ARUN RATH, HOST:
We're going to take you now to place where people live, work, play, do everything in one building, all under the same roof. It's not a prison. It's Whittier, Alaska. Over 200 people live in the sleepy town tucked between picturesque mountains on the west side of Prince William Sound. And almost all of them live in a 14-story building that looks like an aging hotel - the Begich Towers. It's actually a former Army barracks - a Cold War relic. Writer Erin Sheehy and photographer Reed Young visited Whittier for the California Sunday Magazine. When they first stepped foot inside Begich Towers, Sheehy says it felt like the halls of her high school.
ERIN SHEEHY: There were bulletin boards along the hallway entrance - its concrete blocks that look like cinderblock, and they were all painted pale yellow.
RATH: The post office is near the entrance. Down the hall, you'll find the police station.
SHEEHY: It did remind me of, you know, my principal's office.
RATH: Whittier is remote. Young says you can get to the town by sea or take a long, one-way, one-lane tunnel through the mountains.
REED YOUNG: So it's still a fairly inaccessible town. Plus, at night, they close the tunnel completely.
RATH: Then there's the weather. The 60-mile-per-hour winter winds are brutal. That's why, in Begich Towers, residents have everything they need, all in one place.
SHEEHY: There's a laundromat, a little market.
YOUNG: And there's a convenience store. There is a health clinic that is not considered a hospital, but they can do some minor things there.
SHEEHY: There's a church in the basement.
RATH: One resident they met, June Miller, owns a bed-and-breakfast on the top two floors.
YOUNG: She prides herself on having the fanciest and prettiest, best interior design condos for rent in the whole town.
RATH: In Young's photo, she's in front of a window with binoculars, staring at the snow-covered mountains.
SHEEHY: She outfitted all of the bed-and-breakfasts with binoculars, which most people in town, particularly on the harbor side of the building, seemed to have binoculars.
YOUNG: A lot of people keep them there to watch whales breaching and mountain goats grazing and things like that. But June always told us that these are basically for finding out if your husband's at the bar. So we love that part.
RATH: Downstairs, at the Kozy Korner grocery store, employee Gary Carr, an older man with big denim overalls and a long, white beard, sits behind a computer. Surrounded by shelves stocked with food, it looks like he's waiting out the zombie apocalypse.
SHEEHY: When we were setting up our portrait, he said, oh, man, maybe I should save my beard. And this guy who was in the store with him was, like, no, man, they want that Alaska swag, you know? They want that real Alaska. So people were very aware of how interesting their town was to outsiders.
RATH: But for those like Erika Thompson, a teacher who lives in Begich Towers - she says life is pretty normal.
ERIKA THOMPSON: For me, it's just home. For the most part, you know everybody. It's a community under one roof. We have everything we need.
RATH: Thompson teaches at the school behind the tower. She's lived there for five years now. She says everyone has a story of how they ended up in Whittier.
THOMPSON: Some people love it because it can be really social. And some people love it because they can be reclusive.
RATH: Young and Sheehy's two-week reporting trip gave them a new perspective on their own hometowns.
YOUNG: The views were just unreal. You have this bay and then these giant mountains. It's hard to imagine that people get to wake up to that every day. It was incredible.
SHEEHY: Coming back to New York, I see the ways that all of us compromise things. And for a lot of people in Whittier, it makes more sense to be there than somewhere down here.
RATH: Writer Erin Sheehy and photographer Reed Young. Their report, "Town Hall," is featured in the California Sunday Magazine. Check out Young's photos at npr.org. This is NPR News.
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