Boise gem with scrappy roots: Take a walk on the West side

awebb@idahostatesman.comSeptember 16, 2013 

Boise's 30th Street area is hot right now, considering new developments like Esther Simplot Park, Whitewater Park Boulevard and more.

But members of the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association want to remind everyone that the neighborhood, located just west of Downtown and south of State Street, has been a good place for a long time — 1903, to be exact, when developers platted the area's first subdivision.

Thanks to a neighborhood reinvestment grant from the city, the association is working with local historians to create a three-mile, 37-site walking path that winds through that first subdivision.

The trail will begin at Fairview Park (the city's former race track and fairgrounds) at 23rd and Bannock streets. It will end at Whitewater Park near Quinn's Pond.

Small plastic discs similar to the "no dumping" discs affixed to curbs near storm drains throughout the city will mark the route.

Each disc will be printed with a link to the neighborhood association's website. Walkers will use their smartphones to get information about the 37 attractions. Those who prefer less high-tech touring will be able to download a free guide from the website.

Organizers say the trail project will be done in the next few months.

"It will highlight history, diversity and the culture of the neighborhood," said Jeff Anderson, head of the neighborhood association's trail committee.

The trail is not limited to historic sites but will include spots like the Jordan Street Community Garden (at Jordan and 29th streets) where a score of families, including many refugees, have grown produce since 2009.

On a recent sunny morning, neighborhood resident Travis Moore was harvesting the last cherry tomatoes of the season. The garden — decidedly more sprawling than manicured — is grass roots to its core.

One neighbor donated the land, said Moore. A group of neighbors convenes every spring for a group garden "cleanup." Local kids painted the garden sign. The white plastic barrels that hold water? Salvaged from a nearby car wash.

Trail walkers won't rattle resident gardeners, according to Moore.

"If they're weird, they'll fit right in around here," he said.

The Islamic Center on Stewart Street and a slew of modest, historic homes will be on the trail, as well as Stewart's Gem Shop.

Eugene Stewart founded the business on Idaho Street in 1945. Stewart lobbied the state to recognize the star garnet as Idaho's official gemstone.

INSPIRATION FROM AFAR

A visit to San Francisco a few years ago inspired Anderson to create the local trail. During that San Francisco visit, he came upon a walking trail by accident.

He followed markers that took him through the back streets of Chinatown, past hidden sites he wouldn't have found in a formal guide book.

"I thought it was so cool that I didn't have to go to an official tourist place, I didn't need a guide, I could just stumble on this unexpected trail and follow it," said Anderson.

He applied for and received a $16,000 neighborhood reinvestment grant for the Veterans Park association from the city of Boise in 2011 to create a trail in West Boise.

"The idea is to link the good things happening with the Esther Simplot and Whitewater parks with the neighborhood that's already here," Anderson said.

City officials thought the trail project fit with Boise 150 sesquicentennial projects and awarded the neighborhood an additional $4,000 to research and design the downloadable guide for the tour.

The neighborhood association hired Barbara Perry Bauer with TAG Historical Research to write the guide.

Some residents would like to see the identity of the West End become as well-known as the East or North ends of town.

"Neighborhood identity ... what it boils down to is activism," said historian Tully Gerlach, referring to neighbors such as Anderson who take steps to define the places they live.

SLAUGHTERHOUSES, GRAVEL PITS AND OTHER ATTRACTIONS

Gerlach wrote his history master's thesis on Boise's West End. He has also led walking tours through the neighborhood. The Veterans Park Neighborhood Association relied on much of his research for the trail project.

The West End qualifies as an "old" part of town, said Gerlach. It's just a decade or so newer than Hyde Park, for example.

Developers platted its first subdivision, the Fairview Addition, in 1903 between the Boise River on the west, State Street on the north, 19th Street on the east and the Fairview/Main Street couplet to the south.

For whatever reason, the western part of the city remained under the radar, Gerlach said.

There are no officially designated historic districts in the West End despite upscale stretches along Pleasanton and a number of historic structures, including a string of "working class" cottages on Idaho Street near 26th Street and a scattering of homes in the styles of craftsman, art deco and mission.

This may have something to do with the neighborhood's scrappy roots. Early developers attracted workers of modest means by offering larger lots than the North or East end for the same price.

The West End also had close ties to heavy industry, said Gerlach.

The riverfront area that will become the Esther Simplot Park was home to slaughterhouses, a private airport (the Boise Airpark) and gravel mining operations.

The walking tour will make note of all of this, as well as more recent cultural developments that have given the West End an international character.

Whittier Elementary, where one can hear 13 different languages spoken in the hallways, anchors the neighborhood and will be one of the stops on the walking trail.

The tour of the West End also will include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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