Stephanie

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.

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Photo by Victoria Petersen

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.”

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Photo by Victoria Petersen

Snapshots of Spenard: Local photographer shares her passion of film photography

By Victoria Petersen

Whether you’ve seen her working at Anchorage Cycle or walking around the neighborhood taking photos of abandoned roadside fridges, you’ve probably seen Darcy Stein around Spenard.

Photo courtesy of Darcy Stein.

Stein, originally from New York, has called Alaska home for over five years. It was moving to Alaska and enrolling in a photography class at UAA where Stein found her passion for film.

“This was me finding my passion. Finding more things that I love and wanna learn about,” Stein said. “I don’t think I would have found my love for photography if I stayed in New York.”

Stein sells prints on her online store, does various photo gigs and shares her film photos on her popular Instagram. Since learning about photography through UAA’s film class, which is no longer offered at UAA, Stein has chosen to shoot film exclusively.

“I don’t shoot any digital photography at all. I think about getting a digital camera, I go back and forth, but I just connect so much to film photography,” Stein said. “I look at digital photography and I just don’t feel the soul of it. Film photography is so soulful. It’s so warm. I just feel so much more connected to it.”

One of Stein’s many muses for her photography is Spenard, where Stein calls home.

“It’s got a lot of characters, it’s got a lot of heart and soul,” Stein said. “It’s not just your regular kind of neighborhood where everyone looks the same and all the houses are the same— just cookie cutter. I don’t like that.”

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Photo courtesy of Darcy Stein.

Stein believes Spenard’s edginess and quirk is charming, but isn’t for everyone.

“It’s just so kooky. I love it. It’s spunky and charming in its own way. It’s not for everyone. My dad came to visit me and he’s like ‘Why do you live here’,” Stein said. “I’ve never felt afraid to walk my dog or whatever, but it wouldn’t be for everyone.”

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Photo courtesy of Darcy Stein.

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Photo courtesy of Darcy Stein.

Stein knew she wanted to live in Alaska after she came up with her boyfriend, now husband, as he interviewed for a job, that would eventually bring the couple to the last frontier.

“I walked from Valley of the Moon to downtown down the street. Some man from another country approached me and told me this sob story about how he wanted me to marry him for a green card. He told me he was an accountant and that he could support me and give me a good life,” Stein said. “After that I went to where we were staying and told my husband, like, we are moving here. I told him this place would be a really interesting experience.”

After moving to Alaska Stein equated Anchorage’s many neighborhoods to the boroughs of New York City.

“Spenard is Brooklyn. It’s kooky, but up and coming and all the hipsters want to live here,” Stein said.

Stein’s photos were featured in an art installation at the Church of Love. The installation was a collection of images of Spenard from multiple photographers in the community. The photos were projected onto the wall of the building next to the Church of Love.

“Only in Alaska would there be photos projected on a building,” Stein said. “I like that randomness.”

Graduating this May, Stein will be receiving a degree in culinary arts. Stein said she will be looking to put her work out there more in the future to share with the neighborhood.

Visit Stein’s online print shop  and instagram to see more images.

Print shop: freshprintsofspenard.bigcartel.com

Instagram: @ardhachandrasana

Duke

By Victoria Petersen

You may recognize Duke Russell’s paintings if you’ve ever eaten at Spenard Roadhouse or perused Dos Manos. His work reflects the neighborhood of Spenard and beyond.

“Even though we get the reputation of having prostitutes and nightclubs, Spenard divorce and all that, I want to correct that attitude and find beauty in things we pass by everyday,” Russell said. “It’s kind of a shit show, but it’s our shit show.”

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Photo courtesy of Duke Russell.

 

In 1969 Russell’s father got a job on the slope. Left to his own devices, young Duke would venture from their apartment above Darwin’s Theory and explore downtown Anchorage. When it was time for his father to leave Alaska for his home in Texas, Duke decided to plant his roots in Anchorage.

“When I was 19 I decided that this was where I wanted to be and that this was my home. I felt like I did have opportunity, even though it took a long time to get the whole art thing up,” Russell said.

