A few months after a visit, we’re still dreaming of a city. It’s an endlessly appealing former frontier city where there’s some fierce local pride. The place is consistently noted as a thriving incubator for innovation, a culturally rich and topographically breathtaking place to which the doers and makers have been flocking.
For all the forward-thinking going on here, the locals are justifiably proud of their freak side, too. The city’s psychedelic intersection is one of its top attractions. Another tourist trap is the creepy old prison. Some longtime residents like to point out that at the end of John Waters’s camp classic “Pink Flamingos,” the drag queen Divine decides to move here.
Are we dreaming of San Francisco? You can guess again. These days, one of the country’s most appealing cities happens to be Boise, Idaho, where 100-year history rubs up against high tech, and the locals bristle when you get the name of the place wrong. Just as newcomers to the Bay Area are firmly instructed never to call the place “Frisco” or “San Fran,” in Boise, there is no Z.
One of the first things we laid eyes on after parking downtown on a glorious September afternoon was a T-shirt bearing a handy primer: “Boy C, Not Boy Z.” The image was created by local artist Ward Hooper, who runs a gallery and “urban garage” selling vintage goods and affordable art inspired by classic advertising.
There’s a wholesome, fresh-air feel to the “City of Trees” that extends outward from the very walkable Boise Centre to the abundant bungalows of the North End, the Sunset neighborhood and beyond. But there’s also an underlying sense that eccentricity might lurk just behind those inviting front-porch doors. The surreal filmmaker David Lynch spent his formative years in Boise. “It was a dream world,” he has said. “Those droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it was supposed to be.”
Our Airbnb guesthouse, listed as an “Urban Retreat,” was located in a quiet, fenced backyard patrolled by a couple of clucking chickens. Beyond the picnic table stood a large yurt, rented on this day by a friendly family from Oregon.
Creativity is prospering in Boise, where the ever-morphing mural project known as Freak Alley has become a point of civic pride. The city recently invested development money into the area, acknowledging that thousands of visitors navigate the loading zones and Dumpsters each year to take in the wild array of rock-god portraits and mind-bending symbolism.
The city, of course, has the requisite assortment of brewpubs, indie-concept eateries, and coffee houses. Looking for a stylish hat or accessory? Try Crazy Neighbor, a swank new boutique run by a veteran theater costumer and stylist with the irresistible name Star Moxley.
Even the ice cream in Boise is artisan and joyful. At the downtown treat shop called the STIL (Sweetest Things in Life), a crowded storefront that specializes in “booze-infused” ice cream, I ordered the honey bourbon flavor, because why not? It was, unsurprisingly, exquisite.
All of this craftsmanship seems an organic extension of Boise’s pioneering past. Established as a military post during the Civil War, the site was originally identified by trappers and settlers traveling a nearby stretch of the Oregon Trail. The once little city’s population has grown from 17,000 in 1910 to 75,000 in 1970 and has been on a steady climb since, to a recent estimate of 226,000. Exiles from the San Francisco Bay area, dismayed by that region’s insane cost of living and soul-crushing gentrification, have been relocating to Boise in big numbers, along with Reno, Salt Lake City, and other manageable cities of the West. The influence is palpable: as Idaho Statesman columnist Michael Deeds wrote recently, it sometimes “feels like every Californian will eventually move here.”
But Boise’s humble can-do spirit lives on in the legacy of the late, self-taught artist James Castle. Born deaf and all but untutored, he made a vast portfolio of drawings and assemblages from found objects, using scrap paper and self-made tools. After it was brought to public attention by a nephew in the 1950s, Castle’s work has become known as a leading example of “outsider” art.
In 2015, the city of Boise purchased the small home on Eugene Street where Castle spent the latter half of his life, living with his mother, Mary. An extensive restoration project uncovered several previously unknown works by the artist, which he’d squirreled away inside the walls.
The house, elegantly restored with exposed sections that reveal its onetime condition, opened as a public gallery in spring 2018. Work on the dilapidated shed next to the house, where Castle did much of his work, is ongoing.
Collections of Castle’s work, meanwhile, have been acquired and exhibited by the Smithsonian and the Whitney, and are worth millions.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.