Wow! rec list on my first diary (took my long enough to write one, I've been here for four years)! Thanks, everyone. I hope this helps paint the true picture of Sarah Palin's "experience."
Update: more "good" pictures of Wasilla sprawl: For those of you who want pictures, shipyardian is still local and put up this diary. It's a good read too.
Update: Oops, I was so young when I moved to Wasilla that I had to piece Palin's tenure together from memory and wikipedia, and it turns out that she was first elected in 1996, not 1999. I've updated the text to match.
Sarah Palin was my mayor.
My family moved to Wasilla when I was eleven years old. The road I lived on was still gravel, and the town then was still on its first of three successive Wal-Marts. It was 1996, and that year Sarah Palin was first elected mayor.
Today, under Sarah Palin's leadership, Wasilla has become the picture of exurban sprawl: an explosion in the housing stock, tons of new highway expansion, tons of new big box stores and fast food franchises, and absolutely 0 sustainability. Combined with a lack of zoning, and a predilection for building open-pit gravel mines all over the place, and Wasilla could be the poster-town for bad municipal leadership.
Wasilla, like a lot of Alaska, is defined by its remoteness. It is a 45 mile drive from Anchorage, yet functions primarily as a bedroom community. The city limits are confined mostly to a narrow strip along the Parks Highway (a major route from Anchorage to Fairbanks), but Wasillans can live dozens of miles away from the town center. An official population of roughly 6,000 balloons to dozens of thousands in the greater Wasilla area. Despite their small size, Wasilla and Palmer form the major social and political axis of the Mat-Su borough, a county equivalent the size of West Virginia.
Demographically, the town is almost exclusively white. I didn't realize this, until I left and went to university in New Jersey. There is, or at least was, a stunning lack of diversity, even for Alaska. It is is extremely religious, primarily baptist judging from the many churches, tucked away into every nook and cranny. It is also extremely politically conservative, and is consistently a republican stronghold. Characteristically, it is also economically depressed, and is dependent on low-quality resource extraction, and the service industry, for the vast majority of local jobs.
Wasilla was essentially a giant gravel mine. There was a gravel mine behind my middle school. There was a gravel mine across the highway. There were gravel mines in residential neighborhoods. There were gravel mines all over the place.
A gravel mine is exactly what it sounds like: someone buys a block of land, and more or less completely converts it into gravel, like mountain-top removal done at ground level. The mine itself is an open pit which sits in production for years, and then, more often than not, is abandoned in situ, oftentimes sprinkled with abandoned extraction equipment. The pit behind the middle school, for instance, had a few rusted hulks that remained for years, and which may still be there today.
If there wasn't a gravel mine somewhere, then there was a strip mall. Wasilla love their gravel, and they love their strip malls.
Growing up, my father used to take me to a barber shop in one of our many strip malls to get my hair cut. I call it a barbershop, and the sign said it was a barber shop, but it was more of a combination barber shop, guitar repair shop, ammo store, and local NRA headquarters. That barber shop was a microcosm of Wasilla: an odd mix of country friendliness and can-do work ethic, and hardcore, reactionary conservatism.
When I graduated from Wasilla High School, Sarah Palin's alma mater, there were 1200 students, some fantastic teachers, and a strong Advanced Placement program. When Sarah Palin graduated, I doubt there were less than half that many students. Unfortunately, the last several years' budget cuts have hit WHS rather hard, and it's been shedding good teachers and AP classes, with no end in sight. Last I heard, the coordinated advanced learning program had been disbanded, for lack of funds. Wasilla High School used to turn out some amazing students, many of whom were friends of mine who went onto MIT, Harvard, Colgate, Macalester, Tufts, and many other top universities. Now, WHS is a school in decline, even amidst an explosion in the local housing stock, and record state revenues from oil extraction. This decline began under Mayor Palin's watch as mayor, and is coming to its inevitable conclusion under her watch as governor.
Beyond gravel mines and strip malls, there is one thing that defines Wasilla more than anything else:
Wasilla has always had a Walmart, for as long as I can remember. A few years after I arrived, they built a new, much larger store across the street from the original. Just recently, the Wasilla Walmart was converted into a super center, not long after the neighboring town of Palmer was successful in defeating plans to open a Walmart in their town. Mayor Palin officiated:
Wasilla’s own Gov. Sarah Palin cut the red duct-tape ribbon early this morning with a really big pair of scissors and a slug of local pride.
Palin heaped praise on the store’s hard-working employees, the company’s community spirit and the hometown atmosphere that keeps the parking lot full just about any time of day.
“There’s something about Wal-Mart in the Valley that is always an event,” Palin said.
I don't know why people in Wasilla love Walmart so much. Perhaps its because every few years Walmart makes a big deal out of their Wasilla store selling more duct tape than any other store in the country. It might seem odd to those of you from Outside, and today it seems odd to me too, but Duct Tape sales once became a major point of local pride in Wasilla.
And that might be all you need to know about Wasilla, Alaska.