I speak of the holistic nature of "home." I speak of the comforting sense of tranquillity one feels when he or she is settled into that special house, neighborhood, town and city that mirror perfectly one's tastes, consumer preferences, cultural values, political and religious inclinations, financial standing, level of education and general personality. I speak of "home" as that place where not only do one's tired and dusty bones find a bed, futon or patio recliner in which to retreat from the cruel world beyond, but where one's heart can sing like a happy meadowlark.
With so many new people having relocated to the Treasure Valley during the last decade or two, it seems probable that many of them might not have picked the right setting for their particular psyches. How were they to know before they got here and had that llama ranch built on an acre lot outside of Kuna that they would have been a perfect fit in Boise's North End? How could they have known, coming from far away places, that there are more differences between Eagle and Meridian than how many cars can fit in the garage?
With this in mind, I am providing recent arrivals with a guide to the 'hoods of Ada County—a travelogue, if you will, to not-so exotic places. Space dictates that I limit my explorations to six communities—Eagle, Meridian, Kuna, Boise's North End and Southeast areas, and Garden City—and I will seek out the aspects that set those places apart from the others, rather than the multitude of ways they are all the same.
I apologize to those who live in the western sectors of Boise or the town of Star for leaving them out. But the truth is, as to Boise's west side: anymore, nobody knows where it ends and Meridian begins.
And to the people of Star, I suggest they start considering themselves part of Canyon County, which I believe they might find more compatible to their unique zeitgeist. Besides, I can hardly imagine many people in Ada County would even notice they were gone.
(Incidentally, all population figures, household incomes and home values included herein are estimates projected from the 2000 census and may be off by a country mile.)
The North End
Population (2005): 30,923
Median household income (2005): $39,903
Median home/condo value (2005): $187,928
Median cost of new house: no information available.
I set off on Eighth Street, motoring north until I come to the landmark Hollywood Market. I would know even without street signs or landmarks that I am in the North End. I can always tell I'm there when I pass the first "Save Hammer Flats" yard sign.
Turning west, I make my way down Resseguie. No two houses are alike, neither in style, size or upkeep. Victorian turrets overlook bungalows with vinyl siding peeling at the corners. Wide porches open out to yards landscaped as fussily as a wedding cake, while right next door, whatever remains of the lawn shows all the signs of dashed xeriscaping dreams—large rocks and larger ragweed.
In some ways, the North End is dominated by the most imposing structures in Idaho: government buildings, hospital buildings, Boise High School—not to mention the grand mansions on Harrison Boulevard. But one mustn't make the mistake of missing the intimacy that defines the area. True North Enders would never consider the Federal Building on Fort, for instance, to be a more idiosyncratic of their 'hood than Goody's Ice Cream Parlor.
Virtually every native I chance upon is either following a leashed dog or riding a bike. I try not to make eye contact. It is said a North Ender can intimidate an outsider into donating to the ACLU with little more than a disapproving cluck of the tongue.
At last, I find myself in the very heart of North Endishness: Hyde Park. I park on the street, in front of two Volvos in a row. I'm not saying everyone in the North End drives a Volvo, but really, when's the last time you saw two of them at once?
I set up my observation post on the sun deck of an older cottage that's been converted into a coffee shop. Before leaving on this quest, I had committed myself to partaking of the characteristic local libations wherever I found myself. Here in the North End, I order a chamomile tea. It is Monday morning and the wage-earners are largely absent. Good thing. I don't want to have to explain why I'm skulking about their "turf" to a gang of English Lit professors or wind chime vendors.
Nevertheless, I am not alone. Surrounded, I am, by North Enders, scrolling through salon.com on laptops and tossing crusts of whole wheat toast to their patient dogs. The nearest is a pair of sandal-shod women, one gently rocking her newly born papoose with her foot. I overhear snatches of their conversation: "My sister has incredible gay-dar, and according to her ..."
With first impressions, this is a peaceful people. But be not deceived. They will fight most fiercely to stop outsiders from in-filling their vacant lots with new-fangled housing options, or to defend their ancient heritage of letting their chocolate Labs and Jack Russells poop unleashed on tribal lands.
I have finished my tea and am ready for a smoke. Not here, my instincts caution. So I find my way back to my vehicle and leave the North End behind.
