Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

Boise, Idaho: Artful Urban Design … and People Who Give a Damn

Can you keep a secret?

Let’s just keep this between ourselves, OK?

First things first. During my visit to Boise, I was asked by numerous people not to tell too many people about this wonderful city which, in my view, is the antithesis of urban blight and alienation.

So if you decide to visit Boise, please do so only with a few friends and family members. Lets keep Boise in balance. We don’t want it to suffer the Yogi Berri syndrome: “The place has gotten so popular,” the king of malapropisms said, “that no one goes there anymore.”

That would be a crying shame.

Any way you look at it — historically, geographically, architecturally , culturally, environmentally — Boise is the kind of integrated community that we always strive for. But lest you think that I’m making it sound like The Truman Show, let me assure you that, like all municipalities, it has its challenges; the most important it would appear is how to maintain the “smart growth” that has produced it.

Boise is a city on a human scale in a natural environment that is simply stunning. The spatial qualities of this high desert give it an enhanced visual context (it has a lot to do with the quality of light in this slightly rarified atmosphere) and an overall perspective that is cohesive and coherent. This is a community that makes sense from the point of view of urban design especially, but also conceptually. This is also a perfect example of how landscape shapes local culture.

For the many citizens I encountered who came to Boise to escape megalopolis, I’m sure the light and the breathable air did indeed expand their sensory frame of reference. But I also suspect that their notion of what the urban and urbane can be — without sacrificing quality of life — was also reaffirmed. The locals believe in Boise; there is no doubt about that. And because their community has a no-nonsense belief system as part of its matrix, it too lives and breathes. The only thing that concerns me is that we tend to get used to everything; we are an adaptable species. We can be easily seduced into expecting quality of life to be the norm (and thus take it for granted), just as we become dulled into accepting urban sprawl as the norm. From what I saw, however, I’m quite sure the civic leaders of this municipality are well aware of the constant struggle to maintain a Boise balance, but nonetheless you have to work at preserving it. Beware Boise.

In many ways, I see Boise as representing what I will call the New West. Although certainly there are lots of elements of the “frontier” in Boise it is not the kind of wild and wooly frontier experience that pop media culture tends to depict, but instead — and this is why it is such a treat to visit Boise — it is a frontier experience based on vision, liberal attitudes, determination, and careful planning.

As Amber Beierle, Boise’s city historian points out, this is an urban community with a real sense of place and identity. In addition to being a successful blend of the natural and urban landscapes, it is also a successful mix of the past and the present. Amber is proof positive that Boise has learned the lessons of its history.

headphonesymbol50To listen to Amber Bierle speak about Boise, click on this audio link.

Boise’s fortuitous situation

To the French-Canadian fur trappers who, in the early 19th century, arrived at this far away wooded area through which flows a most happy river, it must indeed have seemed like an oasis, especially after crossing the hot dusty desert. Given that their accustomed topography was made up principally of forests and a vast network of waterways, they must have experienced an environmental heart-skips-a-beat moment. And when you look at Boise from the heights of the surrounding foothills, imagine them murmuring “Boisé! … Boisé!” (Woodlands!). I must mention that I did find one source that suggested that this story is apocryphal; but I’m sticking to the original.

When my plane from Denver came in over this high desert plain, I too felt drawn to the patch of greenery nestled along the meandering Boise River. But it wasn’t until I exited the plane, smelled the air, saw an intense blue sky stretching from “here to eternity,” and saw with my own eyes land as-far-as-the-eye-can-see that I too knew I had come to a very special place. I had come a city often referred to as “the most remote urban area in the United States.” But don’t let the descriptor fool you; Boise may indeed be serenely remote from the clamour of other manifestations of the American Way, but it is far from isolated.

