Can $949K buy a piece of the true Montana?

May 8, 2022 6:33 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

On June 12, 2021, excavation for the 48-unit condominium complex next door is going full tilt.

On a site the size of a city block, a 345 John Deere excavator feeds the hungry line of  side dump trailers, queued up the block below us on Fourth Street, just down the hill in Missoula. The loader guy is badass: He rotates the cab, slings his shovel, grabs a two-ton bucket full of hillside, then spins 180 degrees to drop it deftly into the trailer. With the precision of a blackjack dealer, he tops it off in minutes. Immediately, the load is hauled off by a bullish Kenworth, tricked out with oversize signage, flashing lights, and a set of designer wolf fangs on its grill. Accompanied by a chorus of bawling diesels, backup alarms and the rasp of gravel on steel, through a 10-hour cycle, 60 loads of glaciofluvial a day are hauled away to the landfill.

Inside my house with the windows battened down, it’s hard to concentrate without the trusty Browning shooter’s muffs I usually save for the range. Sure, my head gets sweaty. But, paired with a set of foam earplugs, these babies get the job done. And with the abrupt cessation of roaring and crashing, this formidable earth moving project starts to look abstract, almost dreamlike – a good perspective from which to admire the big machine choreography in play with the excavators, cats and tandem semis, doing their thing in unison. Discount the dust, vibration and diesel fumes, it might even be inspiring. You have to give it to these guys: They sure can turn a neighborhood inside out.

The neighborhood in question is the northwest corner of Missoula’s University District—four blocks of historic homes and apartments that intersects a string of locally-owned businesses called the “Hip Strip.” With its mix of students, professionals, and working people, this neighborhood exemplifies the buoyant, egalitarian spirit that is Missoula at its best. After 10 years in the trades, I moved here for grad school in 1980, and it was exactly this gritty, classless conviviality that convinced me I’d found my new home.

On June 1, this construction project, soon to be christened “The Reed Condominiums,” was initiated with the arrival of an elongated house trailer hauled into the alley behind my house and jacked up on blocks, broadside to my back yard. It had simulated driftwood siding and sported a waggish sign that read: “RENT ME!” Quickly, the site was secured by portable chain link and became the mobile headquarters for the contractor, Dick Anderson Construction, marking the entrance to the gentle riverfront hillside where The Reed will take shape.

Formerly, five single-story brick cottages stood on this site. They were built by the Milwaukee Road a hundred years ago to provide housing for the track crews. Commercialized in the 1970s, they rented for $600 a month. Weather-beaten and run down, they still occupied what was obviously one of most scenic locations in town. And when the owner put them up for sale, they proved irresistible for Southern California developer and former Montana Grizzly quarterback Cole Bergquist. In a town where affordable housing is nearly impossible to find, there was considerable outcry when the public heard that Bergquist  proposed for this site 48 units of luxury condos priced lightyears beyond the average Missoulian’s means.

In January 2020, in the course of a city council lasting past midnight, a record number of locals showed up to voice their disapproval. But when the dust settled and the real estate high rollers and infill boosters had their way, the now condemned Milwaukee Road cottages were suddenly rediscovered, swarmed by photographers and nostalgists, lavishly mourned, then summarily demolished in the space of a week. Today, the upstart “Rent Me” trailer and four hundred feet of fencing marks the frontier where the quaint retro housing, hippy teepee rings and salad gardens of Missoula’s past give way to the glittering, zillion dollar Missoula of the future.

When I complained about the scale of this gentrification to a friend, he asked if I would rather live in an aging western town that’s about to go under, or a town that’s up on its feet and running fast? I thought about it, wondered: Was this my only choice? How about an up-and-running western town where the middle class isn’t pushed out of their neighborhoods to make room for  a lot of rich people? Why isn’t that an option?

Perhaps The Reed’s website says it best: “Our vision for … The Reed is to offer an experience true to Montana, but with a chic urban edge…supporting a connection to nature in a uniquely refined manner… a conscientious approach to  preserving wilderness will promote high density populations in key locations.” It seems $949,999 will get you into one of the 1600-square-foot condos “designed to connect the lucky new owners with the true landscape of Montana.

Though it’s unclear just what “true landscape” this refers to, it suggests The Reed aspires to become some happy spot where the “lucky new owner” might reside, unaffected by the changes which decades of drought, misuse and mismanagement have wrought throughout the state.