Russell started a family in Spenard and sought to give his children the stability he missed out on as a child.

“I have a couple kids and they have lived in the same house all their lives, they have lifelong friends. That’s something I wanted to give my kids,” Russell said. “My dad moved around skipping rent and I was sick and tired of it. He did the best he could I guess, with what he had to work with. I admire him for having the courage to come up here in the first place. My life would have been very different.”

Duke graduated from West High in 1977 and worked at the Bike Shop in Spenard while building his art career.

In the 90s Russell helped film production teams make high-budget commercials. This gave Russell a unique skill set he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“By doing that work I was able to slowly build tools and expertise that’s gotten me where I am today,” Russell said.

Russell, who has lived in Spenard for over 20 years, was first inspired by the neighborhood after taking his children to the library at the museum to look at Ward Wells photography of old Anchorage. Wells photographed local businesses of mid-1900s Anchorage.

“All of this is recorded and was a great window into this big question that I had after working at the bike shop. I noticed this real attitude with Spenard kind of a ‘Brooklyn good-morning-to-you’, very colorful, very honest, very down to earth folks,” Russell said. “Anchorage was a federally designed city. Literally, here’s the packet, you know? With charters, all kinds of rules… Spenard had none of that. They liked it that way and that’s what caters to this really interesting microcosm,” Russell said.

Russell notes that Spenard’s many local and niche businesses give the neighborhood its flair and uniquenessb4ff614365ea5da6c8ef3e636c313d19

“Within a 500 yard distance you have a gigantic comic book store, a spinning class, third world gifts… all these unique businesses that don’t really exist anywhere else in this concentration.” Russell said.

Photographers, writers and other artist types have been flocking to Duke’s neighborhood in the past few years.

“In my neighborhood you could call it a gentrification of artists and poets and writers that have moved in. Not strictly because I’m there, but we’re all there and there’s even more of us,” Russell said.

Russell has experienced very little crime in the two decades he’s lived in the neighborhood and is trying to trample Spenard’s seedy image through art and community.

“A guy tried to steal a bike out of my bike barn last fall. It was kind of the first time anything like that has happened. It’s rare, Russell said. “Although when I hear the news and the shots at night, you wonder. It is a little bit of a chameleon sort of thing where it sort of turns into this darker place in the dark. I am sort of concerned about that, but I think it’s happening everywhere.”

Whether it’s giving a warm place to stay to those who are stuck in the cold or a place to use the restroom, Russell hopes to build a better community and neighborhood by helping those who need it most.

“I’ve befriended a lot of those folks and have helped them when it’s really cold out, but you know, I’m not in a position to turn my studio into a warm-up center. I have and I have enjoyed the company,” Russell said.

Russell’s idea to build a warm-up center would give homeless individuals a place to clean up, use the restroom and shower.

“I’m working on some things to try and turn around some things in my own way. I’ve been working on an idea like a makeover center,” Russell said. “I do think people deserve minimal amenities and if we can’t find them housing at least get them a place to shower or go to the bathroom, so it’s not on the front door step of my studio.”

With many friends and connections in the community, Russell is in the know of neighborhood happenings.

“I’ve got dirt on pretty much everyone. If my son broke a bottle in a parking lot I would be hearing about it in thirty minutes,” Russell said. “I’m a very private person, but I can be very social. I know a lot of people.”

Beyond painting and graphic art, Russell has helped open Humpy’s and design Flattop Bar and Williwaw Social. Russell also enjoys different creative outlets like music and cooking.

“I love music, I love writing music, playing. I don’t take it super seriously, but I practice at it. I love cooking. I just feel like you really need to know how to do these things. What a great survival tool, to know how to cook, to know how to cook for other people,” Russell said.

Currently Russell is working on a graphic novel as well as turning his and his wife’s tandem bicycle into a mobile chef’s trailer.

“My wife and I have a tandem [bike] and I’m thinking about turning it into a chefs trailer… you can go places where cars can’t go and have a feast for 20 people,” Russell said.

Catch Russell’s work at Spenard Roadhouse, Dos Manos, his website or other places around the neighborhood.