“It’s essentially a condo association, and… you get really cozy with your neighbors.”
When I first learned about the existence of Whittier, the Alaskan town where everybody lives in the same building, the first reference that came to mind was the movie Snowpiercer (2013), directed by Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho. In that dystopian action film, all life on Earth has been wiped out by a man-made ice age, and what is left of humanity is forced to live in a train. The train can’t stop, though, and the weather outside makes the planet unlivable, so people are effectively trapped in it and have no choice but to learn to live together in the train’s filthy, cramped cars.
Whittier, Alaska, is like Snowpiercer in the sense that the whole town lives in a single, contained space, and that the weather outside is everyone’s worst winter nightmare come to life. However, even though there are some similarities between the movie and the town, real life in Whittier is worlds apart from the dystopian hell depicted in the movie. In fact, once you read about it, it doesn’t even sound that bad.
This small town is located on Alaska’s southern coast, about an hour away from Anchorage. It is home to 200 people. Like any small town, it has a town hall, a church, shops, a post office, a police station, a hotel, and an elementary school. The only thing that makes it different from other towns in the state (and most towns in the world, for that matter) is the fact that everything is contained in a single 14-story building. Everything and everyone is in that building, and as strange as it may sound, it seems that they like it that way. In the words of Erika Thompson, a local teacher, “It’s essentially a condo association, and… you get really cozy with your neighbors.”
The building, called Begich Towers, was an army barracks built in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, due to Alaska’s strategic location next to Russia. It was abandoned in the 1960s and was soon later occupied by the people of the town. Now, as you might imagine, a building that used to be an army barracks is not the coziest or the most aesthetically pleasing (think austere and institutional), but the people who moved in were just looking for a place that would keep them dry and warm in a town that is recognized as the wettest in all of Alaska, with an average low of -4 degrees Celsius in the winter.
In moving the whole town to the building and having everything they needed in it, the idea was that they wouldn’t have to go outside unless they really had to. For instance, the elementary school is connected to the main building via a tunnel, and even the children’s playground is indoors. This makes everyone’s daily “commute” sound like heaven to a big-city dweller: “In a larger community, you go to school. You travel there. Not in Whittier, you just gotta walk over. And it takes five minutes, if that. Depending on the elevator, of course.” Even better, every service or product you could need on a regular basis is easily found somewhere within the building.
Nevertheless, the town’s extreme self-containment also comes with a few drawbacks. For example, most people are pretty out of shape because they never leave the building. As Thompson, the local teacher and school instructor puts it: “Between the extreme winds and the rain and the snow, that challenges a lot of people, so it just becomes a normal thing to not move, to not be healthy. The weather’s always a great excuse, and we don’t have to leave this building if we don’t want to, so a lot of people don’t.” In addition to that, the town’s only access by land is through a tunnel that shuts down every night at 10:30 pm. As a result, some people choose not to go anywhere out of fear that they’ll miss the lockdown and have to spend the night in their car.
Still, life here isn't just isolation and bad weather. The flip side of having the whole town living together in one building is the fact that you get really close to everyone. If you ever feel lonely or just feel like chatting with someone, they are literally down the hall, or maybe a couple of floors down at the most. A journalist who went there a few years back described the overall feel as that of a "strange intimacy" in a place "where at any hour a resident can knock on the police chief’s apartment door, where students get homework help at their teacher’s kitchen table, and where the pastor conducts baptisms in an inflatable pool in the basement."
It is safe to say that most of us will never live in a place like Whittier, but isn't it cool to imagine just for a few minutes what it would be like to live such a radically different life?
All images taken from Instagram.