This community recommended for: poets, Democrats, hemp activists, Unitarian Universalists and herb gardeners.
Population (2006): 59,832
Median household income (2005): $59,200
Median house/condo value (2005): $162,800
Median cost of new house (2005): $240,300
(In the interest of full disclosure, the author must admit to having been born and raised on Meridian soil. Furthermore, he has lived there uninterrupted for the last 25 years, and it would be unreasonable to expect such an aboriginal's report on Meridian to be wholly without bias. So when reading this section, please allow for a certain level of sentiment and attitude the author would be loathe to display were he writing as an itinerant observer in a new setting.)
Pardon me if that sounds harsh, but I know Meridian better than I know any other place on Earth, and I also know sucks when I see it. And just because Meridian doesn't suck quite as much as wherever the 40,000 people who have moved here during that last 20 years moved from doesn't mean it doesn't suck. It is noisy, cluttered and grossly over-commercialized. Worse yet, Meridian leaders have so energetically promoted this as a great place to raise kids, it is now overrun by kids. Trampolines are the town's most prolific lawn ornament, just ahead of Slip 'N' Slides. If you can't find an adult when you need one, it's probably because they are all out coaching soccer.
In 2007, there were 76 registered
sex offenders living inside Meridian city limits.
I chose to begin my Meridian journey from Generations Plaza, smack in the center of what old Meridianites call "Old Meridian." The plaza consists of a clock, a fountain, some benches and a wall for which Meridian people donated money to have their names etched on bricks. As I understand it, the money went to pay for Generations Plaza. There's not much to do there, unless your idea of doing something is reading bricks.
I head south, as far as the storied water tower. It is yellow, reminiscent in shape of an enema syringe, and can be seen from the freeway. And that, pretty much, is the story when it comes to the water tower.
Executing a 180, I proceed back north. There are those who would question why I don't push further south and describe the twin attractions of Roaring Springs and Boondocks. The answer is simple. Roaring Springs and Boondocks are not in Meridian. They may think they are. They may have Meridian addresses, their owners may attend Meridian Chamber of Commerce meetings, they may even advertise themselves as being Meridian establishments ... but they aren't. As anyone who has spent at least 80 years in Meridian can tell you, anything outside a three-quarter-mile radius of the center of Old Meridian is just stuff that cropped up as the farmers died off. I cannot, in good conscience, include any of it in this guide. Not the strip malls, not the subdivisions, not even the municipal golf course. If for some reason you need to know what those things are like, just go to any strip mall, any subdivision, any municipal golf course anywhere in the continental United States and take a picture.
During the Great Depression, there were so many Arkansas immigrants settled into a small section of Old Meridian, it was called "Little Little Rock."
On the way back across the Meridian terrain, I pass the place on which the town celebrates its agrarian roots every June with the Meridian Dairy Days. For weeks in advance, businesses are encouraged to display cardboard cows engaged in activities not usually associated with cows. Collecting Beanie Babies, for instance, or selling life insurance policies. In the fall, Meridian holds another celebration of its agrarian roots with a Scarecrow Festival, during which businesses are encouraged to display scarecrows in various unnatural positions. I can't help but think it speaks to the modern nature of Meridian that the only thing to celebrate is somebody else's agrarian roots, decades after the last cow and the last scarecrow left for greener pastures.
Going against the stream of lunch-hour traffic, I return to Generations Plaza and spend a few moments partaking of an indigenous "Big Gulp" while I bask in the glow of the Sunshine Cafe across the street. The Sunshine is a favorite Meridian eatery, particularly for people who look like they've already had enough to eat.
And then, as suddenly as it began, I have finished exploring Meridian. I make my way home. It's about seven blocks.
This community recommended for: stay-at-home moms, knick-knack shop owners, reflex Republicans, people in the federal witness protection program, Methodists, Nazarenes, Mormons and garage sale hoppers.
Population (2005): 14,072
Median household income (2005): $45,100
Median house/condo value (2005): $128,400
Median cost of new house (2005): $211,200
I plan the itinerary well ahead of my departure, intending to make my push into Kuna from the north on State Highway 69—or as we used to call it in my youth, "State Highway 69, snicker, snicker."
