Boise, Idaho

The first thing I noticed was that somebody had finally managed to fill the hole. For more than ten years an empty square pit split open the center of downtown Boise, Idaho, at 8th and Main, just across from the indoor parking garage and the good sushi restaurant. 149 years earlier, the hole had been the Overland Hotel, a popular stop on the Oregon Trail, built the year after Fort Boise became a city. By 2001, when I graduated from Boise High School, the booms and busts of the 1990s had left us with just a mess of concrete and rebar and no structure to hold up. But now there was something going in. A bank or a condo suite or some other horrible thing—but at least it was something.

It was late March of 2013 and I’d arrived from New York to spend four days at a new Boise music festival. I gazed out the plane window feeling, as I always do when returning to my hometown, as though I were preparing to watch a movie I’ve seen many times before. Getting closer, I could make out the LED glow of the suburbs, little thread-loop culs-de-sac, pools, tract houses. Out at the edges of sight are the foothills that bound the lights of the city; and beyond that is nothing. It always looks the same to me from up here, but I know there are these little changes, like 150,000 or so people who have moved into the area since I left for college twelve years ago.

Boise is in a valley north of the Snake River, stretching west from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which lumber up on the edges of the city, to the eastern border of Oregon. The basin in which the city sits is flat and low with long sight-lines. In the early 19th century, French fur trappers are said to have descended from the surrounding desert and, spotting the verdant banks of a river, shouted with glee: “Les bois! Les bois!” (The woods! The woods!) A Fort Boise was erected, but it soon ran into what its drab historical placard calls “Indian trouble” and was closed in 1854. Eight years later, cast-iron pans plunged into the river’s silty basin turned up little flecks of gold. To secure the ensuing flock of prospectors, the military revived the fort, placing it 40 miles downriver from its predecessor. By 1864 Boise was the capital of Abe Lincoln’s new Idaho Territory. Any remaining natives were eventually removed to Fort Hall, across the state, where their reservation now sits under skies thick with alfalfa and potato pollen, the horizon dotted with farmhouses of a single-level white-brick design I was taught as a girl to associate with Mormons.

As in many western towns, Boise’s gold rush led to more traditional means of civilization, the Boise River remade into an irrigating and waste-management canal which foamed with the mingled effluvia of potato shavings, beet waste, grease, the rumen of slaughtered cows, and human excrement. In 1890, the year Idaho became a state, the population was 4,000; in 1891 a streetcar traveled from downtown to outlying neighborhoods; the railway came in 1925. Then sprouted industry: Boise Cascade lumber; Albertson’s chain grocery stores; Ore-Ida frozen foods; and the potato-processing plant that paid for Jack “J. R.” Simplot’s flag-marked mansion on the hill, the house the frozen French fry built. Boise was always clean-cut, conservative, conventional. “The ‘beat generation,’ noted local historian Carol Lynn MacGregor in 2003, “did not happen in Boise.” The city is the only metropolis in Idaho, a state conceived of primarily as a growth medium for racist extremists; libertarian nutjobs; the nonironic-hat-wearing degenerates who drive pickups and semis across the flyover imagined cartography of blue-state secessionists; and potatoes.

Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary, introduced potatoes to Idaho in the 1830s via a Nez Perce tribe in the northern part of the state whom he was trying to civilize with agriculture, and in spite of the high cost of distribution across the undeveloped West, farming cooperatives run by Mormon colonists soon made the tubers a cash crop. A combination of high-desert climate, volcanic soil, and mountain snow pack—which can be harnessed in reservoirs for irrigating—make Idaho an ideal potato clime, and revenue from potato farming in Idaho eventually grew to nearly $1 billion. In the early 1940s, the aforementioned J.R. Simplot, a prominent Idaho distributor who began his career as a farmer after dropping out of the eighth grade, patented the potato-freezing process that makes McDonald’s French fries, which his company supplies, possible. Today Idaho is still the United States’s largest producer of potatoes, at an annual output of about 12 billion pounds, which provides about one third of the national supply.

