Growing up in Colorado Springs in the 1940s and 1950s, Pueblo seemed as exotic and remote as Detroit or Dallas. Denver was cool and alluring, with museums, Broadway shows and fashionable stores, while Pueblo was a tough industrial city.
In those days, public high schools didn’t field soccer and lacrosse teams — those were effete sports, fit only for Europeans and Canadians. Basketball? Skinny sissies running around in their underwear!
If you wanted respect at Colorado Springs High School you played football, but there was a catch.
Sooner or later, you’d have to play Pueblo Central or Pueblo Centennial, teams as tough and gritty as the city they represented. We had some tough guys and some championship teams at Colorado Springs High School in the 1950s, but we weren’t wall-to-wall tough like the Pueblo kids. So like a sensible kid, I didn’t play football.
Colorado Springs was a poky little tourist town then — one very much in the shadow of its broad-shouldered neighbor. Pueblo was bigger (63,685 vs. 45,472 in 1950), more diverse and somehow more American. They had steel mills, railroad yards and a river, while we had The Broadmoor hotel, idle rich people and a muddy creek.
The two cities grew rapidly between 1950 and 1960, but Pueblo stayed ahead, 91,181 to 70,194. It looked as if both would flourish in the coming decades.
It was already clear that Colorado Springs and similar cities in the West and Southwest would attract migrants from the frosty Midwest, and it was reasonable to assume that Pueblo’s manufacturing and transportation-based economy would remain vital. After all, American manufacturing led the world — and always would.
Snotty kids in Colorado Springs could call Pueblo “Pewtown” because of acrid emissions from the blast furnaces of Colorado Fuel and Iron, but so what? America would always need steel, and railroads would always knit the country together.
And unlike Colorado Springs, Pueblo was a welcoming place, one where immigrants could find jobs, where factories could take root, where literally dozens of ethnic communities established churches and social clubs. At one point in the early 20th century, more than two-dozen foreign language newspapers were published in Pueblo. The city was all about business and commerce, about change and adventure, about America itself.
But America was changing.
To the migrants who would populate Colorado Springs, Tucson, Phoenix and southern California, Pueblo was an outlier, a city that reminded them of the grimy industrial metropolises they fled.
Steel, once the bulwark of American manufacturing, began its long decline. Pueblo’s economy stagnated and then crashed in 1982.
Colorado Springs prospered, thanks to high-tech manufacturing and a huge military presence. The cities paths diverged, and Colorado Springs politicians seemed to believe that the interests of its southern neighbor were of no importance.
But the proud city of Pueblo lifted itself up from ruin and forged a new identity. The Historic Arkansas River Project transformed the city’s downtown, and Pueblo leaders forcefully engaged Colorado Springs over its careless stormwater management practices. Led by newly elected Mayor John Suthers, Colorado Springs agreed to invest $460 million during the next 20 years to mitigate flooding problems along the Arkansas.
For the first time since the mid-1950s, Colorado Springs and Pueblo are on parallel paths again. Their economies are strong, real estate values are increasing, and regional cooperation is on the upswing. Compared to Colorado Springs, Pueblo is unhurried, less congested and offers all the attractions of a small city.
And despite two catastrophic floods in the 20th century, Pueblo’s downtown is intact and vibrant. Attracted by the city’s diversity, affordability and lively arts community, Millennial entrepreneurs are carving out spaces in the Steel City.
Talking to Pueblo architect Gary Anzuini, I asked him why he had left Colorado Springs for Pueblo.
“I was down in Pueblo one day, and I looked in the yellow pages — remember them?” he said with a smile. “There was only one architect listed in Pueblo, and there were 45 in Colorado Springs. So I figured I could make a pretty good living down here, and I was right.”
Asked for advice by a youngster in the 1880s, Horace Greeley famously said, “Go West, young man!”
If Horace lived in Colorado Springs today, he might word that statement differently: “Go south, young men and women!”