It's been years since I've been there, but I believe I can remember the way. As a teenager, friends and I spent at least one Saturday a month in the desert to which Kuna is the gateway, plinking .22 slugs at whistlepigs. It is my understanding that whistlepig plinking was once Kuna's leading industry, with farming coming in a distant second.
It would seem farming still plays a significant role in the Kuna scene. The closer I get to my goal, the more corn fields I see. I even see one of Meridian's emigre Holsteins, grazing in a pasture. I consider the possibility that the fields are all marketing gimmicks for the subdivisions that are popping up here as profusely as in the rest of the county. Like ... some subdivisions have a big fake waterfall out front. So maybe these are big fake corn fields. At another time, I will bring rubber boots and investigate further.
My plan calls for me to duck into town, down a Coors at the world-famous Red Eye Saloon, and get out before anyone notices the "Impeach George Bush" sticker on my vehicle. Actually, I can't swear the Red Eye is world-famous. I can honestly say it is somewhat famous as far away as Meridian, at least among people who know their saloons.
In a survey conducted among local television news anchors who have been in Idaho less than a full year, Kuna was found to be, by far, the most mispronounced town name in Ada County, with the usual mispronunciation being "Coon-ah."
Sad to say, the Red Eye Saloon is closed. Not so surprising, considering it is nine in the morning. Instead, I hike a block in one direction, cross the street and hike back. This eats up approximately eight minutes because I stop to look in a window or two—notably, the windows that are on empty store fronts. By the time I return to my vehicle, I have trekked virtually all of "downtown" Kuna. There are few people on the street. Still, I sense each one of them is staring at me.
Once again behind the wheel, I drive around. Kuna proper has perhaps the curviest roads of any 'hood in Ada County. The layout is dictated by Indian Creek, which twists through town like a beer spill on a shag rug, leaving three-way intersections and "S" curves in its wake.
Indian Creek, like the Boise River, is floatable. Unlike the Boise River, there is no prohibition to drinking beer while you float it. So if you don't mind that a watery death lurks around every bend and behind every submerged rock, floating Indian Creek may be for you!
I park in the shade of a towering cottonwood, allowing myself two free hands to record a pithy observation in my traveler's log. A pickup truck passes slowly. The driver and his companion stare at me. Why is everyone staring at me? Frankly, I expected to see more pickup trucks than I do—this being Kuna. But to my dismay, there is no greater percentage of trucks on the roads than one would find in, say, Eagle. Only difference is, here in Kuna, the trucks are often used for trucking. I estimate that at least one out of every three pickup trucks in Kuna actually has something in the back bigger than a rottweiler.
In lieu of the indigenous Coors I didn't get at the Red Eye, I stop at a combination coffee shop/wine bar for something to slake my thirst. Six or eight Kunistas are all gathered for a mid-morning chat around a central table. Their chat stops when I enter. One of them—the owner, I assume—asks what I would like, and I am flummoxed. I can not imagine that either a decaf latte or a Merlot is a characteristic Kuna libation. So as the others stare, I order an iced tea. I hate iced tea.
Before leaving town, I stop next to a bridge that leads out into the yellow desert beyond Indian Creek and reflect upon what I have seen. There is a comforting vibe here. If you look past the subdivisions and mini-malls on the outskirts, Kuna could be a dusty farm town in North Dakota, withering away under the glare of a changing world. I could live here—if only people would stop staring at me.
A woman and small boy cross Indian Creek (in a pickup truck) and both stare at me. Suddenly, I understand. Of course! Why didn't I see it earlier? I am the only male in town not wearing a hat. That's why they've been staring! I vow that, if I ever return, it will be under one of John Deere's finest chapeaux.
This community recommended for: small-scale llama ranchers, members of the right-wing fringe, irrigation sprinkler system salesmen, dirt bike racers and Mormons.
Population (2006): 11,353
Median household income (2005): $42,800
Median house/condo value (2005): $217,300
Median cost of new house (2007): $247, 700
For decades, Garden City has been the red-headed stepchild in the family of Ada County communities. Or if you prefer ... the crazy, porn-addicted uncle who lives in the attic. Or my personal choice ... the alcoholic, uncouth, trashy brother-in-law nobody invites to Thanksgiving dinner anymore because he's more apt than not to show up in filthy sweat pants and a Hooters T-shirt.
