Garden City is sowing seeds for a renaissance of sorts, once again becoming an arts and entertainment destination, but one very different from its eyebrow-raising stepchild past of casinos, bars and adult-oriented businesses. Surrounded almost entirely by the city of Boise, Garden City is more than a neighborhood. It is a city within a city, with its own municipal government. The long sliver of land just 1.6 miles northwest of downtown Boise is barely over 4 square miles, but it has 6.7 miles of Boise riverfront, earning the motto “Nestled by the River.”
In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants drawn to Idaho during the gold rush stayed long after the gold played out, settling along that six-mile stretch of the Boise River as tenant farmers. The beautiful row gardens of fruits and vegetables tended by the Chinese parlayed into the name “Garden City.” The main thoroughfare, Chinden Boulevard, is an amalgamation of “China” and Garden.” As idyllic as Garden City sounds, it wasn’t always so serene.
In 1949, when Boise voters rejected slot machines, the village of Garden City petitioned Ada County for incorporation, effectively creating a sanctuary for gambling. Many of the Chinese gardeners lost the land leases they’d held for decades when the town was incorporated and the gardens quickly disappeared. The newly minted “Sin City”—dubbed by appalled Boiseans— quickly became one of the richest cities of its size in the state. While Boiseans clucked their tongues, Garden City prospered, building infrastructure— water systems, a police department, City Hall, and parks—from coffers bulging with gambling proceeds. When a statewide ban of all gambling was enacted in 1954, Garden City had another idea: it would become a haven for businesses looking to escape the municipal taxing and zoning restrictions of Boise. The business-friendly environment attracted a hodgepodge of junkyards, adult bookstores and nightclubs, earning it another nickname, “Saturday Night Town.”
Suffice it to say, Garden City has always embraced an independent streak, and the current rebirth is no different, albeit less controversial. In the mid-1990s, Garden City began an urban renewal period, intent on revitalizing and growing the town into a reputable destination, but one still as unique and individualistic as its origins. In the mid-aughts, the city completed improvements to the Greenbelt, including paving a stretch on the south side of the river between 44th and 49th Streets. Soon, artists from Boise began trickling into Garden City, attracted by low real estate prices and proximity to the lush Boise River Greenbelt. In 2012, the City Council renamed the late artist Surel Mitchell’s neighborhood on 33rd Street “The Surel Mitchell Live/Work/Create District.” Surel’s Place, the artist’s former home, is now a nonprofit live/work space juried to national artists for one-month residencies. In return for free rent and support, the artists hold public workshops, and donate work to the organization.
Artists weren’t the only ones to take notice of Garden City’s spunk. The area’s industrial feel began to draw a niche group of entrepreneurs: microbrewers and winemakers. Today, six urban wineries, one cider house and five microbreweries call Garden City home. Between the outdoor recreational activities on the Garden City stretch of the Boise River, the urban wineries and microbreweries, and a 14-acre, recently remodeled resort-like hotel with three live music venues, Garden City is ripe for a day-trip, a night on the town, or a full weekend getaway.