"Trailers for sale or rent / Rooms to let, 50 cents."
—"King of the Road" by Roger Miller, said to have been inspired by Miller's passage through Garden City in the late 1950s
Touring Chinden Boulevard with Kerri Hahn at the wheel can be unnerving.
"Do you know why they call this road 'Chinden?'" she asks, glaring with withering scorn at an advertising display on wheels emblazoned with flashing red light bulbs. It reads, "Tat oos!!!--Half-Pric Tuesdays F r Th Ladyzzz!!!"
From inattention to the road ahead, Hahn's late model SUV starts to drift across the center line.
"Because the Chinese people who came here way back when had all kinds of gardens down here. Vegetable gardens, I suppose. But maybe flower gardens, too. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody grew some poppies along here. For the opium, you know. Anyway, that's how Chinden got its name. Chin-ese gar-den. At least, that's what some old Idaho guy told me. It was probably really pretty once," she says.
A minuscule payday loans business painted a garish fuchsia with teal trim catches her eye and she jabs a finger at it.
"Now, does that look pretty to you? Really?"
Hahn's right hand crosses over her left to do the pointing, and the left hand, assigned to steer the vehicle alone, swings the opposite way in reaction, causing her to veer toward a camper shell outlet across the boulevard from the quickie loans place. Hahn doesn't seem to notice that she almost drove off the road.
"Do you see what I mean? They don't have anything like this in Columbia Village, do they? Or in Banbury? No, they don't. And some of our neighborhoods and houses are just as nice as anything in Columbia Village, I think. So why should we have to put up with this?"
She sweeps her arm across the view beyond her windshield, making sure there is no mistake what the "this" she's referring to is.
Garden City. The Garden City of pawn shops and trailer parks, porn outlets and used everything.
Hahn has undertaken a mission to do something about this, what she sees as the less-attractive qualities of her adopted hometown. If she and several dozen of her neighbors have their way, they will be leaving Garden City behind. However, this exodus will not be the result of those families moving out, relocating to different towns or valley locales.
Since last summer, Hahn and the group she started, the Goodbye Garden City Action Force, have been quietly circulating a petition that would force a special election applicable only to Garden City residents. On the ballot would be a citizens' initiative which, if passed, would tear the municipality into two distinct entities.
In other words, Hahn and her allies have every intention of seceding from Garden City and starting their own town.
The question arises as to why Hahn, 38, would have chosen to buy a home in Garden City in the first place if she is so unhappy with her surroundings.
In February 2007, her husband Brock Hahn, a division manager for Hewlett-Packard, was transferred to Boise from Irving, Texas. While Hahn stayed behind in Irving until their two young children finished the school year, Brock rented a furnished apartment by the week and shopped around for a house whenever he wasn't at work. He admits that he felt pressured to find something quickly.
"The idea was for Kerri and the kids to come from Texas straight to their new home. Besides, I've been house hunting with Kerri before, and I was trying to avoid a repeat of that nightmare at all costs. Kerri can be a little ... uh, I'm not sure what the word for it is," Brock says.
Other communities beckoned; parts of Eagle and the subdivisions west and south of the HP campus were very attractive to Brock. But after seeing what he could get in Garden City with the money he had available, and considering the proximity to his work, his decision was made. By the time Hahn and their children moved here, Brock had closed on a five bedroom/four bath, Stockton-style tri-level within two blocks of the Boise river.
"I can ride my bike to work," says Brock. "At least, during daylight saving time. I sure as heck don't want to get caught down here on a bike after dark."
In regard to the house only, Hahn knew beforehand what she was getting into. Brock had texted an extensive gallery of pictures of every room in the house, the exterior and the yard. He even went on a photo safari along the Greenbelt, and sent his wife shots of the most appealing areas.
In retrospect, had Hahn been examining those photos with a keen eye to understand the neighborhood, she would have noticed in the upper corner of one an abandoned blue church bus on blocks, and in the background of another, a tiny bungalow almost entirely hidden behind a curtain of wind chimes, whirligigs and an army of plaster garden gnomes.
But from afar in Irving, Hahn loved the house. In her mind, she was redecorating and refurnishing weeks before she actually arrived in Boise.
"I Fed-Exed Brocky some carpet swatches and he had all the recarpeting done by the time me and the kids got here. Except it all ended up in the wrong rooms. He had them put the Taos Yellow Berber in our master bathroom. Can you believe it? A yellow Berber in a bathroom? Really?"
She wouldn't know until Brock drove her home from the airport that two blocks on the other side of her dream house, on the side away from the river, was a salvage yard for dilapidated construction equipment, or that the reason there were yellow ribbons around the house a block to the east was that a week before her move, an elderly woman had been found suspiciously dead on the floor of her kitchen.
