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In Alaska, Investing in Culture

Written by Natalie Orenstein on June 17, 2016

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Inspired by cultural diversity and natural beauty, community partners came together in Anchorage to invest in a place where families and businesses can grow roots. The Rasmuson Foundation’s Diane Kaplan tells us how it was done.

The Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, Alaska, has undergone various reincarnations, but a common concern in recent decades was neglect. Then, at the beginning of the new millennium, community leaders and investors launched a revitalization project. Inspired by Mountain View’s cultural diversity and natural beauty, the practitioners aimed to create a place where families and businesses could grow roots.

Diane Kaplan/Rasmuson

Diane Kaplan/Rasmuson

With support from elected officials, the Rasmuson Foundation, led by Diane Kaplan, made a $5 million investment in the community, creating the Anchorage Community Land Trust to oversee everything from community gardens to real estate. The Cook Inlet Housing Authority tackled the residential piece. Together, the partners have built appealing new affordable housing, drawn diverse businesses and artist studios to the commercial strip, and trained their lens on health. Their vision has inspired partnerships and engagement among community members.

We wrote about the Mountain View revitalization project on our blog, and spoke with Kaplan to hear about how a collaborative community development project has improved the well-being and livelihood of residents.

Why was Mountain View poised for a large-scale revitalization project?

By the time we became involved in Mountain View in the early 2000s, the neighborhood had really fallen on hard times, to a point where anyone who could avoid living there did. Most of the residents were living in multifamily, substandard housing, owned by people who didn’t live locally. Crime started escalating. There was no construction, very little local ownership, and transiency in the two local elementary schools.

In midst of that, a woman at the local housing authority had a real vision. She said: “Look at the diversity. Look at the views.” In addition, the head of the Mountain View Citizens Council was just elected mayor of Anchorage. So we went all-in and approved a $5 million grant, the largest we’d ever made, mostly for acquiring property. 

What does good leadership look like on a big project like this one?

This work can be very stressful. The right types of personalities are those who are flexible and can pivot if circumstances change. We’re lucky to have a strong community council and the Anchorage Community Land Trust. One of the biggest leaders is the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. It’s a Native entity but it’s operated under the state of Alaska. Everyone says their work in Mountain View is the best affordable housing in the country.

What makes it so special?

They started buying the worst properties in Mountain View, tearing them down, and building new houses in scattered sites across the neighborhood, for rental, rent-to-own, and ownership. The director, Carol Gore, brought in major builders of million-dollar houses and said: “You’ve earned a fortune. Time to give back. Design me a 2,000-square-foot house just as nice as the ones you’ve got.” They’re stunningly beautiful and they’re five-star energy rated so they don’t cost a lot to operate. Families who had a long-term stake in the neighborhood started moving in.

In your mind, what are your most significant achievements in Mountain View?

Because Carol focused on the housing, the land trust could do everything else: the farmer’s market, community gardens, bringing in nonprofits, developing a lively commercial core, and helping businesses get established. We have a library for the first time, and a bank for the first time. Our two elementary schools have significantly improved and transiency among the student body is way down.

What would you have done differently in retrospect?

Private foundations like ours tend to be very impatient. We want to invest and we want to see results immediately. These things take time and you have to have a long view or you shouldn’t get involved in this work.

You’d wanted to start from an “arts and culture” perspective, correct? But the community had different ideas about what that meant? Is that part of the “long view” you mentioned?

The local community council said we needed to do something about the neighborhood and draw on the strengths—its diversity and cultures. But at Rasmuson we interpreted “arts and culture” differently. We thought we’d create a cool arts district where artists wanted to be, and that would build momentum. That’s not what the community had in mind, and it didn’t work. The community was focused more on diversity and enhancing basic needs.

How do these improvements to residential and commercial life in Mountain View affect the overall health and well-being of the community?

Behavioral issues have a great impact on physical health, and that dynamic is probably more magnified in Alaska. We are a state with an indigenous population that has suffered extraordinary trauma for generations. We have very high levels of displacement, child neglect, alcoholism, and suicide. We also have a lot of refugees who come from very challenging backgrounds, and people who are new in town without the support of nearby family. The stress of feeling like an outsider can lead to lower self-esteem, which can lead to behavioral issues that lead to physical issues.

What Mountain View has created now is a little more normalcy and family supports. There are good schools you can walk to, libraries where you can get books in your original language, grocery stores that sell your food, and evidence of your culture proudly displayed instead of hidden. Stable housing, nice streets, and lower transiency all contribute to a greater level of well-being, which translates into better health outcomes. In addition to that, we’ve got private dental practices, and Alaska Regional Hospital is about to open a primary care clinic. 

What advice do you have for community development practitioners engaged in neighborhood projects?

The work is difficult and can be very stressful. It requires flexibility because circumstances change and elected officials don’t last forever. What can you do? Either you can fold up shop or learn to pivot and do a work-around.

Top photo of Mountain View Street Fair/Kirk Rose

About the Author

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein is staff writer at HiredPen Inc. She writes regularly about health and community development for the Build Healthy Places Network.