Anchorage isn't old enough to have a sharp identity as a city. It started as a tent camp for workers mobilized to build the Alaska Railroad in 1915, and a few houses and businesses went up to serve the federal employees who were building and later running the railroad. The remote, sleepy town was enlivened by a couple of large World War II military bases, but one writer in the 1940s thought it still looked like the whole town had been "hacked out of the wilderness."
People started to take Anchorage seriously in 1957, when oil was discovered south on the Kenai Peninsula's Swanson River. Oil fueled Anchorage's growth: Fortunes came fast and development was haphazard. There was an explosion of residential subdivisions, for instance, but no smaller neighborhood shopping areas within walking distance. Visitors found a city full of life but void of charm.
In the last 30 years, however, Anchorage has started outgrow its gawky adolescence. It's still young, prosperous, and vibrant -- and exhausting when the summer sun refuses to set -- and now also has some excellent restaurants, a fine museum, a zoo, art, theater, and music.
People still complain that Anchorage isn't really Alaska, yet the great wilderness around the city remains intertwined with its streets. Along with a quarter-million people, Anchorage is full of moose -- so many they're considered pests and wintertime hazards. The urban area is home to an estimated 350 black bears and 55 brown or grizzly bears. Wildlife of all kinds infiltrates a system of parks, greenbelts, and bike trails that brings the woods into almost every neighborhood.
Anchorage stands on broad, flat sediment between the Chugach Mountains and the silt-laden waters of upper Cook Inlet. At water's edge, mud flats not yet made into land stretch far offshore when the tide is at its low point, as much as 38 vertical feet below high water. There's a downtown area of about 8 by 20 blocks, near Ship Creek where it all started, but most of the city lies on long commercial strips. Like many urban centers built since the arrival of the automobile, the layout is not particularly conducive to any other form of transportation. But the roads go only so far. Just beyond, the wilds beckon.
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