From the earliest days in “The New World” Boise played a pivotal role in North American history. By 1834 Fort Boise was established as a fur trading centre owned by — wait for it — the Hudson Bay Company! Later it became a central stopping point on the famous Oregon Trail, one of the first thoroughfares (in what would eventually be the United States) along which thousands travelled in their westward ho trek. Other westward initiatives such as Lewis and Clark passed through or nearby Boise in search of adventure as well as new and better realities. Ironically, they tended to only stop off at Boise whereas today, newcomers are turning Boise into a hub for this part of the Northwestern United States.

And then in the late 1930s, a great migration of another group arrived in the area. Again wait for it — Basques!

Yes Basques … sheepherders who came initially by way of South America from their homeland in the Pyrénées Mountains on either side of the French-Spanish border. But more on that a bit later. Other significant historical events were to follow: gold rushes, territorial status, great irrigation projects, air bases.

The City of Trees

Boise,“City of Trees,” is about 3000 feet above sea level, a safe distance from the madding crowd, separate but not isolated. An Interstate (84) runs by, and because of the arid desert, its winters are mild and clear. But if you want snow and skiing (or a mountain ramble), just drive for a half an hour and you’ll be over 5000 feet. (And there is always Sun Valley 157 miles away.) This is Mountain Time country; the foothills to the north are the Boise Front, and to the south on a clear day (just about every day) you can see the Owyhee Mountains. Laid back urban parks, a greenbelt with extensive hiking and jogging trails, conservation areas, wineries, whitewater, historic Idaho scenic byways, and the sweetest-smelling coniferous forests (in the foothills) this side of Eden; all this awaits the visitor longing for some peace of mind.

An architectural and urban design role model

In his recent book, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton could be talking about Boise when he says, “Architecture can arrest transient and timid inclinations, amplify and solidify them, and thereby grant us more permanent access to a range of emotional textures which we might otherwise have experienced only accidentally and occasionally.”

Boise is a textured community. I think that when you stroll through the very pedestrian-friendly streets and neighbourhoods of Boise, you will understand what I mean. The architecture of this city (and its complementary urban design) is a dynamic blend of old and new, of the practical and the whimsical, of the plain and simple versus the refined. The whole place speaks to you, and evokes an awareness of how the physical structures, and the way in which they are integrated as necessary and productive parts of the whole, creates a very livable space. This is a permissive urban environment that says, “Go ahead. Look around you. Stop and stare. Enjoy!” It’s no surprise therefore that in downtown Boise, people actually greet you as you walk along the streets.

To view a slide show of some of the areas of Boise that spoke to me, click here.

 

A boutique arts destination

The boutique phenomenon in the travel industry (initially in the hospitality sector) has begun to provide real alternatives to travellers who prefer the kind of micro-personalized travel experience that mass travel marketing does not. We know that the new generation of baby boomer travellers especially are looking for more — but in the sense of “less is more.” They want comfort, authenticity, value, up close and personal (and yet private), physical, emotional, and intellectual stimulation — and to feel engaged in the destination. This is Boise in an nutshell.

And a significant part of the Boise experience is the arts. We know from human history that where the arts flourish, life is quality time well-spent. This is a city in which civic leaders advocate on behalf of the arts; in which art in the streets is the norm; in which the physical design of the city always takes into consideration the aesthetic; in which arts and self-determination are one and the same.

At this point, it would really be best if I let Julie Numbers Smith, Executive Director of the Boise Arts Commission, tell you how and why Boise became a boutique arts destination.

headphonesymbol501To listen to a dialogue with Julie Numbers Smith, click on this audio link.

The Basques of Boise

Boise, Idaho has the largest concentration of people of Basque heritage per capita outside the historic Basque region in Europe.

Are you surprised? I was. In fact, before I visited Boise I used this bit of esoteric information to surprise my Canadian friends. (One can dine out nicely on all kinds of travel bits and pieces). But I also delighted in taking my American friends unawares by announcing, “Oh, by the way, did you know that…” Often my teasing one-upmanship resulted in disbelief.

However, by the second morning of my stay in Boise, this demographic-historical bit of data, was not something I was prepared to be frivolous about; the immediate reality was so engaging, and so meaningful.