But I have been told Garden City is changing, and I am certain that once again, it's because of the river. The river has defined Garden City from the beginning. Chinese gardeners for whom the principal artery is named (Chin -ese gar-den, get it?) settled there because of the availability of water. The earliest poor people settled there because the earliest rich people didn't want anything to do with either the flood plain or the Chinese. And now, rich people are settling there because it's become so desirable to live next to a river.
I make my run from the east, across the Fairview Bridge, down past the derelict car lots and econo-lodging of Boise's west Main Street. There is a thick line of trees there at the entrance to Garden City. I can't help but think somebody is trying to hide something behind those trees.
I am determined to explore beyond the legendary Garden City—the Garden City of litter blowing across gravel lots, of RV dealerships, C&W honky-tonks and mysterious little no-tell motels. I wend my way through the back streets and alleys between Chinden and the river. Every time I see a "Dead End" sign, I turn, and I see many, many "Dead End" signs. It's a good thing I'm not in a hurry.
On the Web site city-data.com, one of the entries in the section titled Garden City tourist attractions is Boise Motorcycle and Snowmobile Salvage.
Never in all my travels have I been in such a schizophrenic 'hood. One dead-end street will have at the end a high-gloss condo or apartment complex, perhaps a $1 million mansion, gleaming like a crystal chandelier under the reflection off the river. One block over, it ends with a dilapidated trailer house in a patch of brown weeds.
Part of Garden City lies on the north side of the river. No one knows how it got there. One theory is that several years ago, a couple of guys who didn't know what to do with themselves after the Hi-Ho Club closed for the night pulled up some "Welcome to Garden City" signs and replanted them over on the other side to the Plantation Golf Course.
I must say, in spite of the glossy condos and $1 million mansions, Garden City has the ambiance of a salvage yard. Everywhere you look, something is rusting away behind a mesh wire fence. Stacks of pallets are collapsing in on themselves like Lincoln Logs with dry rot. Old converted buses that will never again carry a load of Baptists to church sit on cinder blocks.
The further west I go, the more Garden City looks like a place you might consider raising children in. I unlock my car doors. I even feel safe enough to stop for a characteristic libation. Strangely, I have a lingering thirst for malt liquor.
This community recommended for: joggers who wouldn't go out after dark on a bet, meth lab operators, disillusioned priests, trailer house repairmen, unregistered voters and Elvis worshippers.
Population (2005): 17,338
Median household income (2005): $72,500
Median house value (2005): $232, 500
Median cost of new house (2007): $456,000
An internal debate rages within. Do I enter head-on, using the busiest byway in Idaho to motor straight into the center of town? Or should I sneak in the back way, taking Linder Road to reach the bucolic Beacon Light Road? I opt for the bucolic. As eager as I am to lay eyes on whatever happened to Orville Jackson's emporium, I am no match for the traffic on Eagle Road.
As I meander past country estates nearly as big as Tammy DeWeerd's new Meridian City Hall building, I reflect upon the irony that is Eagle. Funny thing, back when Meridian was Boise's poor country cousin, we in Meridian considered Eagle our poor country cousin.
Long before it got its own high school, Eagle teenagers were bused to Meridian, where we would offer them winter coats we had outgrown and the crusts from our sandwiches.
My, how times have changed. Eagle is blessed with two geographic features—and within an easy equestrian canter of one another—that people with gobs of money find irresistible: the Boise River and the rolling hills to the north. Hence, Eagle is now full of people with gobs of money. Judging by the size of the houses they are erecting, I would have to say everyone in Eagle is either a successful lawyer, a successful doctor, or just couldn't imagine living without an indoor polo field. I begin to question whether I brought along enough cash to buy myself something to drink here.
Out in these stretches, I see more joggers than I saw in all of the other towns, combined. (Certainly, there were joggers in Garden City, too. But I had the distinct impression they were running from something.) Athletic women in stretchy shorts and pony-tail flopping hats wave as I pass. I am leery of waving back, lest they think I am somebody they know. I simply can't afford to know people like them.
Did I mention the horses? I would estimate the population of Eagle is now half people, half horses. There are even establishments, out there within riding range of the rolling hills, where you can rent a horse, should yours be in the shop for any reason. Money and horses ... the distinctive smells mingle as one in the rich Eagle air. This must be what Southern France smells like.