The woman's autopsy was complicated by the fact that her 17 cats, having run out of their regular food, had eaten away any outward signs of possible entry wounds or blunt force trauma.
"I can't tell you how let-down I felt," Hahn explains. "I had this picture in my head that the whole neighborhood was like something out of a Spielberg movie. One of the early ones, you know, like E.T. or Close Encounters. Nothing but nice houses and nice cul-de-sacs. But no, it's more like something out of a Tarantino movie, isn't it? Like in Pulp Fiction, where Bruce Willis runs into that weird shop with the freak chained up in the basement? That's where I feel like I'm living sometimes."
Hahn reflects for a moment before continuing, "To this day, I tell people how to get to our place and they're like, 'You live in Garden City? Really?'"
The aura of disreputableness that hovers over Garden City has not always been there. As suggested by Hahn, the town's name does indeed come from the gardening done by Chinese immigrants going back to the earliest days of the Idaho Territory.
From an 1871 report in the Idaho Statesman--then a tri-weekly paper--there comes this rather patronizing citation: "The Chinese population are planting gardens here pretty extensively. They are so patient and puttering that they do well."
They did their patient puttering so well, in fact, that some Chinese families were able to grow their gardens into thriving truck farms by the 1920s and beyond. However, most of the land the Chinese farmed on was leased, and following World War II, the nature of Garden City began to change radically. The land was sold, subdivided into smaller plots, and the gardeners moved on.
In 1949, the residents incorporated themselves into a village, independent of Boise City. This action was taken primarily because the state Legislature had made gambling a matter of local option, and while Boise opted to ban gambling, Garden City opted to embrace it.
It was at this point Garden City began to accrue the patina of shabbiness that, to this day, refuses to be entirely polished away. Gambling joints, bars and night spots sprung up like mushrooms along the village's main thoroughfare, U.S. Highway 20, which would be referred to locally as Chinden Boulevard. It has never been documented, but there were even rumors of brothels tucked away on dirt back-streets below the Bench and marijuana being cultivated in thickets along the river by itinerant musicians.
Gambling was outlawed statewide only four years later, in 1953, but Garden City seems unable to fully escape that small piece of the past. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the town became a magnet for strip clubs, pornography shops, honky-tonk saloons and people who could not afford to live elsewhere. Mobile homes were then, as now, the cheapest housing available, and by the early 1990s, there were almost 30 trailer parks within city limits.
Adventuring onto the side streets off Chinden Boulevard, there is today a maze of trailers, storage facilities, small industrial concerns, salvage yards, open pastures, one-man garage operations and housing, both up-scale and down, all thrown together as though the word "zoning" had never been heard west of Joe's Crab Shack.
As far back as the 1960s, city officials and business leaders have been holding forth the promise of rehabilitation for their town. But change has never come to Garden City easily, and when it does, it is usually accompanied by a healthy dose of drama.
"The problem is, we don't like people telling us what to do here in Garden City. We know as well as anybody we got a few messes down here. But as soon as someone comes along and says, 'Hey buddy, clean up that mess,' we start getting our hackles up. Know what I mean? That makes Garden City a great place for doing business, but not such a great place to look at," explains Ken Eudighet, owner of Ken's Used Auto Sales.
For longtime Garden City residents, nobody has ever typified the "Don't tell me what to do!" attitude better than Don Smitch, mayor of the city from 1960 until he went to the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1967. It was said that Smitch, owner of what was then the largest pawn shop in Garden City, ran both the city and his pawnery from a barstool in the now-defunct T&A Club, and that on a regular basis, he freely mixed city business with that of his own.
Eventually, the Ada County Prosecutor's Office gathered proof that Smitch, as mayor, was approving the purchase of used bicycles from his own pawn shop. The bicycles were then donated to indigent citizens under a Smitch-initiated program he titled, "Pedal Your Way To A Living Wage." The bikes inevitably ended up back at Don's Pawn, only to be resold to the city.
The mayor was indicted on charges that earned him a nine-year prison term. However, it was well-known among Garden City insiders that Smitch was the power behind the throne and that he continued to run the city from his cell up until his death in 1972 from, ironically, a suspicious accident involving a stationary bicycle in the exercise yard.
Eudighet remembers the incident.
"Yeah, I remember old Smitch. I heard they pulled 17 spokes out of his vital organs and a sprocket chain from around his neck. Some accident, huh?"
Following the passing of "Boss Smitch," the governance of Garden City degenerated into near chaos. Within a two-year stretch, there were four mayors, and between 1977 and 1982, there were five recall elections. The root of this turmoil was inevitably the conflict between those who wanted Garden City's image to improve, and those who wanted Garden City's live-and-let-live attitude to remain inviolate.
