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Behind the fake Whole Foods sign that caused a stir in Anchorage

So, my cellphone rings and it's a friend who asks whether I had read a story in the newspaper headlined "Someone trolled Anchorage with a sign announcing a Whole Foods store. But who? And why?"

Sure, I told him, I read the story. Why?

"It was me," he replied.

The sign was affixed to a chain-link fence encircling the empty parcel that once was home for the Alaska Native Medical Center, which opened in 1953 to care for Alaska Natives suffering from tuberculosis. The tract is in what I sometimes call the impact zone, at the intersection of East Third Avenue and Gambell Street, near the Brother Francis Shelter, Bean's Cafe and the Anchorage Correctional Complex.

The 4-by-8 vinyl outdoor banner emblazoned with "WHOLE FOODS MARKET, New Store Comming (sic) Soon To Anchorage" caused quite a stir. And why not? It is Whole Foods, for crying out loud. Does it get any better? Where else can you get meatless meatballs, chickenless nuggets,  chicken lemon kale sausage, a limited-edition tomato, finger limes or even a tofu ginger rice muffin?

The sign's misspelling only added to its cachet, its mystery.

Natural food giant Whole Foods quickly disavowed the message. It told Alaska Dispatch News that fake signs pop up occasionally; that it has no plans for Alaska; that it is grateful for the interest. The sign had people trying to figure out the culprit(s), the message and the meaning as news of it ricocheted around social media.

Newly elected downtown district Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant, ADN's Michelle Theriault Boots reported, saw it as a "thought-provoking piece of commentary that exposes an uncomfortable 'societal cognitive dissonance' about a simultaneous desire for upscale groceries and (a) tendency to look away from problems like public substance abuse and homelessness."

As my friend started telling me about the sign, what he was saying did not immediately sink in. He's talking and I'm wondering: You did what? It seemed so unlike him. He is a smart young guy, a successful businessman and a guy who can spell — he kicks my patoot at Words With Friends on a regular basis. He never struck me as a potential guerrilla in an urban development war. Why would he do it?

"To draw attention to places in Anchorage that are neglected or otherwise being squandered," he said, with surprising fervor. "I didn't expect to get as big a reaction as I did. I'm glad that it drew attention to the situation and the effect wasn't lost on people.

"I picked the lot because it was the most obvious waste of land that I saw. It's a grass field, for Christ's sake, it's 90 percent park already. Instead, it's just chain-link and barbed wire around some rusty trucks. We can build a soup kitchen up the street on (Third Avenue) that looks like a … Harley dealership but cannot spend a couple grand for some landscaping and a little brickwork?"

The misspelling on the sign? He bought it online, out of state to remain anonymous and did not receive a final proof before it arrived, he said. "At first, I regretted hanging it with the typo," he said. "Now I'm kind of glad I did."

Driving around, it is easy to get his point about the city. Anchorage admittedly is not the prettiest town in the nation. At its best, it is eclectic. At its worst? An homage to the expedient; as appealing as a bad rash. There are parts of this city begging for development or parks or a general cleanup. Is what we are doing the best we can do?

He does not think so and is, he said, simply trying to kick-start a conversation about this city and what it could be with a little work. Unarguably, there is a lot of room for improvement.

"The empty lot north across Fifth Avenue from the 5th Avenue Mall bothers me too," he said. "They tore down that building, so we could have a gravel pit and a chain-link fence that will probably be there a decade now. Is gravel and $100 worth of chain-link the best we can do for downtown?

"I won't even bother putting any energy into talking about the 4th Avenue Theatre."

Who helped him put up the sign? He is not saying. What does he expect to get out of all this? Nothing, he said, he just wants people to see what could be done in this city, the possibilities, the potential — what is not being done. No running for office? I asked. Nope. No monetary gain? Nope. No nothing? Nope. Just conversation. Any more signs? Not saying.

His message, though, seems clear enough — that we, as a city, can do better.

He's right.

Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins is a former Associated Press reporter, managing editor of the Anchorage Times, an editor of the Voice of the Times and former editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.

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