By Victoria Petersen
With about $150 to her name, 21-year-old Stephanie Johnson flew to Alaska from Denver on a one way ticket. It was the summer of 2001.
“I did the classic 21-year-old thing where I moved here with no money and no plan,” Johnson said.
Arriving in July of that year, Stephanie began working as a lead server at the brand new Bear Tooth Grill. Today Stephanie is managing the Bear Tooth. A restaurant she wanted to work at since she first saw the ad for the serving job in the newspaper.
“This was the job I wanted, working in the grill. I’ve always loved food and I always wanted to work in a restaurant,” Johnson said.
Johnson was hired at the Grill before it was ready. While waiting to start her job at the Bear Tooth, Johnson worked at a Spenard coffee shop for about a month called Best Little Coffee House in Anchorage. The coffee hut was Johnson’s first glimpse at the neighborhood.
“It was an amazing little Spenard fixture. So many characters that lived in and around there came through there,” Johnson said.
A few years after working at the Bear Tooth Johnson and a couple friends had the idea to open a handmade shop and gallery. Before they could make a business plan Johnson and her friend found themselves jumping on the opportunity to rent the tower (that is also owned by the Bear Tooth) that stands near the intersection of Spenard Road and Northern Lights Blvd. They had no formal business plan and funded the rent and expenses out of their own pockets.
“We knew the tower in that building was for rent and we fell in love with it. We got the keys and it was a nightmare. It was a wreck. We kind of went about it all the wrong way, but it worked for us,” Johnson said.
In 2005 Dos Manos, a funk-tional gallery, was born.
The tower was many different businesses before it became the home of the Dos Manos art gallery, including a florist shop, a travel agency with desks on each landing, a tailor shop and a gift shop. A customer even came in and told Johnson that the tower was once Brown Jug’s corporate headquarters.
Over the years Johnson has called Spenard home. Living in homes all across the neighborhood. Today Johnson only works and plays in Spenard. Johnson calls Airport Heights home.
“Airport Heights has a funky feeling itself. It’s changing a lot, kind of like Spenard is changing,” Johnson said.
In her nearly 16 years in Spenard, Johnson has noticed change in the neighborhood.
“When I think back on it from when I first started working here, I think it’s changed a lot,” Johnson said. “I hope for Spenard it continues to be a place where there’s a little room for everyone.”
Johnson said that Spenard has a sort of funk to it that can’t be found in a lot of other neighborhoods in Anchorage.
“It’s quirky. It’s quirky as fuck. I think that’s the best part of [Spenard],” Johnson said.
Johnson encourages everyone who is visiting the neighborhood to walk around and explore what Spenard has to offer.
“I hope that Spenard becomes more of a walking place. That’s one thing that’s always blown me away. It’s a different world when you’re walking. There’s a lot of great little businesses and places to visit that you don’t see when you are whizzing by in your car. There are things to see,” Johnson said.
Johnson said her favorite part about working and living in Spenard was the variety of people in and out of the neighborhood.
“In a small space there’s a lot of variety and density in the people that live and work in this area. I don’t think we all connect as easily with each other as we could, like if we were all walking we would be looking into each other’s eyes a little more,” Johnson said. “There are so many different types of people just doing their own thing in this area and I love that. It feels more real to me.”