Eventually, I find my way to downtown Eagle. Sacre bleu, what do I see? A sushi bar. An acupuncture clinic. Everything looks like it was designed in Aspen and shipped in by overnight delivery. And Orville Jackson's old store? It has undergone a makeover. Where once Orville stocked everything from rubber boots to goat ropes is now high-end home furnishings. I peer through the window, fearful of going on in should they assume I can afford to be a customer.
I take a chance on a local libation and order cheap: a 12-ounce green tea. I have just enough in my pockets to cover it. Again, the natives are staring at me. But this time, it has nothing to do with my naked head. They can sense I don't belong, I just know it! God, I hope I can get out of this town without being arrested for vagrancy!
This community recommended for: plastic surgeons, senior partners in large law firms, farriers, moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, Episcopalians and retired Hollywood cinematographers.
Population (2005): 22,971
Medium household income (2005): $37,783
Median house/condo value (2005): $121,945
Median cost of new house: no information available
To get to where I am, you must rise above the river plain and enter the realm of thirsty sagebrush and bursts of lava rock blooming from sandy ridges. You must leave civilization behind ... unless your idea of civilization is a 6,000-acre subdivision outside of Phoenix, Ariz.
I am lost. The road over Barber Bridge is the last thing I recognized. I drove over that little hill, then I drove over another little hill, and now, I am parked in a cul-de-sac, surrounded by dwellings that appear to have been stamped out on a conveyor belt and landscaping that must have come in a three-step kit. I can see the spires of Micron in the distance, but I can't figure out how to get there from here. From my early survival training, I remember that if I follow the freeway downhill, it will lead me to Meridian. But where, oh where, is that damn freeway?
The eerie thing is, there is nobody to ask where I am. In Meridian, the streets were clogged with drivers on their way to McDonald's. In Eagle, it was joggers on their way to sleeker bodies, and in Kuna, it was those guys hauling stuff about in their pickup trucks. Here, I feel like I am in an abandoned movie set. Where are all the people? Surely, they can't all be working the day shift at Micron.
I try moving again. I can't just stay here and waste away from lack of orientation. If I can only drive in the same direction long enough, I have to come out somewhere.
There! Ahead! A road crew! I stop and ask the flag man, "Is this Columbia Village, Hidden Valley, or what?"
He shrugs. "Man, I don't know. They dropped us off here this morning and I'm just praying they come back to get us at quitting time."
I understand the desperation in his eyes. "Good luck, brother," I tell him and pass on.
All I can think of is how good Meridian would look right about now. I have long since stopped noticing the names of the roads I take, for that was no help. I have also abandoned any plans for getting myself an indigenous libation. Every retail outlet I see carries a corporate logo. How indigenous can a Starbucks be?
At long last, I spot a moving semi in the shimmering distance. I tack in that direction. The freeway is there. The road home is there. Meridian, you may suck, but at least you're familiar.
But before I depart this barren land, I leave behind a warning to future explorers. You must understand, even though I've dubbed it "Southwest Boise," it is really not Boise or any part of Boise. Not in any aesthetic, historic or cultural way. We call it "Southwest Boise" only because Boise is the nearest identifiable feature. We could as easily name it "New West City//Version 5.1//Id" for in reality, it is only one more sun-baked neighborhood in that sprawling megalopolis that reaches from Phoenix and Tucson to Lake Havasu, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, Silicon Valley and beyond. It belongs to a city without a center, a county without any borders, a state with no name.
Yet in another sense, it is exactly what the developers and planners and administrations in all the other Ada County communities can only wish they had—a blank slate. There are no historic districts to tip-toe reverently around, for there is no history. Never will you hear of a committee of impassioned citizens battling to save a grove of towering cottonwoods, an architecturally significant structure or a multi-generational school house, for there are no groves of towering cottonwoods, no architecturally significant structures, no multiple generations, and most emphatically, no passion.
Fun Southeast Boise Trivia: no information available.
In my rearview mirror, New West City// Version 5.1//Id blends with the desert beyond, and by the time I come to the Broadway exit, I have no memory of where I've been.
This community recommended for: Micron employees, Mormons, uh ... uh ... and that's all I can come up with.