Boise’s brief flirtation with slot machine gambling might seem a minor matter warranting only the briefest notice. Merle Wells, the dean of Idaho historians, devoted less than a single paragraph to the subject in his history of Boise, Boise: An Illustrated History. Following Boise’s banning of the slots, Wells noted, gambling interests created Garden City on its outskirts, which flourished like a weed for a few years before state law prohibited all gambling. That left Garden City with little reason to exist “except as a haven from Boise’s municipal taxes and zoning laws.”
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Its continued existence, however, led to an “uneasy relationship of Boise and Garden City” resulting ever since in “ineffective and inefficient public administration.” End of story, as told by Wells, drawing a discreet curtain over what many Boiseans saw as its inexcusably sleazy suburb. That utterly misses the significance of the episode.
TAKING THE HIGH GROUND
Boise’s prohibition of slot machines actually marked a defining moment in the city’s history. Confronted with the moral challenge of easy money at the cost of reprehensible side effects, Boise quickly and unflinchingly took what it perceived to be the high ground. This moral steadfastness, however, has frequently been accompanied by a blind self-righteousness, unable to see, let alone empathize with, the needs and interests of people who cannot or choose not to share Boise’s values.
Boise’s sense of vindicated honor at banning slots in 1949 soon turned to infuriated chagrin when gambling interests persuaded residents a few hundred yards west of Boise’s city limits to incorporate as Garden City. Immediately thereafter it began to license slot machines. Outraged Boiseans took no comfort from the fact that Garden City was only one of 17 “foot-wide towns” in Idaho, as Life magazine called them, popping up to provide gambling venues. Read the fascinating Life Magazine spread on gambling in Idaho.Nor did they, either at the time or later on, have any taste for the notion that Garden City simply amounted to an anachronistic throwback to a time when suburbs were slums for undesirable activities and people.
Boiseans condemned Garden City as nothing more than a “robbers’ camp,” a “community sore,” a place where “its main and almost only business is liquor and gambling.” The original core of Garden City, known as Fairview Acres at the time and now referred to as Old Town, occupied a wedge-shaped area west of the junction of Highways 20/26 and 30, hemmed in by the Bench and the river. Residents had considered incorporation in 1947 but had not pursued the idea. Then, on April 28, 1949, barely three weeks after Boise voters had repudiated slot machines; the county commissioners received a petition signed by 177 people requesting incorporation of the area from 32nd to 38th Streets.
The proposed village began with a population of 542, including 247 under the age of 18. The incorporators denied they had any personal connections with gambling, but they showed no reluctance to do business with casino operators.
Undeterred by this transparent ploy to thwart Boise’s opposition to slots, the commissioners speedily approved Garden City’s incorporation on May 21. For Boiseans it was disgust at first sight. To them Garden City reeked of ill-gotten gain from the hundreds of slot machines crammed into its bars and casinos. Within six months of its founding it had become the “richest village of its size in the state,” reported John Corlett in the Idaho Statesman, with its slot machines “grinding out revenue at a fantastic rate.” Garden City had already gained an “unsavory, ‘sin city’ reputation” that would linger for decades. Over the past half-century, Garden City has epitomized the “dark side” to its many critics. It has shown a lamentable readiness, in the eyes of Boiseans proud of their standards, to accept both people and businesses found objectionable by so-called “nice” neighborhoods and conventional business parks.
A staff report, released by then-Boise Mayor Dick Eardley in October, 1977, summed up with undiplomatic bluntness an attitude long prevalent at Boise City Hall: “A significant number of undesirables live in and operate out of Garden City. We do not want that area to expand.”
The acceptance of marginal or questionable businesses emerged only after the statewide prohibition of all gambling as of January 1, 1954, but Garden City’s social tolerance dates from its very beginning, resulting from a variety of factors. In part, it arose from the pre-existing social composition of the area. Fairview Acres had been a place where people could build inexpensive homes which might not meet city building codes or middle class expectations. In 1952, Marjorie Moon, later the publisher of the Garden City Gazette, profiled an aspect of the village rarely seen or understood by most Boiseans. Behind the “bustling clubs and motels, interspersed with a few grocery stores and gas stations” strung along the main street lay the “real” Garden City: “a town for all the world like a frontier community of the Old West, with modest homes, oiled streets… and a two-and-a-half acre grass-covered park.”
