By Travis Gilmour & Slavik Boyechko
It takes a different kind of person to live in Whittier, Alaska. The town is accessible only by water or by tunnel, the weather is extreme, and the only housing option is an ugly apartment building. But the community has managed to win over grade school teacher Erika Thompson.
Alaska Public Media video producer Travis Gilmour spent a day with Thompson and found out life in this one-building town is unique, even by Alaska’s standards.
I turn the camera on as soon as I enter the two and a half mile long tunnel that leads to the town of Whittier. I assume we’re setting out to capture footage for a story about isolation. Then I meet Erika Thompson.
“You know, Whittier is different than, say, working in the traditional bush community. In that we are on the road, and we’re fairly, we’re a tourist town in the summer. But it’s…yes we all live in the same building,” Thompson says.
Thompson has lived in Whittier for four years. She teaches 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade at the Whittier school, which happens to be across the street from the building that houses most of Whittier’s residents. She takes an elevator to the basement floor, then walks to the school through an underground tunnel.
“I think in a larger community you GO TO school, you travel there, and not in Whittier, you just gotta walk over. And it takes 5 minutes, depending on the elevator,” Thompson says.
Erika lives in high up in the Begich Towers, a large pastel building that like it would be more at home in New Jersey than small town Alaska. It has 196 apartment units, most of which are inhabited by Whittier’s year-round residents.
And, when you live down the hall from your students, some the usual boundaries can get blurry.
“It’s like a family. I don’t have discipline issues, classroom management issues, cause they know me. It’s like coming to school with mom, they call me mom half the time anyway,” Thompson says.
Begich Towers is often called the city under one roof. Tucked in its 14 floors are some amenities you might not expect to find.
“We have everything we need really, there’s a post office downstairs, a grocery store, there’s a little video store you can call her and she’ll come over, there’s the city offices, so you don’t have to leave if you don’t need to.”
For some residents, not having to leave the building can end up being more of a burden than a convenience.
“It’s hard to stay healthy in a town like this. …Our weather is really challenging, we don’t have a fitness center or gym, other than the school. Between extreme winds, rain, snow, that challenges people. It just becomes normal to not move, and to not be healthy. The weather is always a great excuse,” Thompson says.
And that’s what Erika is trying to counteract, with her students, as well as with her adult neighbors. After school is out for the day, Erika runs home to change, take her dog for a quick walk, and then she hits the gym…the school gym, that is.
“.. I had a lot of community members asking me to teach classes. Last year, I was convinced by just enough people asking, that I decided to try it. …it’s great group of people, we challenge each other. we hold each other accountable. “Make sure you get outside and walk,” Thompson says.
And that neighborly spirit is also what makes life in Whittier a little less isolated than it may seem.
“It would be silly to say that you live a lonely life living in the building. Because, I have friends and neighbors, and students and coworkers, that are right down the hall. If you’re having a bad day, if you’re having a day when you think, “Gosh I haven’t talked to another human being for a while,” you can just walk down the hall, or get in the elevator,” Thompson says.
This year, Thompson is treating herself to a trip that’s a little farther than an elevator ride to a neighbor’s apartment. After four straight years in Whittier, she’s finally taking a vacation out of state.