Like it or not, my own backyard provides the best seat in town from which to witness this transformation. A hundred feet long by fifty feet wide, it is the other half of the double lot where stands the Prairie-style house my wife’s great-grandfather built in 1906. It is enclosed by a waist-high fence, aging but still substantial, and twined at regular intervals with a weed crop of morning glory, Scottish bells and box elder I’ve been too lazy to deal with. Before we moved here,  it was a haven for old wood piles, lumber scraps and prominently abandoned garden equipment. In short, it was a “dog yard.” But the south section is lined with wild roses and the west side is screened by a vigorous copse of Norway maple. The highlight of this yard is a Macintosh apple tree of superb configuration. When I removed a competing elm, the apple quickly began to thrive. It’s since grown to twenty feet in height, with a vibrant canopy that spans the yard’s entire breadth. Entering through the side gate, a visitor is met immediately by the sheer generosity of this tree, and over the past winter’s COVID onslaught, family and friends continued to congregate beneath it as a safe outdoor spot to socialize. In my casual rehabilitation of this space, I never imagined it could become so essential. But amid this transmogrifying on-rush of development, my up-graded dog yard became a legitimate redoubt of the soul.

You may think this particular contrast between a summer-lush backyard and the adjoining pre-condo moonscape, razed of buildings, plucked of vegetation, presents a too familiar tale of lost innocence, what some call, “pathological nostalgia.” But mostly, I mean to initiate conversation about the world beyond our control, the one routinely overrun by commercialism, and by the kind of world we create to help sustain us in the face of it.

The fact that hard-charging developers would happily turn Missoula into a boutique resort is nothing new, and just because I don’t like a project specifically designed for high-life vacationers doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway. What I do want to share is the expanded sense of scale these events have awakened in me. Even as The Reed project gains velocity and mass, family and friends continue to sprawl in the weathered furniture of our yard and make a game of trying to finish their sentence before the next truck load rolls past. Mostly, I’m struck by the way they’ve used this particular prime location. I thought they would just build on it. Instead, they dug it up and hauled it awayIf there’s actually a point to the tale, it is something like this: Not until they haul away the lot next door do you understand what can make ground sacred.

Of the many brain-rattling sounds The Reed construction brings us, the most persistent is the backup alarm. Designed to remind workers of the grave danger posed by machines backing up, the deceptively banal beeping means you better seriously watch your ass. Almost anything can happen, right? The inadvertent tweak of a Peterbilt’s wheel might bring a load crashing through your yard. Over the weeks, this noise has become so familiar, it makes me look around when I don’t hear it. In fact, for me, this ubiquitous warning noise suggests a much larger kind of hazard; the disquieting possibility we’ll soon visit another era when extraction of Montana resources is the norm. But instead of timber or precious metals, this time it will involve attempts to appropriate and market the unique and potent spirit of the residents willing to live year-round in this poor, harsh but magnificently endowed place. In the face of this, the current real estate boom feels like the latest spasm in a long history of western extractive industries. Once it was Douglas fir and copper. Now, it seems  they’d extract Montana’s essence. They would hype it to the max, slap a million-dollar price tag on, and call it “iconic.”

Some of the best examples of this inclination show up in The Reed’s  promotional site, which states that these 1600 square foot near million-dollar units will be “seizing views while still conscious of city fabric… simultaneously increasing housing density while it pays homage to the historic homes in the area.” Apparently, the Reed would achieve these conscientious view-seizures and homage with a building totally dwarfing my 1906 house, along with every other structure in the neighborhood.

In the tenth week of construction, with much of the excavation past, Anderson began to set pilings, which meant 10-hour stretches of rata-tat jackhammer that’s like a soundtrack for the siege of Stalingrad. It set the porch geraniums vibrating, the crystal in the China cabinet tinkling and made my dogs afraid to go outside.

On a good day, I handle it. On a bad day, I think, “Wow.” Unknown months of this kind of mayhem, just so there might soon walk among us a lordly race of out-of-state consumer who would deliver the kind of prosperity that might just rub off on us? Judging by The Reed’s website, these newcomers will go about, sampling only the most “iconic” regional food, recreation and, well, ambience. What’s not clear is how this tribe will react when they discover the realities of the luminous western lifestyle The Reed is peddling: For example, the fact the ski season is truncated for lack of snow, or the fact the “premium powder “they flog is likely recycled dishwater. The fact that Montana’s wild rivers are drying up, and its fabled  trout streams are running  at 70 degrees. The fact Missoula air quality mostly hovers between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” Or that the fire season now accounts for the better part of the summer. Will this sub-iconic Montana still be worth sticking around for?  Will the iconic views The Reed  “seized” be worth a cool million? And how “urban chic” can the Hip Strip remain, when the artisans, chefs and business people who made it can’t afford to live there?

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Fred Haefele
Fred Haefele

Fred Haefele lives in Missoula and his work has appeared in Salon, Outside and Wired magazines as well as the New York Times magazine.