Today, with a population of just less than 12,000, Garden City appears to be on the verge of transitioning out of the reputation that has for so long plagued it. Both north and south of the Boise River sit million-dollar homes and up-scale retail sectors. Until the GBGCAF sprung up, the days of rancorous politics and feuding factions seemed to be a thing of the past.
The city even has its own motto--"Catch the Excitement"--introduced in 2007. That spirit of optimism is what has city leaders gnashing their teeth over the GBGCAF initiative.
"We think it's a joke, what these Goodbye Garden City people are trying to do," says Gretchen Hanzle, spokeswoman for the city's administration. "You can't just go around seceding from cities anytime there's something you don't like about it. That would be utter chaos.
"Take Boise, for instance. Would it be OK for the Republicans to secede from Boise just because they don't like having a Democratic mayor? Or in Meridian, should the anti-DeWeerders feel free to secede from the pro-DeWeerders? You see what I'm saying, don't you? It would be like the Balkans, only worse. Soccer mom Kuna splitting off from cowboy Kuna. Nampa throwing the Nampa-Caldwell Strip out of the city limits like it's some kind of undesirable bum or something. This kind of thing just won't work."
Hanzle wants observers to know that even if the initiative passes--and it is expected to--legal challenges will ensue for years to come.
"The city intends to go all the way," says Hanzle. "We even have a lawyer."
Garden City officials could not be reached for comment, but former City Councilman Howard "Howdy" Deauday claims to know how the administration feels about the initiative that has already divided his town regardless of whether it passes or not.
"The whole City Council is staying tight as head lice during mating season on this one," Deauday says. "If that bunch of Goodbye GC snots want a fight, they got it."
Deauday and his brother Cawl T. are owners of a small-engine repair business that has called Garden City home for more than 30 years. Deauday continues, "You know, the way they've gone and redrawn the map, our new City Hall would be in their new town. Does it get any screwier than that?"
Hahn and her group do not seem to be intimidated by the city's intention to thwart their plans with legal action. For this interview, Hahn has gathered a sampling of initiative supporters in her spacious kitchen. Sally Manders, 45, one of the GBGCAF's most vociferous members, insists the initiative will pass by a wide margin.
"I think our side will probably have a 100 percent turnout on Election Day. Honestly, that's how worked up the people I know are. And look at their side. Can you imagine people who live like that even vote?"
Manders' husband, Jerry Manders, chides her for what he perceives as snobbery.
"You shouldn't say things like that, Sal. Just because people live in some rundown parts of town doesn't mean they aren't good citizens."
Manders remains unconvinced.
"So tell me, then, Mister Hero-Of-The-Little-Guy, after all these years, why haven't they come up with some kind of Days? Huh? Think about it. Every other town around here has some kind of Days. Dairy Days in Meridian. That God and Country Days over in Nampa. Rocky Mountain Oyster Days in Eagle. Boise has all those things going on like Music Week Days and Arts in the Park Days. But not Garden City, huh-uh. It's the only place I know of that doesn't have some kind of Days going on. And why is that, do you suppose? Because who would show up for a 'Wire Fence and Weedy Streets Days?' Or a 'Secondhand Office Furniture Days?'"
When reminded that the fairgrounds, race track and stadium are within Garden City limits, Brock shakes his head.
"They won't be when the initiative passes. We're taking all that stuff with us." (See map of the proposed new city limits, Page 14.)
Asked if the GBGCAF rebels have given any thought to the name of their new town, Hahn responds, "I'd love to call it 'Garden City.' Doesn't that sound pretty, 'city of gardens?' But the name carries too much baggage with it. And besides, if I know those good old boys in the administration, they won't give up the name and there would end up being two Garden Cities, theirs and ours, side by side. So we've been thinking up other possibilities but haven't really settled on anything."
Jerry chimes in, "I still think we should call it Reaganton."
Hahn rolls her eyes. "Reaganton, Jerry? Really?"
Manders, almost as though she's thinking out loud, says, "What if we call it Rivreville? You know, like a French way of saying Riverville? You know, like they did with Boise Centre."
Hahn jumps off her stool with excitement.
"I know! Let's call it Ville d'Rivre. Oh, that would be so cool. Ville d'Rivre. Doesn't that sound cool?"
Whatever they end up calling it, the Treasure Valley should be prepared to accept a new addition to its family of communities.
Surandajeesh Ahmindohr is a motivational speaker/freelance writer whose articles can be found regularly in Horseshoe Bend Senior Living and Doing Your Business in Idaho.