Alaska, Then and Now: Interview with Sonya Senkowsky

Andromeda: In a young state, every bit of recorded history is particularly valuable. I love puzzling over the paired photos in Alaska Then and Now: Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks by Sonya Senkowsky and Amanda Coyne, seeing how places have changed or stayed the same. It’s a great gift book or reference shelf addition for the 50th statehood year we’ve just started celebrating.

Sonya, tell us one surprising or fascinating historical fact you didn’t realize before you wrote the book.

Sonya Senkowsky: A big surprise for me was just how much and how quickly the Juneau waterfront has moved. Juneau is distinctive both for how much seems the same–many historic buildings have been preserved–and for how drastically the city has actually changed. Much of the city is built on fill from the rock dump. That makes many then photos from the former waterfront very difficult to place in today’s Juneau. For example, if you look at the Front Street pair of photos (pp. 68-69), you would have been a block or less from waterfront in the 1900s; today if you were headed out to your boat from that point, I think you could get a healthy 15-20-minute walk in.
This was a bit challenging for me when I selected “then” photos. One idyllic “then” photo I’d selected would’ve place the “now” in a landlocked parking lot! (We didn’t use it.)

Andromeda: Writing long captions was just one of your jobs creating this book. You also had to manage the project in other ways, like researching the historical photos and helping a photographer create the “now” photos. Tell us something about this process. Did you have to travel?

Sonya Senkowsky: The research was the heart of the work–and that included selecting the photos, researching where they were taken, and then getting enough information to re-create the original photo. The “now” images were shot by a photographer who regularly shoots for “Then & Now” books in this series all over the world. So, he didn’t know Alaska, but he was familiar with the nuances involved in taking these kinds of pictures.
It was up to us to give him adequate information to take the right pictures from the right direction. I spent marathon sessions with my husband’s help marking up maps and writing instructions. (His skill navigating Google Earth was just invaluable for this step.) But yes, we did travel during our research, also. Specifically for the book, I did make one trip to Juneau, and my co-author, Amanda, made a trip to Fairbanks. Of course, we’d been to these cities before, but the personal trip was necessary to get a look at the “now” scenes and place them for the book.
Some photos lined up beautifully. In other cases, there was precious little to go on, and we had to settle for not exactly replicating the original scene. Then there’s a third category: Buildings that moved! One thing I learned was that Alaska’s buildings have a tendency to, um, not stay put. In Anchorage, at least two of the buildings we wrote up had been moved: one, the Wendler building, was moved down the street to save it during downtown development in the 1980s. The photo pair looks great, but though it’s clearly the same building, they were not taken at the same location. Another building that moved was the Pioneer School House. And it didn’t just move; it was practically spun around–and then, of course, remodeled. And don’t get me started again on that Juneau waterfront…
Andromeda: If you could time-travel 100 years into the future and find yourself standing in front of a particular viewpoint in Alaska (one that might develop in some unexpected way) where would you go?

Sonya Senkowsky: For me, the big lesson of the book was this: Whatever I guess about the future, it could change in an instant. So much can happen in 100 years. That’s a big part of the story of Alaska.

Today’s three largest cities in Alaska owe their status now to a series of twists of fate. At a certain point in Alaska history, my “Alaska Then” counterpart might have chosen Douglas and Knik as Alaska’s “obvious” future urban centers. But factors like the gold rush, the building of the Alaska Railroad, and a devastating fire in Douglas helped change that. So, keeping in mind that I could never entirely guess at what 100 years of the Internet, satellite technology and future advances, development, disasters and world events might bring, here are two possible answers:
1) Of course, the whole climate change scenario brings to mind taking a peek at the top of the world. So, to check on what happened there, I might ask to see the farthest north commercial port in the state. If that lands me, say, at Barrow, and the ships in dock don’t look like icebreakers, then I’d suspect things had changed considerably!

2) On a more personal level, I’d probably do what any of us would instinctively do and revisit the site of my home. I live on the eastern edge of the city, as far as you can go before hitting Army land, which means that I live next door to forestlands. I’m personally curious about boundaries (I used to write a column about this called Home on the Edge) because I think that observing what happens at a city’s boundaries can tell you volumes about growth and change in how people there live.

Boundaries are vital, changing places. In a place that is still growing as much as Alaska, if you revisit a boundary site in 100 years, you’re just about certain to see change. In 100 years, I might find my home and neighborhood not only much changed, but possibly even gone. There could be a highway where my house is (this was once in the city’s 20-year plan). There might be nothing. Either way, it would speak volumes about Anchorage and what had happened in Alaska in that 100 years.

Andromeda: Anything else you’d like to share?

Sonya Senkowsky: Just that it has been a pleasure to see people enjoying this book. I understand now that there is a real hunger for Alaska history, and this format is a really engaging and evocative way to learn and understand it. Since the book came out, I’ve learned of others who’ve done similar “re-photography” projects on a smaller scale, or who just find the idea stimulating. I would encourage anyone who has a then and now pair to document what is pictured and share it with the world–or at least with our state! One picture may be a thousand words, but a pair of pictures like these provides bookends for a full narrative, and the stories are worth telling.

Sonya Senkowsky co-authored Alaska Then and Now: Anchorage, Juneau & Fairbanks, with Amanda Coyne. She is also the founder of a website, “Alaska Writers“.

1 thought on “Alaska, Then and Now: Interview with Sonya Senkowsky”

  1. First let me say: Brrrr. Our furnace went out last night, and my new definition of cold is when you plug in the crockpot five hours early in hopes that some residual heat will seep into the room. But never fear, the furnace guy has been here (with treats for my sweatered dog, even), and we’re now up to a balmy 52 degrees. Not sure if the crockpot gets any credit for pulling us up from 46.

    More on topic, it’s wonderful that we have three fairly new books celebrating Alaska’s history through photos, each with a different angle. You can acquire all three (I hope you do) and find little if any duplication among them. The others are Dermot Cole’s Historic Photos of Alaska and my Picture This, Alaska.

    Great interview, Sonya. I can totally relate to your labor of love and especially like your thoughts on boundary places.

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