But since the 1970s, Boise has quietly become a Silicon-offshoot tech hub. In 1973, Hewlett-Packard opened a plant in the city, then assigned to that site—which now employs nearly 4,000 people—the development of its LaserJet printer, the company’s most successful product. After that came Micron Technology, the country’s largest manufacturer of computer memory chips, which was incorporated in 1978 in the basement of a Boise dentist’s office. J.R. Simplot fronted the company $1 million, and insisted that the board hold its weekly meetings over breakfast at Elmer’s, a local diner.  At the height of the memory-chip boom, in the early 2000s, Micron employed 10,000 people in Idaho and high tech has become one of the biggest industries in Idaho, a state with a state with a population just over 1.5 million.

Meanwhile, by the late 1970s, Boise had grown from a hamlet of 35,000 to an almost-city of 75,000 existing increasingly in annexed suburbs. By then developers, under the guise of the Boise Redevelopment Agency, had begun eagerly tearing down crumbly old downtown buildings, aiming for the kind of “revitalization” only sophisticated new commercial structures can provide. “If things go on as they are,” wrote the Brooklyn-exiled Boisean L. J. Davis in Harper’s Magazine in 1974, “Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself.” That year the BRA, having already rid Boise of its Chinatown, was considering replacing the rest of downtown’s charming historic core with eight blocks of an 800,000-square-feet self-contained “megastructure” at which 2,444 future Boise families could park their station wagons and shop until the end of time. For reasons that included the fierce resistance of preservationists, the megastructure project was never realized, and in the late 1980s residents instead got the million-square-feet Boise Towne Square mall nine miles away, to which was attached a six-lane freeway. The remnants of its downtown survived, but Boise, like many of its American counterparts, became a sprawl city.

When I was in high school, Boise had only one cool bar, the Neurolux. Built to Spill, Boise’s only cool band, would sometimes play next door at the Record Exchange—Boise’s only cool record store—for underage kids who couldn’t get into the Neurolux. Down the street were the old headquarters of the only cool radio station, which called itself “Pirate Radio” and aired a lot of grungy alternative music from towns farther north and west. In 1998 the station, renamed “The X,” was sold to a national media conglomerate, and the original Pirate studio was taken over by a “gentlemen’s club.” This had happened before. In 1986, the president of Boise State University effectively sold the school’s student-run radio station to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by the early 2000s, Boise’s greater metro population, at about 450,000 and almost doubling every twenty years, had become the biggest in the country without a community radio station. To a certain set of young people, this absence communicated a larger message about culture and belonging: if we wanted anyone to hear what we were thinking, we’d have to go somewhere else.

In 2001 I left Boise to attend college at a liberal arts school 400 miles west in much-cooler Portland, Oregon. After graduation I moved briefly to France, then returned to Oregon to start my professional life in the low-wage retail industry that butters Portland’s post-collegiate bread. Dismal job prospects aside, to be 23 in Portland, with its bookstores and coffee shops and thrift stores and beer theaters and naked bicycling and people-friendly city planning and cheap everything, meant believing the world was constructed just for you. There had been no making this mistake in Boise, where the hills are speckled with dot-com mansions and suburbs engulf each other in ever-widening circles. And yet, after a while in Portland, something about everything there had started to feel very predictable. So in the summer of 2008, I moved to New York, a city more or less indifferent to its residents, which I kind of liked.

There I spent three years acquiring a master’s degree and touring the city’s internship circuit. Meanwhile I’d been hearing rumors about a Boise renaissance—new shops, clubs, arts projects. By July of 2011, I hadn’t yet found a paying gig, so I flew back to Boise on a lark for my ten-year high-school reunion, expecting my geographic and academic superiority to nurture a sense of self-worth battered by student loan debt and self-inflicted unemployment. But many of the classmates I’d wanted to loathe were, I found myself noting, “doing legitimately cool stuff now.” They weren’t earning a whole lot of money, but they had time and space to make music and art and hang out. An all-ages coffee-house venue had opened downtown, along with a nearby dive bar, and several other new options beyond the few old standbys. And there was a real community radio station again, called Radio Boise, that played an exhilarating mix of music I’d never heard before. Blogs and online music magazines had started earnestly referring to Boise as “the next Portland.” The weather was beautiful—desert heat like an open-air oven. At night, talking to old friends against the burble of backyard irrigation canals, I heard myself utter the phrase “when I move back.” I fell in love. I swam in the river. Two weeks later I was hired to work as a fact-checker at a women’s fitness magazine in New York. I said yes immediately, but my first feeling was grief.

