Last week, we featured a feel-good look at the nine best things ever to happen to our sometimes benighted community. This week: a sourly opinionated account of the seven worst events in our city’s checkered history.
Is the field of Armageddon located right here in Colorado Springs? Have we, like Job, been sorely tested by fate or by the Almighty? Are we the victims of remorseless fate, or the foolish architects of own disasters? Are we the greatest city in the nation, or the world’s largest open-air lunatic asylum?
1. The Dougster comes to town. I met Douglas Bruce a few weeks after he arrived in Colorado Springs back in the mid-1980s. He told me that he’d come here from California to invest in real estate and to find a “traditional” spouse. He never found the spouse, devoting his extraordinary talents to making mischief for Colorado governments. Not that I’m taking sides, but it seems to me that the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is to local and state government what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore. No Ralph, and Al would have been president. No TABOR, and Colorado would be a well-governed, progressive state and a happy refuge for a threatened and endangered species — the moderate Republican.
2. The flood of 1935. In the space of a few hours during Memorial Day, an estimated 17 inches of rain fell in an area of 100 square miles just north of the city. Monument Creek, then a quiet stream lined with cottonwoods which meandered peacefully through Colorado Springs turned into a raging, destructive river. The flood destroyed every bridge over the creek, turned Monument Valley Park into a sea of mud and uprooted trees, and took dozens of lives. Then as now, scores of transients lived in makeshift camps along the creek, all of which were obliterated. At the flood’s peak, the creek was more than a mile wide below the Monument/Fountain confluence, carrying a volume of water nearly equivalent to the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Even today, the flood’s scars are evident. Monument Valley Park was never recreated, and the creek was transformed by the WPA into a channelized flood control structure.
3. Downtown Demolition Derby. During the 1960s and early 1970s, downtown property owners and a city government that believed in “redevelopment” tore down dozens of iconic Victorian buildings and replaced them with either parking lots or drearily unimaginative structures. Half a century later, it’s clear that they did not choose wisely. We once had a great downtown, with a historic hotel and an outlandishly beautiful opera house. Now we have the Antlers Hilton and a nicely landscaped parking lot.
4. Waterways? What waterways? Now retired water department boss Ed Bailey once said that “the worst thing we ever did in this city was to ignore our water ways.” Successive generations of city, county and state administrators saw local streams as storm drains or inconvenient obstacles to progress. Developers filled in riparian land and once living creeks became trash-clogged no man’s lands, bordered by roads, parking lots and junkyards. We’ve been trying to repair the damage for the last couple of decades, and we ought to be able to finish the task by 2121 or so.
5. Initiatives. Thanks to once-progressive clauses in both the city charter and the state constitution which permit those foundational documents to be altered by voter whim, our system of governance is somewhere between comical and dysfunctional. Statewide, voter-initiated amendments simultaneously mandate increased government spending and decreased government revenue. So much for all the naifs who thought that we had something called “representative government.”
6. The U.S. Olympic Committee deal. It’s hard for a local government to implement a giveaway of taxpayer dollars in the best of times, even for the best of reasons. It’s harder still to do it in the midst of the “great recession,” especially when it’s clear that the mulish voters would have rejected the deal, if given the opportunity to do so. And it’s quite a feat to do it by mortgaging both a fire station and the cop shop, when doing so seems to contradict the letter, spirit and intent of the Colorado Constitution. Chalk up a bad government trifecta for our intrepid mayor and City Council — and watch the positive effects of the deal be trumped by the continuing fallout from same.
7. The Interstate 25 corridor. Instead of letting I-25 loop around the eastern perimeter of the city, as logic might have suggested, the then-city leaders successfully lobbied for a route right through the middle of town. Robert Moses would have been proud! Quiet working-class neighborhoods were overwhelmed with noise and exhaust fumes, west-side businesses suffered and downtown, which was supposed to benefit from the alignment, began its long decline.
That’s our lucky seven, although we could have found many more. We could have focused on the city’s sometimes ill-conceived annexations, upon the city’s poorly conceived and disastrously implemented drainage basin policy, upon Homestake II, upon the ColoWyo coal contract … but that’s all really complicated stuff, and nobody remembers it, and it was a long time ago …
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.