On June 8 a peculiar thing happened in Spenard – peculiar even by Spenard standards. While a crowd gathered in the Chilkoot Charlie’s parking lot to learn more about the upcoming Spenard Road Reconstruction Project, a mime appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Over the next two months, more mimes started cropping up at intersections and on social media. They danced on street corners, walked imaginary dogs, served invisible food at local restaurants and were even spotted forming an ad hoc bicycle gang that gleefully took to the streets of Spenard for a one-of-a-kind a tour led by Manager at Federation of Community Councils, Inc., Mark Butler.
Although they haven’t exactly been hiding, no one seems to know who is behind the mimes. That is, until now.
“None of us have been the face of the project and we wanted to keep it that way. We wanted it to seem like mimes were just unearthed from the road construction project,” explained Cook Inlet Housing Authority Director of Development Planning and Finance, Tyler Robinson at an interview held at the Church of Love.
Robinson, who is just one part of the four-headed hydra that dreamt up the Spenard Mime Project, wanted to mitigate the negative impacts of the major road construction project which aims to fix the ruts, cracks and potholes that mar the surface of the roadway. The construction also seeks to reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle related crashes by building new sidewalks and improving lighting.
While construction began on June 12th, the project has been in the works since 2013 after a group of residents and business owners lobbied the Municipality of Anchorage.
“It’s important to say that the local businesses really fought for the road improvements because they wanted to bring their area into the current century. I mean the road was built in the 1970’s and frankly, it hasn’t changed since then. These businesses really put their livelihoods on the line to make a bigger future impact in the area,” said Robinson.
The possibility of lost income was also at the forefront of coconspirator Sezy Gerow-Hanson’s mind.
“We had seen the economic impact of construction on other road projects in other parts of town like Mountain View and on Arctic. Spenard has a lot of mom and pop shops and losing a week of business can be devastating! It was important to us to find a way that we could help these businesses have a positive experience,” Gerow-Hanson said.
As the Director of Public and Resident Relations at Cook Inlet Housing Authority, Gerow-Hanson understood the short term impact closing a major road could have for residents and business owners but she also had a vision of what Spenard could be.
“There has been work on both sides of Spenard but the area between Hillcrest Drive and 30th Avenue has been the least divested area so far, despite having a lot of assets and being an emerging neighborhood. It really has a lot of potential and it has space and room for housing. Ultimately, as you strengthen the community through housing, you stabilize families and give them opportunities to succeed,” explained Gerow-Hanson.
The role of family friendly, emerging neighborhood is relatively new for Spenard which has been considered the place to party since Joe Arthur Spenard threw the area’s first bash in 1916. Spenard who claimed a 160-acre homestead which included the previously named Jeter Lake, spent the better half of 1916 convincing the Anchorage Elks Club, to help him clear cut and build a trail to the lake. This curvy trail eventually morphed into Spenard Road
Ignoring sanction warnings from the U.S. Forest Service, Spenard built a dance pavilion and resort that became immensely popular with Anchorage residents for a number of reasons, but mostly because Spenard had a reputation for being a great bootlegger. Unfortunately, his wooden paradise burned down in 1917, reportedly after careless hunters didn’t put out their campfire. The fire signaled the beginning of the end for Joe Spenard. That same year he broke his leg and suffered from a worsening heart condition that eventually drove him out of Alaska for good.
But as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good man down. Spenard’s colorful legacy continued into 1970s when the area saw an influx of prostitution, drugs and violence. Dubbed Anchorage’s “red light district,” Spenard became Anchorage’s ugly stepchild. As a result, the surrounding roads and neighborhoods fell into disrepair until a recent revival vowed to bring the defunct neighborhood into the 21st century.
“Someone had to start that process, especially because Spenard is a neighborhood that has had some challenges and some disinvestment. We feel that our role is to buy broken down properties and use our resources to restore them,” explained Gerow-Hanson. “But it’s really about showing that Spenard is an investment and catalyzing the effort to bring in other businesses.”
“Cook Inlet is primarily an affordable housing organization that tries to focus on different neighborhoods for an extended period of time. We don’t just want to do a one-off project and think that that is going to solve anything,” said Robinson.
After securing a 3-year, $3 million Community Development Investments grant from ArtPlace America in 2015, Cook Inlet Housing Authority knew this was the time to make a difference. They just didn’t know how a linear thinking, non-arts based organization like themselves, was going to use art to reinvigorate a community.
“We had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people as we sort of started to figure out what this grant meant. We met people were saying ‘I know what creative place making is, I’ll pitch a project’ but for us, it really it wasn’t about funding any creative place making project. It was about funding something that had a connection to our work and the neighborhood where we were focusing our efforts,” said Robinson.
Of course no one could have guessed that the improvement efforts would have come on the backs of something as seemingly arbitrary as mimes.