ZONING FOR THE ‘LITTLE FELLOW’
Towns in the frontier West had rarely been sticklers for building codes. Following in that tradition, Garden City quickly retracted its initial adoption of Boise’s building code. “I don’t think we’re ready for those restrictions yet,” Bud Owens told the village trustees in June, 1949. “We have to think of the little fellow that wants to get started.” A poll of the trustees revealed three of those present preferred no restrictions at all, “but the majority favored light restrictions.” Concern for Bud Owens’ “little fellow” had never been a strong point in Boise. People who failed to meet middle class standards of propriety were guilty, in the eyes of many Boiseans, of slothful indolence and deserved neither sympathy nor tolerance.
The consequences of such an attitude could be seen in the history of the River Street area, a neighborhood housing not only Boise’s tiny black population but also a variety of other outsiders. Pam Demo has carefully documented the working class tolerance for social diversity to be found in the River Street area, as well as the shacks in which some its residents found themselves forced to live. Pam Demo, “Boise’s River Street Neighborhood: Lee, Ash and Lovers Lane/Pioneer Street: The South Side of the Tracks,” Master’s Thesis, University of Idaho, 2006.The reaction of Boise officials? Get rid of it. Convert it into something useful, such as an industrial area, according to the 1946 zoning proposal. Not until the 1970s, tantalized by the lure of money from the federal Model Cities program, did Boise make any attempt to respond to the needs and interests of River Street residents. Nothing equivalent to Demo’s study has yet appeared for Garden City, but evidence can be readily found that the new village had no intention of attempting to gentrify itself to meet Boise’s approval. Its founders utterly rejected the notion advanced by Reverend Hartzell Cobb, president of the Boise Ministerial Association: “Boise and Garden City were almost one insofar as common interests are concerned.”
In May, 1949, at one of the very first public meetings of the new village, the question arose whether it might not be best to join Boise. “We don’t want to pay $7 per $100 in taxes to fix up Warm Springs avenue and Harrison Boulevard,” James Titmus jeeringly responded. The class antagonism so obvious in Titmus’s statement would continue to typify Garden City attitudes toward Boise until the 1990s when a growing number of upper-end subdivisions altered the town’s social mix. Garden City residents might resent the affluent living on Boise’s finest streets, but they readily responded to those in need in their own community. Unlike Boise’s Council, which managed the city’s money with all of the caution typical of small-town businessmen who, in fact, made up most of its membership, Garden City’s trustees displayed the kind of open-handed generosity one might expect from working people suddenly finding themselves with a great deal of money. Sometimes, such as a case in September, 1949, that meant simply allotting $15 for groceries to an unnamed person in need. At a time when 23 cents would buy two cans of Campbell’s tomato soup and a loaf of raisin bread cost 16 cents, $15 could buy a lot of groceries. On other occasions the trustees decided they needed to do more than give a handout for food or rent. On October 17, 1949, they discussed the case of Joseph Buenes, concluding they should, “try and find some work for him.” The trustees also stood ready to support local charities. A week after the Buenes case, they voted to supply the $1,000 which the local Christian Community Center reportedly needed to complete its building. Learning a week later that the Center needed only $800, the trustees diverted the remaining $200 to “the Church of God in our own village.” As long as gambling remained legal, there was little danger the trustees’ generosity might overtax the village’s resources. In February, 1950 the treasurer reported a balance of $15,000 in the checking account. Six months later the village’s unappropriated surplus had jumped to $86,380. By July, 1953 the trustees could authorize the purchase of $300,000 in U.S. bonds.
ONE MAN’S JUNKYARD
No one reading the Boise paper would have any inkling that Garden City represented a town far different from Boise. Not only did it enjoy, at least temporarily, a level of municipal wealth unlike anything Boise had ever experienced, Garden City, from its very beginning, also chose to regulate itself in ways which Boiseans have always failed to understand. In June, 1949, the Statesman compared Garden City to a boy who had eaten too many green apples. It “came into being too quickly” and “lacks the foundation and not even slot machines can build it.” As if to prove the editorial’s case, the same day it appeared the trustees voted to “shelve all building restrictions indefinitely.” A week later they decided to act on each case on its own merits, instructing the building inspector to submit all building proposals to the trustees for approval. Thus began a venture into city planning so alien to Boise’s way of thinking as to defy all reason as Boiseans understood it.
