Neighborhood gems pepper West Bench

Finding the right home can be stressful, so when the itch to relocate overcame my natural resistance to change, I decided to reduce anxiety and narrow the search by first exploring numerous Boise neighborhoods via bicycle with a friend.

Perched on our bikes, we’ve been wheeling along, assessing the amenities, sensing the ambience and talking with residents that we meet along the way. We learn a lot as we pedal, and we’re gaining appreciation for the city’s neighborhoods.

When moving to Boise in the ’80s, I spotted Boise’s train depot and felt this handsome mission style building, with its cascading gardens and incredible view, could be converted to a spectacular home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale and convenience and economics won the day.

We settled in Boise’s West Bench in the middle of a neighborhood of comfortable, if similar, houses. While not architecturally splendid, many of its ranch style homes are surprisingly spacious. A sprinkling of parks dot the area, and generally schools are within walking distance of the homes. So it seems appropriate to launch this exploration in my own driveway and consider anew what the West Bench offers while also scratching a little into its history.

Names of two major streets hint at the area’s past. Fairview is an apt name for one of the major east/west thoroughfares since the original home of the Western Idaho Fair was near the intersection of Fairview and Orchard Street.

As you would suspect, fruit trees once stood in flowering rows there. Residential and commercial development replaced the orchards as the city expanded westward. But, until relatively recently, some referred to the West Bench area as “the other Boise.” That moniker came from the perception that it was a part of town often overlooked by the city’s policy makers.

But “the other Boise” is a lively place now. Highlights include a much-loved and heavily utilized branch library, numerous restaurants and easy access to shopping. The West Boise Neighborhood Association recently acquired a grant that will bring a splash of color and character to the area as utility boxes are wrapped in the creations of local artists.

We head to Delsa’s Ice Cream Parlor, a local sweet spot, a short block east of Milwaukee on Ustick where neighbors gather to enjoy some of Boise’s best cold treats. Though the shop has been sold and resold since it was established in 1960, the iconic name and the and the ice cream recipes survived the changes.

Just a block or so to the west on the corner of Milwaukee and Ustick stands Reggie’s Veggies, a large outdoor produce market that draws people who enjoy its charismatic vendor/owner and his fresh fruits and vegetables. We chat with Reggie States about the success of his business as we admire the colorful displays. “Well,” he says, “I don’t have to go to Vegas to gamble. Every day here is an adventure and a gamble with fresh products coming in, but I’m sitting on a good thing — the produce is good.” We agree and hop back on our bikes heading west on Ustick Road to take a look at three buildings that once anchored the Township of Ustick.

At the corner of Ustick and Mumbarto, the painted Pepsi lady on the side wall of the of the old Mercantile Building still beckons though the building now houses Kitchen Creations, a business incubator for seven separate commercial food-based enterprises. The Fix, located next door, recently opened, offering specialty sodas and fresh cookies baked in the commercial ovens of Kitchen Creations.

The Madril beauty salon across the street was originally a bank named after its founder, Dr. Harlan Ustick. Look just beyond the bank to the west and you will spot a building built in 1912 — the old creamery. The original schoolhouse, located two blocks south of the original bank on the corner of Mumbarto and Montana, has been converted to a gracious home. But use your imagination and you can almost hear the bell of the trolley of a bygone era as it makes its way along the inter-urban electric rail line, stopping at the township en route from Boise to Caldwell.

As we thread our way north, we meet Joan Green taking a brisk morning walk. Joan lives in the West Ridge apartments back on Five Mile and Ustick. She tells us she enjoys the convenience of nearby shopping, but she loves walking the neighborhoods and visiting the parks even more. She especially likes Cumba Park just behind her apartment complex, where Boise’s Park and Rec department recently established the Boise Urban Garden School. This nonprofit linked with the city last year and provides classes in culinary arts and organic gardening (registration through Boise Parks and Recreation).

Clair and Marian Workman live near the West YMCA and also enjoy the walkability of their neighborhood and the proximity and grace of DeMeyer Park. We ride east through the park toward Five Mile Road and turn south heading to the Nazareth Retreat Center owned by the Catholic Church. This lovely place for quiet reflection is a serene secret with its winding paths, still pond and quiet cottages and small conference center. It is possible to schedule your own day’s retreat there at no charge if you call ahead, or visitors can rent the conference facilities and/or reserve cottages on the grounds.

We pause for a few moments and then pedal on toward McMillian and Maple Grove streets and the Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve, a 54-acre urban wetlands that multiple species of birds call home. Standing on a lookout, we watch the waterfowl before heading back to Cole Road. On the corner of Mountain View and Cole we spot a large elephant mingling with a herd of moose in a residential yard. These cut-out figures are the creations of Wayne Richy, who has been startling passers-by for years with his collection.

Heading south, we pass the former Spalding Ranch, where the original family home still stands like a gracious older lady staring at Cole Road’s streaming traffic. We are nearing a neighborhood hotspot, the Cole/Ustick branch library cradled in gorgeous low-water landscaping.

Across from the library, an artist’s cooperative where local artists show their work, Art Zone 208, draws our attention. Terry LaCasse, sitting on the bench outside the co-op chatting on his cell phone, seems unaware that he appears about to be engulfed by tree branches painted on the mural behind him. It is still morning, and soon the Sockeye Grill and Brewery, across the parking lot and facing Cole Road, will heat up their grills, tempting the taste buds.

Life on the West Bench has been good, but we are aiming our bikes in a different direction next time to explore another neighborhood. We will have our cameras poised and ready to capture a new perspective on Boise.

Ellie McKinnon is a freelance writer who lives in Boise.