Geezers leaving their mess in Springs

When they're not stewing over the election, complaining about aches and pains or planning their funerals, what do geezers think about?

They think about the past. As a Colorado Springs native, I understand that city of my childhood no longer exists. Our city's founding principle: Get people to come here, spend money, buy real estate, open businesses and help build the city. Gen. William Palmer envisioned a gracious, slow-paced city of wide boulevards, comfortable dwellings and sober, industrious, charitable church-going residents.

But Palmer may not have realized how successful his economic development strategy would be. His quiet little city at the foot of Pikes Peak isn't slow-paced, quiet or little anymore — and we're getting faster, noisier and bigger every day.

For a kid growing up on Tejon Street in the 1940s, Palmer's vision was very real. The North End was a close-knit, shabby and welcoming neighborhood. Dogs and kids ran free, downtown's movie houses were just a short bus ride away, the corner grocery supplied our family with fresh food — and almost everyone was broke.

The Depression had taken its toll, and the postwar boom was just starting. The thrifty teachers, attorneys, businesspeople, doctors and college professors who lived on our block were remarkably poor by today's standards. Both of my parents worked, never took vacations and never went out for dinner. I thought we were rich, because I was happy and secure, not realizing that loans and gifts from grandparents kept the family afloat.

That neighborhood today is, like Schrödinger's cat, both there and not there. The built landscape remains, no longer unkempt and unpainted — but the parents, dogs, businesses and social mores that defined our youth are gone. Tejon Street may seem unaltered, but the city, county and state that surround it have profoundly changed.

We've reaped the whirlwind of unabated economic and population growth. When I was born in 1940, the city had 36,789 residents, the state 1,123,296. Today, approximately 470,000 folks live in the Springs, 5.5 million in the state. The compact old neighborhoods are still here, but the ranches and farms that once supplied the corner grocers have been replaced by vast, comfortable subdivisions. And all of us, regardless of ZIP code, love living in the Pikes Peak region.

[pullquote-1] We love the high country, so we head up Ute Pass every summer weekend to go river rafting, hike the Colorado Trail, ride the Copper Triangle, go fishing, camping, mountain biking, trail riding, RVing ... it's a long and wonderful list. That's why I came back to my hometown in 1981, after 20 years of looking for a better place to live.

Growth comes at a cost. It's tough to park in Manitou, Barr Trail and the Incline are too crowded, you have to get in line to climb the easy Fourteeners, ski areas are crowded and expensive, roads are too congested, real estate is unaffordable, utilities are expensive — but are there better alternatives?

If you don't like it here, go back to Kansas, or Michigan, or Indiana. Find yourself a nice flat state with leaden winter skies, humid summers, no mountains to climb and no spring columbines along rocky trails. We're here by choice, not by chance.

We're a city of migrants, beneficiaries of Palmer's open-door policy. We don't build walls, but doors. The angry, contentious days of the early 1990s are long past, and James Dobson, Colorado for Family Values and scurrilous anti-gay rhetoric no longer define Colorado Springs.

What barriers could slow or prevent future growth? Water, food supply, global climate change, catastrophic war — take your pick. But at this moment in time, Colorado Springs is as attractive as ever.

In 1950, California was an uncrowded and prosperous land of 10.6 million inhabitants. Population growth continued, and opponents of Colorado's bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics adopted an unofficial slogan: "Don't californicate Colorado!" Today, California is a crowded, spottily prosperous state of nearly 40 million people.

If we grow at a similar rate, we'll be a city of 2 million in a state of 22 million by 2080. Will we still be a pleasant, prosperous, welcoming city — or something else entirely?

Kids, grandkids, great-grandkids: It's up to you. Sorry for the mess to come, but I'm glad I won't be around to help clean up.