The city of Boise, notable for its ongoing growth spurt, bills itself as a green and sporty city – a place where one can bike the Greenbelt to work, roam the nearby foothills, even float the Boise River through the heart of downtown. This characterization, one that has landed Boise on a slew of “best of” lists, overlooks the fact that Boise once was a far more industrial place. It was home to steel plants, foundries, slaughterhouses, warehouses and a blue collar workforce that kept them all running.
Jennifer Stevens, an environmental urban historian and assistant clinical professor in the School of Public Service, received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to research this largely forgotten part of Boise’s history. She will explore the “deindustrialization” that transformed Boise into the aspirational green city it is today. She will look at the forces – whether classist, racist or a combination of both – that drove it.
“My hope is that this will resonate with people who have been displaced, pushed out because of gentrification. My goal is that even if we can’t bring people back, we can bring their stories back, give them a sense of place in Boise’s history that’s been totally obliterated,” Stevens said.
She recalled a conversation with Boisean Hugh Hartman who owns a dizzying collection of historic Boise photos featured on the popular Facebook page History of Boise Idaho 1863 to the Present.
“Hugh shared this wonderful quote with me from the founding fathers of Boise,” said Stevens, “That ‘Boise ain’t no lunch bucket town.’”
City leaders, strivers, couldn’t wait to get rid of Boise’s industrial character, she said.
“Recreation and the outdoors have particular appeal to the white middle class. Looking at city leaders’ choices to emphasize this amenity type over industry may lead to a deeper understanding of Boise’s continued lack of diversity,” said Stevens. “I haven’t explored this yet, but it will be an important part of the story.”
A new look at old ground
Studying Boise’s changing character through the lens of deindustrialization is a largely untapped area of research, Stevens said.
While Idaho has a number of remaining historic sites associated with industry, from the still operating Amalgamated Sugar factory in Nampa (built in 1942) to massive, abandoned mining compounds across the state, many remnants of Boise industry are long gone, said Dan Everhart, outreach historian at Idaho’s State Historic Preservation Office.
Exceptions include Quinn’s Pond and Esther Simplot Park – former gravel extraction sites – and the sandstone quarries near Table Rock. Other sites, like the brick yard in Hulls Gulch in the Boise Foothills, have left no trace.
“One of the quirks of Boise manufacturing and production might be that it differs from what you would expect because of what Boise is like today,” said Everhart.
A Boise businessman, H.H.Bryant, for example, opened a Ford Model T assembly line in 1914 near Front Street. Bryant was married to the sister of auto magnate Henry Ford.
Still, said Everhart, “No one thinks of Boise as place where autos were produced. Ever.”
Stories for newcomers and old timers
The NEH grant will pay for planning and research. Stevens then will translate her research into a form the public can use. Possibilities include an interactive website or interpretive signs placed at former industrial sites across the city – like Gate City Steel that operated on the east end of Warm Springs Avenue for close to three decades until the early 1970s, or the Baxter Foundry that cranked out metal parts just below the Boise Depot (the family built the Baxter Apartments that still stand on north Second Street). A walking tour is another possibility, said Stevens – one that could include the former warehouse district near Eighth Street, as one example.
In addition to her work with Boise State, Stevens founded Stevens Historical Research Associates, a historical consulting firm. She also serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. She got the idea for her research into Boise’s industrial past at a planning and zoning meeting when Boise developer Bill Clark mentioned that his proposed housing development would sit on the old steel factory site on Warm Springs Avenue. Stevens hadn’t known the factory existed. She got intrigued, started researching and uncovered other lost sites.
She wants her research to engage both longtime residents and newcomers.
“So many people are drawn here by the desire to create a new identity. I want them to understand the richness and depth of people who were here before the lycra crowd,” said Stevens.
She gave a talk that touched on some of this history to a packed house at Boise State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute last spring. She’s hoping to give more public talks, on campus and throughout the city. She is teaching Boise State’s first urban field school in the spring of 2019. Her students will be steeped in Boise’s deindustrialization story.
“They will help figure out how to explore this, and what to look at,” she said.
David Pettyjohn, executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council, noted that the grant Stevens received is highly competitive.
“It speaks to the high quality and calibre of the team,” said Pettyjohn.
One of the challenges in the humanities, he said, is finding ways to share historic information with the public beyond traditional forms like books and lectures. He praised the public outreach aspect of Stevens’ work and its mission to help the city better understand its own roots.
“When you look at the development of any city, there are always stories that have not been told. This project will share those stories,” Pettyjohn said.