I can still smell the snow. I was 6 years old, fresh off the plane from the Philippines. My mom, brother and I changed at the airport into hand-me-down snowsuits and winter coats. My dad and uncle picked us up in a 1980s Cadillac Coupe.
We drove for what felt like an hour, but in hindsight, it was more likely less than 15 minutes. That was the first time I felt Spenard’s windy, curvy roads. We turned at the palm tree and went down West 30th Avenue. This street, the apartment complex right in the middle, became home for the next three years.
My grandmother’s unit was upstairs. It was small and only had two bedrooms, but it was always full of people. I can’t say exactly how many of us lived there — lots of family members were coming in and out — but I never felt alone.
It was a hub, a launching pad if you will, for my family starting out. My grandma’s house was always the first stop for anyone coming in from the Philippines for the first time. My aunts and uncles, who lived and worked in Dutch Harbor most of the year, spent their breaks with us. Every weekend, it felt like my grandma’s house was the gathering place for Filipinos on the west side.
I didn’t know all the connotations that came with being from Spenard or living in the neighborhood. I didn’t know it was one of the less desirable parts of town. It was just home for me. Looking back, it was the best introduction I could have had to America — what America really looks like.
Our neighbors were from every walk of life. We watched out for each other, and for me, they taught me about life in Alaska.
My very first friend was a kid named Dennis who was Alaska Native. He taught me how to sled and pack snow to build a hill. He also taught me the different “kinds of snow” and what was good enough to make a snowball or a full-blown snowman. Dennis’ mom was also the first person to teach me what it meant to “have a snow day.”
I didn’t understand how important having those connections were back then, but people like Dennis and his mom were critical to navigating our new life in Alaska. To have people around who knew you needed to learn the ropes, and were willing to help you out even in the smallest way meant everything.
When I was 9, my parents purchased a lot and had a house built on the south side. My dad took me to the unfinished house one day, he walked me to where my bedroom would be and he said, “This is yours.”
In that moment, I thought about this concept I heard about in school. It was called the American Dream, and I really felt that our house exemplified it.
Our new neighborhood, housing-wise, was a bit homier than where we were in Spenard. We had our own yard, we got a dog and our neighbors were more than an arm’s length away from our front door. Within two years, we even welcomed a little brother and sister.
We were one of the first families on the block. The whole development was brand new, but in time people started trickling in. Many of our neighbors were just starting out or were young families, new to Alaska and to America.
We had neighbors from Macedonia, Thailand, Laos and, of course, the Philippines. I realized then it was my turn to be welcoming, just like how Dennis and his mom were to me and my family.
That’s a lesson I’ve taken with me — to stay humble, remember the people who have helped you and to give back where and when you can. My family’s been away from Spenard for more than a decade now, but the neighborhood will always be with me.