Most diverse place in America? It's not where you think

Story highlights

  • The Mountain View neighborhood in Anchorage scores high on diversity
  • Affordable housing once used by oil pipeline workers now shelters all sorts of newcomers
  • The area is hardly the stereotype lower 48 Americans have of Alaska

Anchorage, Alaska (CNN)The shelves at the Red Apple Market are a giveaway. Dried squid. Sambal Olek chili paste. Corned Australian mutton. Canned grass jelly.

Another clue: Ride the crowded No. 45 bus, which meanders down Mountain View Drive, and you hear chatter in seven languages -- none, English.
    That these markers of diversity are in a neighborhood in Anchorage may surprise folks from the Lower 48 who picture Alaska as a largely homogenous and snowy American extremity. But Alaskans are quite proud of their distinctive demographics.
    Remember Sarah Palin's much-parodied 2008 interview with Katie Couric? One segment ended with this line: "Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America."
    Palin was taken to task for her claim because Alaska's black and Latino populations are lower than the national average.
    And yet ...
    Mountain View, a northeast Anchorage neighborhood, boasts the most diverse census tract in all of America. That's according to University of Alaska sociology professor Chad Farrell, who analyzed the census data.
    In fact, Farrell says the country's three most diverse census tracts are all in Anchorage, followed by a handful in Queens, as in New York, which usually tops everyone's diversity guess list.
    Mao Tosi, an American Samoan and former NFL defensive end, returned to Mountain View after his career with the Arizona Cardinals ended. He wanted to be a part of this rapid change and help the Samoan community assimilate.
    "This place is a snapshot into America's future," says Tosi, his 6-foot-6 frame casting an imposing shadow in the Northway Mall that he operates.
    He speaks of a future in which America will no longer be majority white. Most predictions say that will happen by the middle of this century, and Tosi thinks the nation can take a cue or two from Mountain View.
    "Kids are growing up here without knowing the color of their skin," he says. "They are more influenced by what their neighbor is doing."

    How did Mountain View get there?

    So how exactly did Mountain View score so high in diversity?
    The Red Apple grocery shelves are full of international items.
    Farrell explains the index he used to measure diversity: He looked at the number of ethnic and racial groups, but more importantly, he studied their size relative to one another.
    Farrell found that two things boosted Mountain View to the top. First, there is a sizable white population left. In many other places, neighborhoods that have increased in diversity have also seen white flight. Not so in Mountain View.
    Mountain View also has a significant Alaska Native population, which other cities in America lack.
    Alaska's diversity has spiked in recent years for a host of reasons. Among them are its economy, which prospered when other states were reeling from recession, because it is driven by fishing and oil.
    The state is also home to nine military bases, and Mountain View butts up to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Hawaiian businessman William Hoopai recently opened a new restaurant on the main drag called West Berlin.
    Yup. Schnitzels and sauerkraut attract a lot of uniformed men and women who have spent time in Germany.
    And there has been new immigration to Alaska -- including refugees from troubled nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Cuba, Iran and Bhutan. Many have resettled here in Mountain View.
    Omima Adam, a civil engineer from Sudan, arrived in 2010.
    "I was so shocked when I saw all that snow," she says from the window of her food truck, Sultan Shawarma, parked between a Dominican place and an espresso stand.
    "But I'd rather be cold than dead," she says of the bloodshed in her native Darfur.
    She learned English and puts her heart and soul into her kibbes, shawarmas and falafel. She wants to turn the business into a full-fledged restaurant and return to college to earn an engineering degree that the United States will recognize.
    Mountain View was her new beginning.

