More than 50 years ago I took off for Mexico with my best buddy for a summer’s worth of adventure. Light-hearted, naïve teenagers in a 1943 war surplus Jeep that lacked both a top and a windshield, we left Colorado Springs in June of ‘57 and headed south.
After three days (the Jeep’s top speed was around 40), we reached Montemorelos, a town in northern Mexico, where my pal’s eccentric grandmother lived.
Although the city had been founded 300 years before, the streets were dusty and unpaved. There were no landscaped medians, no parks, no lawns, no front porches open to the neighborhood — just high, windowless adobe walls topped with broken glass.
Within these walled compounds, upper-class Mexicans and émigrés lived in comfort and safety. Orange and lemon trees scented the air, fountains splashed gently, and the squalor of the city’s public spaces seemed very far away.
Yet the architecture of Montemorelos suggested danger, conflict, and deep divisions of wealth and class. Whether those organizing principles came from 17th century Spain, or from Mexico’s own violent history, there was a lesson to be learned.
Then, as now, ours was a city of public spaces. We had paved streets and sidewalks, expansive public parks, flowered medians and remarkable public buildings. The rich didn’t hide behind walls, gates and barbed wire, but proudly displayed their grand houses along Wood and Cascade. Our architecture spoke of equality, of opportunity, of shared responsibility and of civility.
It still does. Gated communities are the exception, not the rule — and even Holger Christenson’s “Great Wall of Cascade Avenue” wasn’t topped by broken glass.
We don’t fear strangers; we welcome them. We take pride in our public spaces, and are glad to pay our share to maintain, improve and expand them. That’s part of the core philosophy of Colorado Springs, and that’s why I believe that our parks will not long remain underfunded and unloved.
Despite its national image, this is very much an open city. We may elect conservatives, but we often behave as if we were rip-snortin’ liberals.
Real conservatives wouldn’t allow their elected officials to fritter away tax money on open space, much less force them to, though that’s exactly what we did in 1997 and 2005, when we first voted for, and then extended the TOPs tax.
Real conservatives wouldn’t put up with county commissioners who would directly contravene the expressed will of the voters, and issue tens of millions in COPs to build a courthouse — they’d recall the scoundrels! We re-elected ‘em.
Real conservatives would scoff at global warming during the drought of 2002, and use even more water on their bluegrass lawns. In response to pleas from Utilities officials, we reduced our water use by 20 percent.
So why are we so demonized nationally? Why do we get hammered for switching off streetlights, cutting the city workforce, and reducing services in response to declining city revenues? Why have we become the poster child for municipal dysfunction?
If you’re a journalist, it’s fun to bash Colorado Springs. It’s an easy storyline: look at all those Bible-thumping small government anti-tax Libertarians! Look how incompetent they are! They still have streetlights in California, don’t they? Conclusion: conservatives may talk a good game, but they can’t govern.
Our pols have always suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. We elect rash folks whose public musings make great sound bites, or whose public behavior can easily be cast in an unfavorable light. While appearing on “The View “ during 1998, then-county commissioner Betty Beedy, discussing gay rights, said to host Star Jones, “It’s not like the race issue, where we can look at her and know that she’s different — she’s different than the white, normal American.” The EDC folks may be wringing their hands over Lionel Rivera’s clumsy remarks about the homeless, but so what? He’s part of a great tradition, one which includes “Dog-fightin’ Doug” Lamborn, “Screwdriver Doug” Dean, and “Kickin’ Doug” Bruce — and those are just the Dougs.
We like it. We revel in being attacked by the “lib’rul media.” Most of us are here by choice, not by accident of birth. Like immigrants the world over, we fiercely embrace our new home. So we push back, and generate even more bad press. If we were BP, we’d be telling Louisianans to shut up and be grateful for all of the free petroleum.
So what will we do about our parks and streetlights? We’ll do whatever we need to do, even if that means creating a new parks authority, and funding it with a new tax.
And when we do, don’t expect to read about it in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or even in the Washington Post, not that we care.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-227-5861.