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Before he retires, one more ‘rainbow staircase’ for this Anchorage city worker

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: October 12, 2017
  • Published October 11, 2017

Christopher Salerno, air quality specialist with the municipality’s Department of Health and Human Services, installs colored Mylar over the lights in the stair well. The gels create a rainbow on one stairwell and a blue ice effect on the other stairwell of the DHHS building at 825 L St. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

When his partner of more than a decade died of AIDS, Christopher Salerno was a newer member of Anchorage's air quality control office, working at the city health building downtown.

It was 1996, shortly after the height of the AIDS epidemic in America. Salerno, navigating his grief, sought ways to be creative. He turned to the white five-story staircases behind glass panels at the front and back of the health building.

Using cheap plastic cellophane, Salerno and his co-workers covered the ceiling lights of the building's back staircase with the colors of the rainbow. White lights outlined a candle, a memorial for Salerno's partner. The front staircase was covered in holiday lights.

From a personal moment of grief, Salerno created what's now a well-known winter sight in downtown Anchorage. On Wednesday morning, he stood on a ladder in the stairwell, putting up his "rainbow staircase" for nearly the 20th year in a row.

"As simple as it is, it's very effective," Salerno said, reaching up over his head to tape up red plastic over a light.

It may also be Salerno's last time doing it. He plans to retire in January. He hopes the tradition of putting up the lights continues, even though the city health department may move within the next several years.

When Salerno does retire, he'll leave much of himself in the worn-down building, which is like his second home.

The stairwell in the Department of Health and Human Services is colored in rainbow hues. (MOA DHHS)

Salerno is the last of the municipal air quality inspectors. His air monitoring program has gradually shifted to being almost entirely run by the state.

He used to be part of a team of six, monitoring carbon monoxide and dust from field stations. With his co-workers, Salerno tried to make the health building, a former hospital dating back to the 1960s, a nicer place to work. The crew planted gardens and trees around the building. In the fall, pumpkins and scarecrows appeared.

In the health building basement, the home of the air quality lab, Salerno did his best to convert a drab, dilapidated employee break room into a tropical paradise. He brought in paintings, puzzles and live plants, and helped paint an aquarium mural on the back wall outside the window.

His office down the hall used to be the city morgue. The green and black tile floor looks like an M.C. Escher drawing. He decorated his front door with torn-out pages from a daily desk calendar of Italy, where he plans to vacation shortly after he retires.

Around the basement, a collection of Salerno's art and photographs hangs on the walls.

Through a door labeled "Air Lab," there's what Salerno calls a "graveyard" for old air monitoring equipment. Salerno barely uses the equipment anymore. He now does all of what he and his co-workers used to do from a computer. The state is slowly recycling the equipment, so it's sticking around, Salerno said.

Salerno grew up in Nebraska and first came to Alaska to work as a commercial halibut fisherman. He got a master's in environmental science at the University of Alaska Anchorage and joined the air quality department in 1994.

Christopher Salerno, air quality specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, stands in the doorway of his office in Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday.  (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

For his job today, Salerno checks monitoring stations around the city and creates a daily report. He also talks to a lot of other city offices, like code enforcement and street-sweeping crews, and campaigns for plugging in cars in cold weather. He fields complaints about smoke and dust and odors. It's been a joy to work for the city all this time, Salerno said.

Each year, close to Halloween, Salerno goes down into the basement and fishes out the colorful plastic wrap he uses to decorate the stairwell. The pieces are covered with tape from years of use. He completed the rainbow display in the back staircase of the health building on Wednesday, and covered the lights in the front staircase in glacier-blue wrap.

For Salerno, the coming moves — the department's and his own — made his final stairwell decoration seem even more important.

Someone else, this year, will take down the colored lights. That usually happens in March, after the red lantern has crossed the finish line of the Iditarod. It's the sign of a new season, Salerno said.

Christopher Salerno installs colored Mylar over the lights in the stair well on Wednesday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

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