Back in New York I listened nostalgically to Radio Boise through headphones from my office. The station’s playlist has the feel of an astoundingly good public-access TV channel—indie-rock shows followed by programs dedicated to Idaho real estate and interspersed with promos featuring Wayne Coyne (of the Flaming Lips) alliterating Boise with Beyoncé. A Monday morning radio show, “Antler Crafts,” was hosted by Eric Gilbert, a charming young Boise guy who was the frontman for Finn Riggins, a popular Boise band, and had begun devoting his life to the revitalization of Boise’s music scene. Gilbert broadcast mostly indie rock and focused on bands that had been or were coming through town. That fall he also started talking about the “Treefort Music Fest,” which he was organizing. Gilbert was a good evangelist, and I was in a Boise reverie. One morning in early March he hosted Josh Gross, a Boise Weekly writer, in the studio. “People talk about Treefort as this barometer of how the scene is growing,” said Josh, who moved to Boise from Portland several years ago. “It’s like getting called up to the majors.” I decided to go.

How does a town, a fairly square town, producer of printers and microchips, come to develop a “scene”? In Boise’s case, there has been an interplay of a few factors. In 1998, the city hired a public arts manager and in 2001 passed an ordinance requiring new municipal developments to set aside up to 1.4 percent of their investments to public arts projects. Until then, downtown Boise had precisely five public works of art—one of which was a statue of an assassinated Idaho governor. Now there are nearly 200 more: The revival began in 1999 with the Basque Block, which turned a dilapidated historic cultural site into a pedestrian restaurant hub dotted with artistic representations of the Old Country—Boise is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Basques, descendants of a diaspora of sheepherders who settled here at the turn of the 20th century. There are now also Idaho-historical works, abstract pieces, sound installations, a graffiti wall, and a whole proliferation of painted utility boxes.

Starting in 2005, Boise also saw the creation of the Linen District, a six-square-block downtown area that was the vision of a then-32-year-old developer named David Hale, who’d arrived in Idaho several years earlier from Portland. He focused on “infill” (redevelopment of property within a radius already reached by municipal services) and conceived of the area as a sort of smaller-town version of Portland’s Pearl District, a downtown warehouse zone that had been converted from its My Own Private Idaho hobo-haunt into a gleaming array of sleek condos, shops, galleries, and breweries. The Linen District development soon added, along with its eponymous centerpiece—an old laundry remade into an arts gallery and events center—a “trailer-park cuisine” restaurant housed in an old tire shop; a visual arts collective (called the Visual Arts Collective); and a retro-chic renovated Travelodge hotel called the Modern, which was reminiscent of Portland’s Jupiter Hotel. In addition to successfully reviving an area of Boise I remember primarily for its parking lots, the Linen District also provided a welcome counterweight to a burgeoning development down the street called BoDo (Boise Downtown) that evidently aimed to cash in on the city’s momentum via a transparently cynical mix of hideous national retail chains and a multiplex cinema.

Finally, though I am somewhat loath to admit it, the Boise renaissance owes at least part of its instantiation to Richard Florida, theorist of the “Creative Class.” In 2002 Jeff Abrams, a wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, listened to a radio interview with Florida while driving out on a fly-fishing trip to the Owyhee River. Before moving to Boise, Abrams had lived in Salt Lake City, where the local radio station KRCL was the only thing binding him and people like him to an alternative community. Hearing Florida encourage the local manufacture of a vibrant, creative environment and wondering what he should do with the rest of his life, Abrams had a thought: radio. Six years later, KRBX got its license, and in April 2011 Radio Boise went on the air. As his programming director Abrams hired Wayne Birt, a former producer at KBSU who had quit on-air when the administration co-opted the station and fired most of its student programmers in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, as a kind of protest, Birt (who once rented a room in my childhood home) moved for several years to Bratislava to teach English. “I figured if I was going to be in a cultural wasteland,” he explained to me, “I’d really go for it.”

In the fall of 2011, Lori Shandro, a local health-insurance agent, approached Eric Gilbert, the prodigal native, with an idea. For years Shandro and her husband had flown their private airplane to indie-rock shows across the northwest. He’d died in 2009 when his single-engine Cessna crashed into the Sawtooth Mountains. Shandro wanted to find a way to bring the music they’d enjoyed to Boise and suggested building a new local venue; Eric raised the idea to a whole festival.

