Time to accept that we’re a ‘third city’ and proud of it

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

OK, what kind of city are we? Our goal, according to several iterations of our city’s nonsensical and ever-changing mission statement, is to be a “world-class city.”
But, as University of Colorado at Colorado Springs economics professor Tom Zwirlein pointed out the other day, that might not be a realistic goal.
Maybe, he suggested, we might aspire to be a “second city” — not as in the comedy troupe, but as in European cities such as Copenhagen, Barcelona or Hamburg. Residents of such cities enjoy many of the benefits of metropolitan living, but few of the problems.
Tom forwarded an article from Germany’s Der Spiegel, which singled out a half a dozen medium-sized European cities for their economic opportunity, creative ferment and quality of life. Barcelona, for example, has everything that Madrid has, except horrendous traffic jams, crime, insanely expensive real estate and all of the other unattractive features of major metropolitan areas.
But using this model, Denver is a second city, far more similar to Copenhagen, Vienna, or Tallin than Colorado Springs could ever be. Denver has relatively easy commutes, great public transportation, an engaged and empowered creative class, exceptional economic opportunity and an attractive quality of life.
So what about us?
We have a reasonably active arts scene, reasonable economic activity, a great quality of life and, with a regional population of nearly 600,000, enough size to be a second city. Why shouldn’t we aspire to become what St. Petersburg is to Moscow, or what Fort Worth is to Dallas?
We can aspire as much as we want, but there are objective barriers to any such goal.
For a metropolitan area of our size, we’re remarkably deficient in some areas. We have only one professional sports team and only three public performing arts facilities of any size.
Other than Smokebrush, there are no commercial galleries that offer serious, high-quality contemporary art, and, since the departure of Phototroph, there’s no gallery devoted to contemporary photography. Efforts to establish a lively, self-sustaining arts scene have sputtered through the years because of one simple fact: while there are lots of fine contemporary artists in town, there aren’t many buyers.
Sheer numbers would suggest that the area could support more galleries, more performing arts venues and allow more artists to make a living from their work. But numbers alone don’t tell the story.
It was dispiriting to pick up the New York Times the other day and read, buried in the middle of an article touting Manitou Springs as “the hippie Mayberry,” these lines: “Manitou is also defined by what it is not — its neighbor Colorado Springs, a sprawling, chain-stored center of conservative evangelical Christianity looming just beyond the Garden of the Gods, a 1,300 acre array of Gaudíesque red-rock formations that acts as a sort of buffer between the towns.”
That’s the kind of stuff that drives folks like Terry Sullivan at the convention and visitors bureau and Mike Kazmierski at the Economic Development Corp. nuts. When a publication with the power and reach of the New York Times dismisses us as being, by implication, the kind of city that no self-respecting creative person would even visit, it’s both infuriating and damaging.
But we’ve got big box stores — lots of them, as does every American city of any size. And we’ve got conservative Christians — as does every other American city. And we also have a major military presence, both retired and active duty, and a long history of conservative politics.
Most American cities of our size are governed by loose coalitions of “urban progressives.” These coalitions, which include business leaders, politicians of both parties, neighborhood groups and various special interests, are united in their desire to create prosperous and vibrant cities.
City elected leaders are often liberal Democrats who have learned to work cooperatively with the business community. In cities such as Denver, Albuquerque and Austin, these partnerships have led to economic prosperity coupled with liberal social policies.
But in Colorado Springs, although there are plenty of urban progressives, they’re disempowered. Colorado Springs voters have historically failed to support the social and economic policies that have attracted the so-called “creative class” to other cities, and helped create a critical mass of young professionals, creative businesses and perceived opportunities.
And although some elected leaders in the Springs are economic progressives, few of them are social progressives. This has led to the national perception that ours is a pre-modern city, governed by antediluvian troglodytes, populated by suburban Christian conservatives whose only recreation is going to church and shopping at big-box stores.
And, of course, that’s not true.
Want to astonish your friends? Tell them that there are more Democrats in Colorado Springs than in Boulder or Pueblo — and there are, but there are even more Republicans! We have everything we need to be a vibrant, creative, socially progressive city, except a progressive political majority.
So perhaps we should aspire to be what we are — a “third city.”
We’re a city constantly at war with ourselves, as progressives struggle with social conservatives, and as economic progressives struggle with aging Bruceites. In many ways, it makes for a far more interesting city than the political monocultures favored by the elusive “creative class.”
Despite our national reputation, we’re a city in constant flux. Our last four mayors have been a crusty traditional conservative (Bob Isaac), a liberal African-American who was once a bartender at the El Paso Club (Leon Young), a brutally effective liberal woman (Mary Lou Makepeace) and an Hispanic social conservative (Lionel Rivera).
That’s not exactly the lineup you’d expect from a city under the thumb of Christian conservatives.
We’re a “third city.” We don’t fit into anybody’s pigeonhole. We’re sui generis, one of a kind, a remarkable and interesting place. Think of us as occupying a unique ecological niche, like the Galapagos Islands.
We’re not for everybody, but those of us who stay wouldn’t live anywhere else.
And to continue the metaphor, we can even link some of our local denizens to those of the Galapagos. Let’s see — maybe our present city government is like the Galapagos tortoise, slow, armor-plated and apparently immortal. And our elected officials?
How about blue-footed boobies?
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.