Imagine living with all of your classmates and the majority of your city’s population under one roof. Imagine your local post office, grocery store, and police station just minutes away by elevator.
That’s the reality of Jenessa Lorenz, living in Whittier, Alaska, where she and about 85% of the city’s roughly 300 residents live in a 14-story building.
After noticing Whittier’s trends on TikTok, Jenessa posted a tour of the building she called her home for the past seven years. The video has garnered over 14 million views.
“I made the video thinking, ‘OK, no one is going to care about a tiny little town in Alaska.’ The next day he had millions of views and I was in shock, ”Lorenz told USA TODAY. “Our city’s Facebook group also posted my TikTok on their page.”
Lorenz said interest in Whittier was “overwhelming,” with most TikTok users wondering how a city survives under one roof. However, Lorenz said the building was created so residents would never have to leave if they didn’t want to.
This is because the building houses essential businesses such as the grocery store which sells basic cooking and cleaning supplies. For postal and criminal inquiries, residents can take an elevator to the post office and police station. There’s even a church located in the basement, Lorenz said.
Most students, including Lorenz, attend K-12 at Whittier Community School, and students can take a short path between the building and their classrooms. There are currently 60 students enrolled this school year, according to the school’s website. There is only one other senior graduate besides Lorenz.
Accessibility to the city is tricky – you can enter by boat or through a one-way tunnel that stretches for 2.5 miles. The direction of walking changes every 30 minutes, Lorenz said, and residents need to schedule doctor’s appointments and trips through the tunnel. The tunnel opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m.
Built during the Cold War, the building named The Begich Towers accommodates over 200 residents. The Alaska Railroad owns 97% of the city, so there are no single-family homes, according to a Slate article. The rest of the population lives in a small condominium, Whittier Manor.
“Things are different in Whittier, but most of our community is only one story up, which is great,” said Lorenz.
Hundreds of people flooded the Lorenz TikTok comment area with questions such as “Where’s the nearest fast food restaurant?” and “What is there to do for fun?”
In college, Lorenz said she and her friends would play card games and hang out in the basement or hall of the building for fun. Now that they’re older, Lorenz said they enjoy tours of the town’s glaciers, hiking, skiing and bonfires.
Before moving to Whittier, his family lived in Anchorage, a town about an hour away. After spending weekends in Whittier, the family decided to move permanently to the small town surrounded by mountains and wilderness.
Lorenz’s family have lived in Whittier for seven years – his father is the current mayor and his mother is the local school secretary. In the fall, Lorenz plans to attend Montana State University in hopes of meeting new people and communities. However, she will return to Whittier each summer and is open to a future in the city.
“Whittier is a great place, so I’ll always keep in mind to come back and maybe even join City Council and follow in my dad’s footsteps,” Lorenz said.
As millions of people have become interested in Whittier, Lorenz hopes to promote tourism in the city during the summer. She plans to continue posting tours and Whittier’s story to her TikTok account to bring tourism, income and appreciation to her home.
“When we lived in Anchorage it wasn’t the same. Whittier feels like home, we’re all in this one building, we’re just a huge community and we love it, ”said Lorenz.