And so it was that in March 2012, 140 bands from across the country filled out seven downtown venues and an outdoor main stage erected in a hotel overfill parking lot. Expectations were low. Others had tried similar things and nothing had caught, but Gilbert had been strategic. He’d chosen the week after SXSW to lure bands through Boise on their way from Austin to Portland or Seattle. The weather was unseasonably warm. I invited a friend over from Seattle and showed her around town on borrowed bicycles. It was absolutely delightful. Though the festival lost money, it drew about 3,000 people a day, and Shandro wanted to try again. In 2013, Eric and co. recruited 270 bands (the upcoming 2014 festival has booked more than 350), filled eleven venues, and doubled sales; 1,000 early-bird passes, released before the lineup was announced, sold out in seventeen minutes. At the last minute, after an upbeat invitation from the festival’s press coordinator, I decided to go again.

This year I’m alone and it’s incredibly cold. On my first day I’m shepherded about town by my mother—I sit in the sun-warm car watching people scurry about their business, and I drift into a sullen adolescent languor. “There’s a feeling, from Ada to Irene,” sings Doug Martsch (of Built to Spill) about the streets of Boise’s North End, a quiet downtown-adjacent neighborhood filled with old Victorian houses and European cars and giant trees lining wide empty boulevards. “There’s something, there’s nothing/ You haven’t seen.” When I was in elementary school, my mother and I lived at the center of this stretch, in a low-income duplex on 14th Street. The year I was born, my dad killed gophers and ran a postal route and made something like $5000. My mom had grown up in L.A.; they’d met in Yellowstone, where he was working for the park, a couple summers before I was born, then divorced a few winters later. My mom worked full-time as a housekeeper until I was fifteen. Now my dad’s a copy-writer, and my mom, a social-worker, finally has health insurance and a retirement account. But neither of them could likely afford to purchase a house in the neighborhood where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. Recently my mom moved to the Bench, an up-and-coming neighborhood a couple miles west of downtown, and my dad resettled in Seattle. But I can still recall the name of every street between Ada and Irene, can see every picket fence and wraparound porch and gravelly alleyway, even feel the shade of the giant old hardwoods—except that actually it’s been too long and now I can’t.

I do a lot of aimless wandering. On the second morning I duck into Big City Coffee, a café in the Linen District, to warm up. A guy slides in to the table next to mine and knocks off my shoe. His name is Steve. He heard about the festival on KEXP, the Seattle community radio station, and immediately decided to come. He’s staying in the North End with this guy Matt he met via Couchsurfing.org. Originally from Alabama, Matt wound up in Boise at the end of a two-and-a-half-year journey the motivations for which I don’t entirely understand but definitely involve use of the word “fate.” Steve really likes Boise, too. Reminds him of Missoula. Or maybe Austin, another liberal, music-loving capital city. Steve’s tall, attractive, with short blonde hair and a kind of amphetaminized energy. As he gets up, he grabs my foot again, letting his hand trail the length of my calf. I get hit on here. I’d forgotten that.

The next day my mom drives past the new downtown Whole Foods, which looks like every Whole Foods everywhere, and the site of the Trader Joe’s going in next year. I’m reminded how dull this place can feel—pop-up low buildings all the same color, interiors lit by harsh fluorescents, the hills dead and brown, the people beautiful only by accident—ruddy, charming, the kind of beauty you make excuses for. I am entitled to this cruelty, I think, because I am one of them, no matter where I decide to live or for how long. In truth, I’m sad. The river romance I’d cultivated the summer before last year’s festival had within months, via Gchat, predictably faded. He has a girlfriend now, and because this town is so small, with that goes the majority of my Boise social circle. The moment I’d failed to seize in 2011, the one in which I got to escape New York and cheaply idle in a new young-person’s paradise where I fit in by default, has gone. And without friends, Boise is still—in spite of its supposed coolness—a relatively dreary place to be.

On the third night I run into a high school friend playing pool by himself. I complain to him about New York, how I need to make more money, get out more, date. Three years ago he moved back from Brooklyn—not just to save money and be closer to his family—but also to realize his dream of starting a hard-cider distillery. “Did I tell you I bought a house?” he asks. He just moved in with his girlfriend, who came here from Austin not long ago. “We should have you over for dinner.”

