Gerlach currently splits his time between the Boise Public Library and the historian's office. Hopefully, with the formation of a full-time city historian position, Gerlach will be able reach the citizens of Boise with its rich history. He took a break between jobs to talk to BW about history and his plans.
How did you end up as city historian?
I have always had an interest in urban history. This position sort of dropped into my lap. [Boise State] professor Todd Shallat called me up one day and asked me if I was interested, and I was. There's a chance for me to work on the gaps in city history. Having grown up here, it interests me to document this city's history in a critical way. This job came at just the right time in my life. It was the perfect moment. I was looking for a change.
How did the office come to be?
When Mayor Bieter was elected, he created the historian's office as an extension of his office. Graduate history students from [Boise State] would fill the job until they graduated. Right now, the historian's office and the [Boise City] Arts Commission are trying to join together and break away from the mayor's office to form a formal department. There will be public hearings about it in the next few months. Hopefully, it will be formalized and the position of city historian will turn into a full-time job.
What projects is the office working on?
We are trying to publish a manuscript by David Proctor on the history of the Greenbelt. We've recommended that it be published in book form with photos. It talks about the work that went into forming the Greenbelt. People love the river and the Greenbelt so much. What most don't realize is that in the late '60s, [the river] was heavily polluted—a waste removal system flowing through the city. A small group of people fought very hard to change people's minds about the river. We are also trying to partner with Preservation Idaho in putting together some arch walks (short for architecture walks)—people pay to take guided tours of some of the prominent historical structures in Boise.
What are you working on?
Personally, I'm working on a 30th Street impact report. The city is going to begin building a new parkway, starting in 2012. The parkway will run from the intersection of Rose and State, down Rose to 30th, and all the way down 30th until it pops out on Main at an old, abandoned car lot. The report will be a plan for making the parkway less intrusive. The city wants to maintain the integrity of the old neighborhoods affected by the parkway and not make the sort of mistakes that lead to disinvestment in those areas. This report will provide a history of these neighborhoods, how they went from suburban to industrial/commercial areas. The city is really taking care to not destroy but to revitalize and reinvest.
In what ways is Boise changing the most?
Boise is in danger of becoming gentrified. Property values are rising in places like the North End and people are getting squeezed out. One of the best things about Boise is there's not much of that outright class division. When you squeeze out that economic diversity and the neighborhoods change to a single income level, it homogenizes everything. It's good that there's investment downtown, but the diversity is part of what makes Boise so great. We don't want to lose that range of quirky things and small-scale, family-owned businesses, alternative bookstores and places like the Record Exchange.
What is your favorite period in Boise history?
Post-war urban history—specifically the late '60s and early '70s. The city was in a state of economic depression and cultural change. Boise had its own counterculture/alternative scene with rock music and punk emerging. That time period is looked at as a dark time when downtown was this broken-down gritty place, and it was, but the neighborhoods were also very placid. It was a time of contradiction.
I suppose, as a historian, I want to research time periods that haven't been done—Boise in the '70s hasn't been done.
Does Boise history have its share of scandal and notoriety?
Not so much, but there is an exciting non-conservative side to Boise. There have been artists and musicians. It hasn't always been boring and conservative. Idaho was the first state in the nation to elect a Jewish governor, Moses Alexander. Idaho also had a very progressive candidate for [U.S.] vice president, Glen H. Taylor. He was a Democrat Idaho senator from 1944 to 1956. In 1948, he was Henry Wallace's VP candidate for the Progressive Party. Taylor was a New Deal liberal and one of the earliest and most-vocal advocates for civil rights—positions that ultimately ended his political career but which he never abandoned. Definitely someone who deserves much more attention, prominence and honor than he currently receives.
What about Idaho's history of Libertarian politicians?
Libertarians are nuts, but they're cool nuts. They're like, "Leave me alone with my guns and booze, and let me grow pot in my back lot." Butch Otter was a crazy, radical-type libertarian back in the day.
Are recent political trends in Idaho a departure from the past?
They might be. Idaho has always been very conservative, but the old Republican Party in Idaho was the good-old-boy type. They wanted to deregulate business, and they upheld certain moral standards. Today, we are seeing an extreme evangelical partisanship. The Republican Party in Idaho, like the rest of America, has been hijacked by its right wing.
Is this your dream job?
Yes, this is the dream job. The only thing that would make it better would be a full-time position with a staff and a bigger budget. I love Boise. I don't really care about being the historian of the rest of Idaho. I hope that as historian, I can help people have more of a stake in this city, especially newcomers. They want to know more. We're here to facilitate that: do tours, outreach. We aren't just going to be holed up in a room doing research projects that go into an archive. We want to make Boise history enjoyable, engaging.