WHITTIER - Everyone is famous in a small town. Or they can feel famous by the way everyone else seems to know their business. In Whittier, Alaska, that small town feel is compounded by the isolation of the town -- it's seperated from the outside by the longest underground tunnel in the country: one that runs through a mountain. That, and most people live in the same high-rise building.
The 14-story building looks strange parked in the middle of a tiny town, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Newcomer Lee Snider said, "It's like a colony on Mars." And maybe that stark utilitarian feel comes from the fact that this structure was built by the Army. During World War II, Whittier served as kind of a secret harbor, connected through the mountain tunnel by rail. What is now known as Begich Towers was family and officer quarters. This place was strategically important for the Alaska war effort, but eventually the Army moved out. It turned the tower over to the town, and now it holds 196 condos. Right behind it is the school, serving 35 students from pre-school through high school.
One fall day, they're talking about what it's like. They're candid and comfortable. That happens when students have the same teacher the whole time they attend school and have too few students to form cliques. Lucky Medez joked about what she would write to kids outside of Alaska about her town. "I come from a small town where everybody lives in this big building and everybody knows each other's business."
"There are no secrets in Whittier," is an often repeated phrase, usually accompanied by a smile or an eye roll.
"If someone breaks up with someone... oh my goodness," said high school senior Jaella Nelson. "It just goes up and down the building."
It's not all bad. Stephanie Burgoon has taught at Whittier Community School for about 10 years. She tells the story of an unruly student in her class who was suddenly an angel. At the end of the day she congratulated him on his great behavior and asked what had changed his attitude. The boy looked through the window and pointed at his father. Upstairs in the building, he was peering into the class form an upstairs window.
The kid said his dad told him if he wasn't good, he wouldn't be able to play video games.
Snider, who also manages the towers, joked that after living here, he could see why people dug the tunnel: "To get out!"
Coming from Wyoming, small town living is no shock, but small town living where everyone can see your every move is. After he parked his truck the other day, he got a phone call telling him he had parked on the handicapped parking line. "I should set a good example, I guess," he said, "being the building manager."
Junior high student Joey Lipscomb said he's glad he doesn't have to shovel snow. This could be a big task considering the snowfall and the constant wind in Whittier. He also likes that he only has to go upstairs to see his friends. "You can just play there, or go outside."
One thing is for sure at Begich Towers, you're never far from your friends, or your foes.