“Initially our brains weren’t really wrapping around the idea of road construction mitigation because we wanted to do something that was art based and effected community but in a completely different way than what Cook Inlet had in mind,” said co-creator Becky Kendall. “It took us scrapping our original idea for a Spenard Art Fest and coming in with a blank slate to absorb the issues that Cook Inlet was really feeling and facing. That’s where mimes, of course, came into it!”
“Sezy and Tyler were our first test study,” laughed Kendall’s partner in crime, Enzina Marrari. “Honestly, Becky and I didn’t know if mimes would work, even though it was an idea that we found so much joy in! So we staged a mime in front of the Church of Love for our second partner meeting and Becky and I drove around the block a few times watching Sezy and Tyler’s reactions. When we finally walked into our meeting Sezy and Tyler immediately asked us if we saw the mimes. That’s when we knew for sure that this could work!”
“Sezy and I were just like well, that a pretty Spenardian thing to happen. There’s just a dude who’s miming there, no big deal. We found out later that he was part of pitch which was just a one pager that was like, mimes,” chuckled Robinson.
But Marrari and Kendall's pitch wasn't completely out of the blue. A few weeks after debuting their mime idea, the duo stumbled across an article about mimes in Ecuador who had been escorting pedestrians across busy intersections. It was an aha moment for the pair who knew that they could utilize the Spenard mimes as so much more than fancy flaggers.
“Mimes also represent the everyman, or the every Spenardian as we like to say,” said Marrari. “They are able to speak for the people and represent possibilities without having to say a word. I think miming calls back to our earliest form of communication and it’s really visual storytelling in a way that is contagious.”
“Watching people interact with the mimes we have noticed how hard it is not to mimic their movements as a way of communicating. Except dogs, they hate the mimes,” laughed Kendall. “Seriously though, our mimes have been transcending speech and creating a unified language.”
Historically, the performance of mime has been around since Ancient Greece but the modern iteration of miming didn’t occur until the late 17th century. An architype character of Italian Commedia dell’Arte, Pierrot became a symbol of the everyman who struggled to find his place among the bourgeoisie. His gestures could be understood but he could never truly connect because his world existed in parallel to those he pantomimed. The character of Pierrot eventually inspired even some of the most well-known mimes such as Charlie Chaplin and Jean-Gaspard Deburau.
Although the Mime Project tips its black cap at Chaplin and Deburau, Marrari and Kendall wanted to make sure that each of their mimes were able to inject something of themselves into their characters.
“All of our mimes have been trained and encouraged to take ownership over their characters,” said Marrari. “They develop their own story lines and personas. They might be mimicking scenes of "The Princess Bride" outside of Bear Tooth while the movie is playing inside. Or they may end up going fishing in REI. They may also be miming pouring concrete, shoveling dirt, or putting ketchup on your hot dog for you at the Food Truck Carnival. They can also be really helpful and show you where to park when normal parking spots are blocked off from construction, or help you find the detour to a closed street.”
Altogether, Marrari and Kendall have assembled an army of 80 mimes who have participated at different times during the project but they are still looking for more. On August 12th, the 101stanniversary of the first Spenardian party, Marrari and Kendall will attempt to break the world record of over 100 mimes in one place.
Of course assembling a massive crowd of mimes doesn’t come without some unique challenges.
“It all comes down to liability because we are funding the project. We had to figure out how we were going to protect our mimes and what kind of safety training we needed to provide. Our attorney had to keep a straight face when we brought this up but I’m sure he was thinking, ‘are we really talking about mimes right now?’ At one point I asked him if when he was taking the bar exam he ever thought that he would have to think about mime liability,” laughed Gerow-Hanson.
“We are very serious about the Mime Project because we are trying to get 100 people in mime but when we go in to talk to people about it they always end up chuckling. Like it happens all the time! We will be forming partnerships and people will be on board and then out of nowhere they say ‘wait, did you say mimes,’” exclaimed Mararri.
Even though Spenard’s mimes are serious business to their co-creators, Robinson admits that they are only one part of what he believes should be a continued effort on behalf of the Municipality of Anchorage.
“Look, these mimes haven’t solved everyone’s problems but what has been amazing is how people have connected with the local businesses and the contractors who are working on the road,” said Robinson. “I mean that never happens in high-risk jobs and its opened my eyes and made me want to see more money going towards road construction mitigation with creative solutions to help people get through the difficulties of city improvements. You know, something that goes way beyond a detour sign or a radio PSA. We can’t measure how much this has driven business but we have seen how it has brought levity to a stressful situation.”
For Gerow- Hanson, creative problem solving can only happen when those involved are willing to put their trust in others.
“I mean we identified a problem and then the creatives came in and flipped it on its head and looked at it in a way that we weren’t able to. We tend to think in a really linear way so it was cool to have someone come in with something that captured the imagination and could really work! At the end of the day, you can’t underplay how many leaps of faith this whole project has taken. It really has been remarkable and is so much more than we could have imagined,” she said.