Like many, I have always thought of the United States as the Great Melting Pot (as opposed to what we in Canada have traditionally referred to as our Vertical Mosaic). I was not in the habit of thinking in terms of hyphenated Americans. And yet, by discovering and engaging with the Basque culture in Boise, I came to appreciate how strong were the roots of people whose ancestors made the great migration to this nation.

This is especially true of the Basques of Boise who have a saying: “What the grandparent chose to forget, the grandchild embraces.” And it is this third-generation renewal of awareness and respect for the Basque heritage that made me really stop and think about all the minority ethnic groups around the world who enrich the majority cultures they live in. (I think for example of the Métis in Canada, now recognized as a separate but distinct aboriginal group in my nation.) It is, of course, somewhat of a conundrum expressing your majority cultural identity while, at the same time, re-affirming your minority sense of self. Along with groups such as the Maori in New Zealand, I have rarely seen this cultural self-determination succeed as well as it does in Boise, Idaho.

It was a literal awakening as very early on my second morning in Boise, I made way down a back alley and through the back door of a large wooden structure which is the Fronton Building at 619 Grove. When I stepped inside, I entered the fronton itself; a large traditional Basque handball court. (Think of a squash court but multiply its dimensions by at least 10, perhaps more).

The Fronton Building was built in 1912 as part of a boarding house that housed Basque sheepherders who had migrated to the Boise area because they had the needed skills and rigorous dependability for sheepherding, an enormous agricultural industry established by the English and Scots.

Today the Fronton Building (like The Basque Center, the Cyrus-Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, the Gernika Pub and Eatery) is fully operational and part of the “Basque Block” in Boise.

For me, the fronton is the principal embodiment of a living Basque culture in the United States. Here the traditional games of handball (pelota) and pala (the latter played with a hard rubber ball and a wooden racquet) have been preserved and are being taught to new generations of Basque-Americans. Who would have thought it? Jai-Alai, by the way, is a Basque sport and very fast-paced version of pelota. The word itself in Euskara means “merry festival.”

Inside the fronton, three rather beefy and fit handball players were just starting to warm up: John Bieter (you’ll meet him shortly), his brother David (the mayor of Boise), and given the resemblance, I believe the third gentleman was a cousin. Three Basques in a ball court. What a story! And these guys could play. A fronton is not your nicely-contained squash court where, as vigorous as the play is, the ball does tend to stay within reach. In a fronton, you cover a lot of area and expend a lot of energy. Forgive me if I use the game and the building as a metaphor for the Basque experience in the Americas.

The majority of the Basque families in Boise come from the province of Bizkaia , and are the descendents of young men (economic refugees like so many who were the first to come to the U.S.) who lived very difficult and lonely lives herding sheep in the foothills surrounding Boise. Of necessity, a close-knit community in Boise developed where new immigrants from the homeland were welcomed and sheltered in boarding houses (the Cyrus-Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House) that still stand on the Basque Block today. Other social clubs and general gathering places were soon built on the Basque Block. And today establishments like the Gernika Pub and eatery (named after the town in the Basque Country — Guernica — the historic capital of Basque Country and immortalized by Picasso’s famous painting which depicts the brutal “test run” bombing of the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War) are focal points for Boise Basque community.

Exploring the Basque community in Boise produces a lot of “Wow! I didn’t know that.” reactions. The patron Saint of the Basques, and founder of the Jesuits, is Saint Ignatius of Loyola — a Basque. Other notable individuals of Basque heritage include several of Argentina’s presidents, the infamous Augusto Pinochet of Chile, cycling sports star Miguel Indurain, French dramatist Jean Anouilh, Pancho Villa, Maurice Ravel, Francis Xavier, Magellan’s navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano (who completed the trip Magellan did not when he was killed), Simón Bolívar, Pete Cenarrusa (Secretary of State of Idaho), Luis Echeverría (President of Mexico), Che Guevara, Eva Peron, Francisco Goya, and Louis Daguerre (the inventor of photography); and of course David Bieter, mayor of Boise.

