BTI into a condo, but the Buckner Building was simply abandoned. Too costly and dangerous to demolish, the building is still there today. Enormous, spooky, mazelike, full of beer cans and debris, the Buckner building is catnip for teenagers, graffiti artists, “urban explorers,” and photographers. But it poses such a liability hazard that the city finally put a fence around it last fall.
Begich Towers is nearly earthquake and fire-proof. It was built in three sections connected by metal plates so that it wouldn’t crack apart during a quake. On our first night in town, a small earthquake hit, but we thought it was just another gust of wind rattling the windowpanes. The next day we were on the ground floor at the grocery store when a painfully loud fire alarm went off. We asked a volunteer firefighter what we should do, and he told us it was best to go back to our condo and shut the door so we could avoid the noise. “It’s a concrete building,” he said. “Nothing’s going to burn down.”
BTI is beginning to show its age. Part of the heating system has been replaced. The plumbing system is certainly overworked. A few years ago, a pot grower on the 10th floor had just finished a harvest and decided to get rid of some of the evidence by flushing it down the toilet. In the process he stopped up the plumbing on the floors below him—a neighbor called city management to complain that someone had flushed large amounts of dog food down the toilets, but it turned out to be pellets of grow medium.
Though Begich Towers and the Buckner Building provide much of Whittier’s intrigue, they aren’t the only structures in town. A handful of single-story industrial and municipal buildings sit between BTI and the harbor. The shore is lined with small stores that open up during tourist season. The Anchor Inn, a combination hotel, bar, and restaurant—the only bar or restaurant open year-round—is a five-minute walk from BTI. A small percentage of the population lives in Whittier Manor, a low-rise condo that overlooks the clanking rail yard, and a couple of people live on their boats year round.
In the summertime Whittier is bustling. Seasonal workers come for jobs on fishing boats, charter boats, or in the cannery, and cruise ships bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to the harbor. But thriving harbor industries—freight, fishing, tourism—don’t seem to translate into growth for the city. Over 700,000 people visit Whittier annually, but most tourists don’t stay in town for longer than an afternoon, if that. Instead they go directly from the cruise ship to a train that takes them to Anchorage. Residents sell food and crafts to visitors, but most of the tourists’ money goes straight out the tunnel. The Alaska Railroad Corporation is the majority landowner in Whittier, but it doesn’t pay property taxes, and it employs few residents. A supply barge comes into town once a week, but most of the workers who unload the freight commute from Anchorage. Not everyone who tries to live in Begich Towers can take it—a newcomer from Florida compared it to jail—and there simply isn’t much space on which to build alternate housing
“I don’t know where Whittier is going,” the city manager told us. “Because I don’t know where it wants to go.” Some residents would like to see growth and economic development in Whittier, but there’s a sizable group who would just rather be left alone. During our time in town, a number of residents alluded to Whittier’s wilder days, when you could go there to escape life on the other side of the tunnel. In 2000 the tunnel was retrofitted to accommodate cars, but before that, the train sometimes came through only once a week, so residents were well-protected from whatever they might be running away from. (Some residents opposed the tunnel retrofit, afraid that it would bring an influx of people to town. But in fact, the opposite happened—people moved out.)
Outsiders have called Whittier the strangest town in Alaska. And it is strange: residents wander through the halls of BTI in pajamas; there is a provision on “fish slime” in the condo association guidelines; a pair of reindeer lives in a pen out front. Behind Whittier’s everyday peculiarities is a community thoroughly circumscribed by geography, architecture, and weather. But it’s also a friendly town in a spectacularly beautiful location. Some people manage to carve out comfortable lives for themselves within this extreme environment, and looking out over Whittier harbor at dawn, or on a snowy day while a neighbor fed the fat crows perched on his windowsill, it wasn’t so hard to imagine why someone might choose the limitations of a place like Whittier over the limitations of life in a big city down in the Lower 48.
Reed Young is a photographer based in Brooklyn. See more of his work, here.
Erin Sheehy is a writer and artist also based in Brooklyn. See more of her work, here.