    'A better shot at life'

    It's obvious this is not a wealthy place.
    Alice Lawrence chats with Mountain View residents at her house, where she hands put food discarded by grocery stores to people in need.
    Between the colorful new houses built by Cook Inlet Housing Authority lie scarred and tattered structures with molting paint and boarded windows. Mountain View Boulevard is lined with stores such as Price Busters and Cash America Pawn. The big anchor stores all abandoned Northway Mall, Alaska's first enclosed one.
    The last census counted 39% of households as earning less than $25,000; 19% fall below the poverty line. That explains why Alice "Mother" Lawrence's house is full every afternoon.
    The 79-year-old runs a nonprofit that collects foods that have exhausted their shelf lives in local groceries and distributes them to the hungry. Bread, pastries, fruits, vegetables, snacks, soft drinks.
    She landed here in 1967 as a military wife. She had a lot of kids and after her first husband left her, she learned how to get tough. "No one helped me here," she says. "They wouldn't give me a penny."
    That's when she found the Lord and her calling in life: to help the needy. She acquired a Casio keyboard and lined up seven church pews in her living room to minister to the poor.
    Her son, Randy Lawrence, says people he knows in other states say: "What? There are black people in Alaska?" Mountain View's census tract is 13.1% African-American, which is about the national average.
    Lawrence, 49, describes Anchorage as a wannabe bad-ass city.
    "It's not," he laughs as he unloads boxes of day-old cinnamon buns. "As for Mountain View? It's the 'hood. This is as bad as it gets around here."
    Yeah, there's gangs and drugs and other kinds of crime that's inextricably linked to poverty. But he likes living in a smaller place that is so racially mixed.
    "As a black man, I have to say you got a better shot at life here," he said, comparing it with New Jersey, where he was born.
    Carnard Davis, 44, agrees. He moved here from the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project in southwest Atlanta and works at the Boys and Girls Club, where he's simply known as Mr. C.
    "I came here on vacation and saw how smooth and easy it was here," he says. "And I wanted a change."
    The club is full on this cold afternoon with kids from at least a dozen places. They don't all speak English well, but Davis says it doesn't matter.
    On the wall is a poster board with the question: "What does this place mean to you?" Many of the answers say, "family." One says: "This is a place I can be me."

    Living together: 'Even white people like me'

    Mountain View wasn't always a global petri dish.
    Mountain View attracts a wide array of people.
    It grew up as a first-ring suburb that was annexed by Anchorage in the 1950s. It boomed as the place that accommodated transient oil workers who came for jobs on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The history is reflected in Mountain View's housing, a low-cost stock that consists of numerous duplexes and apartment complexes, which in turn attracted people looking for low-rent places in a state where high construction costs make decent housing expensive.
    After the pipeline was finished, Mountain View fell into decline. Crime soared in the 1980s and 1990s and the neighborhood got a bad rap.
    Architectural designer Clark Yerrington moved here in 1999 and recalls how his friends were shocked. It was common to hear people in Anchorage at that time say: "Never move into a neighborhood that ends with 'view.' "
    Mountain View and Fairview, named for their proximity to the Chugach Mountains, had become unsafe. In the height of the crack cocaine era, the blocks around Yerrington's house were "switched on all night."
    "It was sketchy," says Yerrington, who is white. "I moved here because it was affordable. I did not expect to be here long."
    His friends refused to visit him. But he's glad he stayed.
    Mountain View has been bouncing back in recent years, says Kirk Rose, executive director of the Anchorage Community Land Trust, which has purchased and rehabilitated properties and encourages revitalization.
    A credit union converted an eyesore gas station and opened the first financial institution around these parts. Before that, there were only pawn shops that charged 20% for cashing a check, Rose says.
    "The credit union has added 3,000 new accounts," he says.
    And growth around Mountain View has helped. Olive Garden opened last year (a big deal), and now clothing giant H&M has announced it's coming to Anchorage (an even bigger deal). That's the buzz on the street.
    Key to Mountain View is its strong housing authority, which has shepherded construction of affordable homes. One reason the homes are cheaper is because buyers only pay for the house. The housing authority owns the land.
    The better housing has helped change the neighborhood from being largely transient to one where people want to stay, Rose says. "And that is so important for the health of a community."
    Yerrington proudly displays a collection of photos on his dining room wall. They are of houses in Mountain View, each a representation of a place he finds unique.
    There's no white part of town. No Aleut village. Or Chinatown. There are no set patterns.
    "We all live together. Even white people like me. Think how it would be if the whole country had been organized like this. It does people good to break out of their comfort zone and mix with neighbors who are different."
    And there's one more thing. It's Alaska. Yerrington's home is surrounded by wilderness and wildlife. Mountains and moose.
    He can't think of another place in America quite like this.