The trustees did enact a building code in the fall of 1949, but they continued to make decisions inexplicable to many Boiseans. Why limit casinos to one per block? What kind of sense was there in creating a commercial zone encompassing over half of the village’s total area? How could one rationalize banning all junkyards from residential areas when the whole village seemed like one huge junkyard? The working class politics evident in the village’s turbulent, controversy-ridden trustees soon became the laughing stock of many Boiseans. Boise had only a few years to indulge in the luxury of dismissing Garden City as an inconsequential travesty. The chickens first came home to roost in 1954 as Garden City confronted a future without gambling. The five-year-old town didn’t face an immediate crisis—it had saved enough during the salad days of gambling to be able to coast a bit before it even needed to assess any property taxes on its residents. Nevertheless, Garden City’s leaders faced the challenge of redefining their town. “The principal problem,” as Henry Reed, the village attorney put it, “…is going to be able to obtain sufficient revenue to provide the essentials of municipal government.”
The leaders quickly decided on two major departures from previous patterns. The results of those departures not only determined the character of Garden City for many years to come; they would also bedevil Boise’s conception of itself and significantly complicate the direction of the city’s growth. The first departure, in effect, continued the wide-open approach begun with gambling. State law might prohibit gambling, but Garden City would continue accepting businesses rejected by Boise. Prior to 1954 Garden City used its zoning powers to minimize the intrusion of marginal businesses and those offending middle-class householders. Thereafter, it threw open the door to any business it could possibly accommodate. In September, 1954, Guy Robinson, chairman of the Garden City Planning Commission, recommended rezoning the entire village for industrial use. “No use trying to make it residential,” he said. Two weeks later, Gerald Sherwood, the commission secretary, removed all doubt about its intentions: “the Planning Commission has been thinking mostly in terms of promoting Garden City as a well-known industrial city… We will, in fact, help any business in any way that we can, if they wish to locate in Garden City.”
The implications of this industry-friendly policy can be seen in the handling of junkyards. The trustees had previously looked askance at them. In 1952, they banned junkyards from residential areas. Under the new policy junkyards soon cropped up all over the town. Confronted by neighbors’ objections to these intrusions, the trustees timorously attempted to work out ad hoc compromises. A revealing entry appeared in the trustees’ minutes. The Planning Commission requested the trustees take steps for “the improvement of wrecking yards in the Village.” It was suggested that they beautify their premises behind a high board fence. Three or four months ago they had all agreed to do so, but time has passed and nothing has been done. So, it seems to have been thrown into our laps to do something.
The Chairman appointed a couple of the members to talk with the junkyard owners “and come up with some solution.” A month later the report came back that the owners would build the requested fences within 90 days, but no real ‘solution’ materialized then or later. The owners thought they had been invited in and objected to anyone telling them to mind their p’s and q’s. They probably shared the opinion of Larry Abbott, an owner, who protested the trustees’ passage of an ordinance requiring wrecking yards to keep their premises in a “reasonably neat, clean and wholesome condition.” “You can’t tell me how to run my business,”Abbott retorted. “That’s not free enterprise.” Boiseans shook their heads in disgust and paid as little attention to Garden City as they could.
Boise prided itself on being a clean and attractive city. Rarely has Boise shown any awareness that a city must have a place for recycling establishments, such as wrecking yards and low-end used furniture stores, and for start-up businesses able to survive only in low-rent areas such as those provided by Garden City. Beginning in the 1990s, Garden City’s urban renewal program aimed to upgrade areas previously allowing spurned uses such as wrecking yards. Boiseans have applauded that effort, without asking where the displaced businesses might go. “Regional planning” continues to be as myopic, in that regard, as in 1964, when the city plan prepared for Boise by Atkinson & Associates never mentioned Garden City.
Boise has never suffered gladly any opposition to what it sees as the wise and moral thing to do. Regardless of whether it is facing the small and sullied Garden City or the Ada County Board of Commissioners, Boise finds it very hard to accept the legitimacy of any opponents, preferring to question their rationality or morality rather than accept the existence of well-founded policies and values markedly differing from those favored by Boiseans. Confident they did the wise and moral thing by banning gambling, Boiseans looked at Garden City and found nothing worthy of acceptance. As we have seen, a similar blend of integrity and blind self-righteousness has frequently characterized Boise’s relations with its neighbors in the second half of the 20th century.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.