What I also found interesting in Boise was how this unique community in a remote Idaho city gives a much needed and wider frame of reference on Basque history and culture. (You will discover a lot of this information at the Basque Museum and Culture Center.)

An indigenous people who still live in both the southern part of France and the northern part of Spain, the Basques have been described as a nation without a homeland. Their actual origins are still debated and shrouded in mystery. A language group unto themselves, some linguists and anthropologists use this as evidence that the Basque people are actually of pre-historic origins in Europe — descended from the original Iberians. The most controversial claim is that they are genetically distinct from all other European groups. Whatever the answers to these question, there is general agreement that the Basques have occupied a single region in Europe longer than any other ethnic group, and were often victims of empire-building. Permanence and impermanence are key underlying themes in the Basque experience.

And as immigrants to the Boise area they did indeed have to struggle not only for survival but they also struggled against prejudicial attitudes directed towards them. In Spain the dictator Franco took measures to suppress Basque culture and language in an attempt to create a single Spanish nation-state. Solidarity then and now is also a key theme in the Basque community in Boise.

Some view the Basques in Europe as a nation, as opposed to an ethnic group. (A similar debate over the cultural-historic-political definition of the word “nation” as it applies to the Québécois in Canada is currently raging in my country.) To make a complex and fascinating historical narrative far too short, encountering the Basque community in Boise is of course a unique lesson in history, but above all it is a re-affirmation of the universal issue of cultural self-affirmation and self-determination. And the more I rediscover America, the more I realize that this is at heart’s core of the United States.

John Bieter teaches in the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs at Boise State. He is also the Executive Director of Cenarrusa, the Center for Basque Studies in Boise. Of Basque heritage, he is an articulate source of information on all things Basque, and an excellent pala player.

headphonesymbol502To listen to John Bieter tell the story of the Basques of Boise, click on this audio link.

 

Patty Miller is the Executive Director of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise. I interviewed Patty, a grandchild of a Basque immigrant, in the oldest brick house in Boise, and one of the original boarding houses where Basque immigrants stayed. The interview begins with a recorded reading (in English) of a poignant letter home written by a young Basque sheepherder. Among other things, Patty talked to me about the sociological significance of the boarding house in those early days in Boise.

headphonesymbol508To listen to this conversation with Patty Miller, click on this audio link.

 

To view images of Urban Boise click here.

Additional recommended reading on the Basques of Boise

Basque Ranching Culture

U.S. Basque Heritage

An Enduring Legacy: the Story of the Basques in Idaho, by John and Mark Bieter

An alternative, values-based, and free-thinking community

Whenever I visit a new destination, one of the first stops I make is the public library. You can tell a lot about a community by its library. The public library in Boise is not hard to find. Just look for an attractive brick building with Library! in huge letters on it. What does that tell you about Boise?

Boise is a city with a very clear ethos; in particular a respect for diversity, entrepreneurship, human rights, environmental matters, quality of life, and the intricate workings of community. People here do indeed give a damn. It has been chosen to host the Winter 2009 Special Olympics World Games. And it is a Democratic hotspot in a traditionally Republican state.

I suspect someone somewhere has done a study of Boise and how liberal attitudes and lifestyle evolved, but an experiential appreciation of the city is really the only way to go. But, remember, don’t go there in large numbers. Boise is not about being a sigh in a shouting mob.

Here are just a few other highlights of Boise that may surprise you.

Anne Frank and Human Rights

The citizens of Boise like to set examples. One of these is an Anne Frank Human Rights Memoria beside the Boise River. A unique and spacious memorial — really a plaza-like public space — you will see an expressive life-size bronze statue of Anne. The area also contains reflective ponds, waterfalls, and tablets of Idaho sandstone on which are engraved the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as 60 quotations from well-known human rights leaders.

The World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame

As this Boise institution clearly demonstrates, there are many ways of advancing the cause of human civilization, and sport has been one of them. You only have to consider what the Harlem Globetrotters accomplished through their medium and how they communicated progressive human values through sport.

