Replace concrete ghettos with more open space

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I should have one of those “got here as fast as I could” stickers on my car, even though I didn’t arrive until I was almost 30.

But Colorado Springs has got me by the heartstrings. It isn’t just that my kids were born here and that one still lives here, or that the weather and topography are perfect for my cycling and running avocations.

Something about the place won’t let me go. I lived in a dozen other cities before I moved here, but I’ve grown roots in the caliche of this soil. I’m grateful for every rock wall in Monument Valley Park; I love the squat sandstone columns of the Congregational Church downtown.

Happy in the insular subculture of the Westside, I hardly ever go east of Circle, much less Academy. The other week, however, I had to take a load of pictures over to the Ruth Holley library branch, deep in the southeast end of town.

I was shocked. The branch is in the same strip mall where we used to shop for groceries at King Soopers and buy lumber to repair our fence. That afternoon, it was sere in the bright sunshine, an urban desert with a few cars clumped at the payday lender at one end and the liquor store at the other. Other parking lots in the same area showed life only at the convenience stores, bars and marijuana dispensaries.

Complaining about how the city’s changed is a hobby for many of us old-timers. People talk about how Academy used to be a dirt track, how Uintah Gardens used to be a horse farm, how once they danced on Tejon street.

I, for one, have liked some of the changes — bike lanes on the busier streets downtown, glorious new fine-arts locales, designated open space for hikes and picnics. Other changes brought sorrow and rage, such as the razing of the city’s architectural jewels in the 1970s.

But change is one thing; the desertification of hundreds of blocks is another. All too often, developers convert pine forests and steppe grasslands north of town into clusters of shops that look exactly like their counterparts in Parker, Aurora and Seattle.

I understand why they choose to locate the branches of Cabela’s and Nordstroms close to their desired upper middle-class customers. But it seems wrong — no, it is wrong — to convert biologically active, carbon-eating stands of trees to impermeable parking lots, while there are acres of decaying concrete so close by.

I was born in Prague, but spent much of my childhood in an ordinary small town, founded by German immigrants in the 13th century, near the northeast border of the Czech Republic.

Its square is a history mash-up. On one house hangs a decorative alcove from the late Middle Ages. In the corner stands a church whose façade is rather simple for its Baroque provenance; it’s answered by an ornate plague column in the center of the square. Other houses date from the late 19th century, and there are a few nods to the art nouveau of the 1920. Even the post-war Communists knew better than to mess with this heritage, though, of course, they built their concrete monstrosities on the edge of town. These have now been replaced, or at least painted or repurposed, and the town and its surrounding hills attract a gentle tourist trade.

Because this is what we go to see, as tourists, in Europe: the traces left by the cultures that passed through the cities were never entirely abandoned. The structures might have been razed, but something new was built. Not everything that’s in the resulting mixture is appreciated by everyone who sees it; but nothing is just left. And the mix is wonderful to see.

I don’t know — any more than anyone else does — what should be done with the abandoned tracts of commercial property along Academy.

But perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy to tear into virgin land. Perhaps if a developer wants to build a brand-new shopping center in the middle of what was a forest, he or she should use the front-end loader, first, to break up concrete and begin to build open space on Academy.

Because if we don’t want businesses there — and it looks like that’s the choice we’re making — that land should go back to as close to its original state as possible.

I teach kids who live next to this urban wasteland. When they look out their bedroom window and see boarded up stores next to an empty parking lot, what message do they get about their value to the rest of us?

Eva Syrovy is a teacher in Colorado Springs’ District 11. Reach her at evasyrov@msn.com.