In high school, I used to bike home past the hissing, clanking old Meadow Gold dairy plant at the edge of downtown, maneuvering around a collection of semis clumsily T-boning into the street. It’s baffling to me that this thing is still in business. On Sunday morning I pass the plant three or four times on breaks between back-to-back music panels across the street. Attendance is low, no more than a dozen or so at any time. During the first panel, on “The Politics of Music,” a gleamingly handsome local councilman named Ben Quintana politely emits occasional platitudes about the city’s investment in culture, by which he seems to mean business, which doesn’t stop Brett Netson (frequent guitarist for Built to Spill and one-man Boise musical institution) from railing on corporations. “They should pay us just to exist. And in exchange, we display your logo one time and that’s it.”

The first Treefort festival had all local sponsors, but that year’s festival didn’t come close to breaking even, and this year they’ve taken a few thousand dollars from Whole Foods, a decision Eric Gilbert defends on the merits of the graciousness of the store’s implantation in town. “I talked to a good friend who’s a farmer in Boulder and has been very thankful for how Whole Foods works with her, in terms of buying local foods—and I know they’ve been reaching out to a lot of local folks in buying local produce,” he says. “So it was like, OK, cool, we don’t want it to be the Whole Foods–Treefort Music Fest, but if they want to partner with us in a smallish way, you know, I’m open to it.”

That afternoon I stop at the festival’s mainstage-adjacent dining area, which is filled with carts offering local foods and craft beers—“the truck scene’s really peaked,” says a guy working an artisanal French-fry cart—and a clothing- and crafts-filled “Bricofort” run by a friend’s sister, who moved back from Williamsburg several years ago and recently opened a modish downtown shop called Bricolage. As I continue to amble into the evening, I can hear the echoes of Youth Lagoon, the new up-and-coming Boise band, issuing from the main stage. Trevor Powers, a kid of 23 or 24, is wearing a psychedelic muumuu–like caftan, his vocals so reverbed and woozy that I can’t make out a single word. He became famous in 2011 after Pitchfork “discovered” a few songs he’d uploaded to Bandcamp. I run into my tenth-grade English teacher for the fourth time in four days. “My friend said this was like Beach House,” she says. “And I love Beach House. But that builds to something. This just doesn’t go anywhere.” I shrug my shoulders. I’ve never really listened to this band, not even after I saw a giant promotional banner go up outside the record store near my office in New York. A few of my teacher’s students are crowded around a fake, turret-like treefort at the side of the stage. Styles have changed—a boy wearing a dangly feather earring stands next to his girlfriend, her face covered in a multi-colored pattern of face-paint stripes. It vaguely hurts my feelings that all this exists and I didn’t know about it.

Perhaps Boise is catching the tailwind of whatever pushed people into Portland a decade ago. Or Austin. Or Asheville. Or Seattle in the ’90s. Or some other town celebrated in a lifestyle magazine’s top-ten list for its authentic “local culture.” To counter the leveling influence of the Internet and the anonymizing vastness of the foretold mega-city, maybe it just makes sense to stake out physical ground and build manageable little anthills of aesthetic and cultural kinship. In Boise, where the process has been especially painstaking, this still feels pure and exciting and enlivening—like watching your favorite band start to become famous—but I’m afraid of the gold rush, which might as well go by the name Whole Foods, or Pitchfork, or BoDo. And while I had no qualms about participating in Portland’s metamorphosis ten years ago, here the prospect feels like a re-mapping of self. In New York I hold a tiny claim to a seven- by thirteen-foot bedroom and the view of the skyline I can access from my roof. But I still want to believe that in Boise everything belongs to me.

At midnight I head to the Red Room, for TEENS, another band from Boise—by way of Philadelphia, Calgary, and Athens, Georgia. There are two lines out the door. A pudgy blond kid tells a stringy-haired guy to my left about his plans to move either to New York, Philadelphia, or Portland, Maine—”but I’m sure I’ll have fun wherever I go.” We wait for half an hour. I glance down the street, toward a defunct old punk house called the Sotano, which looks perfectly respectable now. My adolescent home, another block up, has new owners too; they’ve sodded over my mom’s garden and staked decorative flags in the doorway. “You know, this place used to be called the Crazy Horse,” says a middle-aged man to a tall, husky boy who looks too young to drink. “Oh. Cool,” says the tall boy.  “And in the ‘80s,” the man continues, describing a place I’d been dragged to many times as a child but since forgotten, “this was Boise’s only punk-band venue.” “Yeah,” the kid says, nodding vacantly. “I’m just here for the weekend.”

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