The Idaho Shakespearian Festival

The evening I attended this innovative outdoor theatre (a great cast and a great setting), it actually wasn’t Shakespeare on the program; it was Shaw (George B and his highly satiric and provocative Major Barbara). In some respects it’s an “easy” play to be entertained by, but it is also pretty heavy-duty political and social commentary: conscience money, capitalism, religion, the class struggle, and morality. “What price salvation now?” I especially enjoyed hearing again the line from the play “You appeal very strongly to my sense of ironic humour.” The two feral kittens running back and forth across the stage were also a value-added feature.

The Boise Art Museum

If Boise is, as I have suggested, a boutique arts destination, the Boise Arts Museum is an excellent example of a boutique art experience. During my visit there were a number of temporary exhibits that were especially engaging and highly conceptual. The titles of two of them, “Ceramics as Socio-Political Commentary” and “Elegance of Form,” speak for themselves and the careful curatorial thought that goes into this institution. The John Takehara Collection of Japanese ceramics is also one of the best of its size that I have seen.

The World Center for Birds of Prey

This world-famous raptor conservation and captive breeding center is also the headquarters of the Peregrine Fund. Through the efforts of the Center, the threatened Peregrine Falcon was able to be removed from the endangered species list. The organization began by re-introducing the falcon in the eastern U.S, where it had disappeared and then continued to bolster the sparse populations in the western states. Over 200 birds are housed here and, where possible, are released to the wild across the U.S.

Trish Nixon is the resident Raptor Specialist and a wildlife educator in the most complete sense of the word.

headphonesymbol504To listen to my conversation with Trish, click on this audio link.

The Old Idaho State Territorial Prison

It’s pretty creepy but, thanks to the Idaho State Historical Society, it is an experience fraught with a real sense of the Old Wild West, the days of desperadoes — and quite frankly, not that long ago. It is also a stark reminder of crime and punishment American-style. If you haven’t been shut in one of its solitary confinement cells next to Death Row, you may not get it.

Marilyn Monroe is alive and well in Boise!

In Boise, she is also known as Carla Patterson; a mother of seven, a fitness trainer, a stand-up comedian, a Mormon who did mission work in Nova Scotia, a woman who believes she is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, and generally a free spirit.

headphonesymbol505To listen to my conversation with Carla, click on this audio link.

 

Boise is a Jazz capital and The Sidemen (Rick Connolly and Greg Perkins) epitomize why music is integral to Boise. To listen to a brief interview with them and a sample of their jazz, click on the audio link in the right-hand column.

See also The Gene Harris Jazz Festival .

Don’t miss the Boise Coop Experience.

Young, musical, socially aware, entrepreneurial and wise, this is Matthew Vanden Boegh who as part of his Communications Masters program, created his own rock opera The Erinys.

headphonesymbol506To listen to our chat, click on this audio link.

 

Along with her husband Henry, Cherie Buckner-Webb operates Napoleon’s Retreat, a suave gentlemen’s salon in Boise where men can get anything from a first-rate shoeshine, to an old-fashioned straight razor shave, to a massage, to a pedicure. Cherie is also a well-known jazz singer, someone who has committed herself to diversity and human rights, and is a founder of the Black History Museum in Boise.

I interviewed Cherie at Napoleon’s Retreat and was favoured with an impromptu excerpt from her CD “By His Grace.”

headphonesymbol507To listen to my conversation with Cherie and her lyrical singing voice, click on this audio link.

 

For more information on Boise

The City of Boise

The Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Boise Area Chamber of Commerce

A week or more in Boise

There are some cities that are perfectly suited as a base for discovering something old, something new, something enlightening — and for doing it in your own sweet and carefully considered time.

Et voilà Boisé!

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  1. […] Boise, Idaho: Artful Urban Design … and People Who Give a Damn […]

  2. […] For more information on my Basque t-shirt, see Boise, Idaho: Artful Urban Design … and People Who Give a Damn […]


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