A report yesterday incorrectly said that newcomers to Alaska can acquire 40 acres free under the state's homesteading program. Mark Whittow of Gov. William Sheffield's Washington staff said homesteaders are required to have lived in Alaska a year and to pay fair-market price, several hundred to several thousand dollars an acre. Several other conditions apply.
"Mama's" house, a crumbling but cozy bungalow on the west side of town, is a comforting site in the often frigid "Land of the Midnight Sun." The house specialty is soul on ice -- smothered steak, mustard greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread -- in a town where salmon, seal and reindeer sausage are customary culinary fare.
For those who gather daily around "Mama's" kitchen table, the call of the wild and the promise of prosperity hang in the air. Americans of all stripes trek to "the last frontier" in search of big money, country living or escape. Together they have made Anchorage the fastest-growing big city in the nation.
"When the recession was really squeezing people, particularly in the Northwest, people came up here with just a hope," drawls the city's mayor, Tony Knowles, a Tulsa native who came here to work a drilling rig shortly after graduating from Yale. In 1980, the city's population was 178,000. Now it's 244,000 -- a jump of nearly 40 percent in half a decade.
Anchorage is a colorful if imperfect mosaic of Melting Pot America. The Tiki Cove, a Chinese restaurant downtown, features jam sessions on Sunday nights. There are several Mexican restaurants -- imports, locals say, of the Texans who work the oil fields.
"Mama's" is not the only place offering down-home cooking. "It's a soul food restaurant," pipe welder Tyrone Edwards says of "Mama's" chief competitor. "But they've got Cambodian cooks."
A decade ago, Edwards was welding for $5 an hour in his native Joliet, Ill. For the last year, he's worked in Alaska for $25 an hour.
Ollie Taylor, 40 and another regular at "Mama's," was born in Shreveport, La., and raised in Seattle. She left for Anchorage in 1975. "I was getting away from a crazy man," she recalls. "I put some hills between us." For the past five years, Taylor has worked as a school custodian; she makes $12.56 an hour and has grown accustomed to seal, bear and whale meat.
A country girl at heart, Taylor says she enjoys being only a few minutes away from camping and fishing spots. "I've got arthritis all over my body," she says, "but I love it." The "midnight sun" of Alaska's summers did cause at least one problem: "I couldn't make love for a month because it wouldn't get dark," she says, chuckling.
The woman they affectionately call "Mama," a Rayville, La., native who doesn't want her name used because her self-styled restaurant lacks a city license, came here two decades ago from Oakland. For years, she cooked in others' kitchens. Now she works for herself.
The beauty of Anchorage is difficult to exaggerate. Majestic mountains stand sentry over the city, and the waters of the Cook Inlet seem to spread to the edge of the world. Snow dapples the peaks, and streams waggle down their sides. Green is everywhere, from the tall, dark pines to the lush grass, though here and there are splintered brown spindles -- stalks of trees killed after the ground around them sank to salt water in a 1964 earthquake.
Anchorage measures part of its municipal worth in its multitude of parks and bike trails. Some houses sprawl on hilltops, a few log cabins nestle beneath pines. Flat-topped shacks make homes for some; trailers house others. And on a sunny mid-June night, as evening light lingers to greet the dawn, groups of all sizes flock to parks and multicolored sails dot the lakes.
It is in winter, when the world darkens for nearly the entire day, that the city's underside shows. Alcoholism, prostitution, child abuse and suicide frequent this outpost oasis. This is no place to be, some say, if you're down and out. Knowles demurs on that point, noting that no homeless person froze to death on the city's icy streets last winter.
Still, many miss the Anchorage they once knew. Rose Bates came here in 1955, trying to recreate the idyllic life she had known on a Merced, Calif., farm. By her account, she succeeded. "My kids grew up in a wonderful way," she recalls in between customers at Theresa's Bakery downtown. "They didn't have any pavement, any houses, any people, any roads around them."
Those were days when the population was less than 15,000 and there weren't two miles of paved streets in the city. On sunny summer days, doctors and dentists posted 'Gone Fishing' signs on their closed doors, she says, and no one complained.
Now the lure of big bucks -- in 1983, the average city income was $27,904, more than $10,000 above the national annual average -- "has attracted the wrong kind of people," Bates says. Gone, too, are the days when the best fishing was almost at one's doorstep. A real getaway now requires not a long drive, but a short airborne hop. "Anchorage ain't Alaska anymore," laments cabbie Gaylord Mahan.
This is a young city, however; the average age of its residents is 26. The state has a homesteading program offering newcomers 40 acres of land free, if not also a mule -- or a moose.
Bates' two children, grown now, live in town. Roy Reed, who came here 32 years ago, is proud to say he has grandchildren born in the 49th state. Reed boasts that he hasn't been "out," local vernacular for visiting someplace else, in about a decade; and, except for a bowling tournament or two in Fairbanks, he hasn't left Anchorage in about eight years.
"It's a fantastic country up here," he says. "It's a little more crowded, but it's still a nice life."