At first blush, it’s strange and disarming that a well-kept little retailer with tourist cachet wouldn’t even have a restroom available to customers. But that’s exactly what this sign in the front door of the Ulu Factory in Anchorage is telling us.
It really couldn’t be more explicit. The winsome little chalet on the outskirts of downtown features heavily in most touristic guides, because it connects visitors to a distinct piece of traditional Alaskan craftsmanship.
But if people need a bio break, they may as well be at a huge outdoor music concert, because this is what they get.
Notice the porto-john there to the left.
I’m hardly one to impugn the use of a porto-john as some indicator of a civilizational backslide. They’re inordinately useful, and, unless they’re very poorly maintained, they’re rarely even that gross when considering more rustic outhouse alternatives. I’ve featured them in previous blog articles. Besides, those tourists who get squeamish at the prospect of using porto-johns probably made a mistake by visiting Alaska. The least densely populated state by far, huge stretches of the wilderness lack any real infrastructure and certainly any plumbing. One has to get used to porto-johns as the primary option in an any major Alaska state park, at least outside of the visitor center near the entrance. In fact, a perfectly well maintained gas station and convenience store in a village the size of Glennallen (pop. 500) may still only feature porto-johns rather than a conventional indoor restroom facility.
That said, the Ulu Factory is in the heart of the state’s largest city, just blocks north from the downtown shopping, adjacent to the prodigious Anchorage waterfront where the Ship Creek flows into the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. The surrounding area is part of a riverfront park, featuring running trails, public fishing areas, and even a few restaurants.
And just a three-minute walk away is the primary Anchorage station for the Alaska Railroad Corporation, the popular train linking Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the state’s most famous park on the Denali Star Line. So it’s a bit strange that the Ulu Factory features no public restrooms, given its goal of attracting the public, not just to browse the merchandise but even to watch demonstrations on the various uses to the distinctive “iron” shape of an Ulu knife, or even how the on-site factory manufactures them.
So what has prompted the positioning of a porto-john? I have a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t always the case, nor do I imagine that workers at the Ulu Factory use the signature blue outhouse when nature calls. Though Alaska probably depends on porto-johns more than most states, it’s highly unlikely that a 14,000 square foot facility in urban Anchorage would eschew basic wastewater plumbing. They have an indoor toilet. In fact, a Street View image from 2019 does not depict any sort of porto-john in the area where I encountered it. It’s a recent addition.
I could be way off base, but I think it has more to do with an escalating awareness of the “free-rider problem” and public restrooms—people who do not and have no intention of purchasing an item at the store but merely use it as a chance to relieve their bladder and/or bowels. The proprietors at the Ulu Factory became tired of turning into a rest area for people enjoying the waterfront trail, or fishing. Thankfully, just a few hundred feet away, an alternative exists in a very new-looking City-sponsored restroom facility; I failed to photograph it, but it’s visible from the overhead bridge in this Google Street View. The restroom is on the right, and the Ulu Factory is just outside of view in the lower left. Random passers-by now have two options.
I can think of one other condition that might further prompt the Ulu Factory to deploy a porto-john in its parking lot, and it has far more to do with the socioeconomic conditions the region is facing right at the moment. Pivot around to the back side of the facility and it’s a bit clearer why I’m making this assumption.
In bountiful times, the Ulu Factory operates a trolley that links the facility with the heart of the Anchorage’s downtown hotel district, partly visible in the distance in the above photo to the far right. It doesn’t look like the trolley is getting much use these days—not abandoned, and certainly not operating at 8 in the morning, when I took that photo, But I have a feeling that the properties of the Ulu Factory haven’t put it to much use. It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns were devastating to much of the Alaska economy, which depends heavily on summer tourism, much of it driven by cruise ships on either day tours to the glaciers or more long-term excursions. Though Anchorage itself does not absorb a huge amount of the cruise ship industry—they often embark from smaller towns like Seward or Valdez—Alaska’s largest city is still the hub for a significant proportion of tourist arrivals to the state, and they stay there for at least a day or two, visiting places like the Ulu Factory and its chain of parks.
Touristically speaking, 2021 was a vast improvement over 2020; the economy was much more open. But in the absence of a concerted social safety net directly calibrated to jobs lost during the great slumber of 2020, poverty and especially homelessness amplified, not just in Alaska but around the world. And for those wondering why a cold climate like Anchorage would have a sizable homeless problem, suffice it to say that Alaska’s remote location in relation to the rest of the US (or any other major city) combined with Anchorage’s comparatively temperate climate makes it a far easier place for them to congregate. This photo of adjacent Buttress Park—the hillside separating Ship Creek and the Ulu Factory from the rest of downtown Anchorage—intended to capture a nascent rainbow.
But it also shows at least one small encampment tucked in the hillside. Notice the tent there in the center of the photo. A sizable portion of the homeless population of Anchorage congregates in the shadows of major hotels—Hilton, Ramada—potentially to seek alms from tourists, but also the comparative ease and availability of the restrooms. I’m perhaps venturing into speculation territory here, but the Ulu Factory likely installed the porto-john in the last year or so, noticing the decline in tourism compounded with an explosion in homelessness. Not wanting the homeless patrons to outnumber paying customers, the leasing of a porto-john at least allowed them to provide a core service to anyone who needed it.
I cannot easily predict whether economic conditions in Anchorage or the world at large will improve enough to help prompt some of the neediest population into both gainful employment and stable housing. But, where space and municipal codes allow it, I suspect the porto-john phenomena may become more popular among business owners in the restaurant and retail industry, to help in part at staving off the free-rider problem and distinguishing the committed customers, while providing a balanced service that gives homeless an option without encouraging them to enter the premises. If I’m correct n my assumption, then at least porto-johns are a lot cleaner than they were when I was a kid. In many cases, they even have hand sanitizer!