What makes a great city? Is it up-to-date infrastructure, filled potholes, robust economy, safe streets, plenty of well-paid cops and firefighters and a vibrant cultural scene?
Such outcomes may characterize a functional city, but not a great one. Great cities have character, identity, history, pride, resilience and aspiration. Their citizens take pride in their character, not their net worth. Their politicians seek justice and equality and continually ponder the impact of their decisions on generations yet to be born.
Are we such a city? Have we ever been one? Are we laying the foundation for future greatness? Maybe, maybe and yes.
I was born in Colorado Springs in 1940, grew up here, left in 1958 to go to an out-of-state college, almost graduated and spent the next 19 years seeking adventure, fame and fortune in the great world. Adventure I got, but fame and fortune eluded me. In the summer of 1981, my then-spouse and I loaded our worldly possessions in a non-air conditioned U-Haul and left Miami for Colorado Springs.
It was hardly the grand homecoming I’d once dreamed of. No Learjet, no Hollywood stardom, no best-selling novel, no bulging bank account — just two smart kids, a GMC pickup, a Volvo and enough to live on for a few months.
We had grown sick of Miami, of its energy, violence, chaos and rootlessness. As an acquaintance told me (might have been the Miami Herald’s great reporter Edna Buchanan), “John, you think this city’s violent? Miami’s just a sand spit between the ocean and the swamp. The bodies we find on the street are just the ones the murderers are too lazy to feed to the sharks and alligators.”
I still remember driving across the country in the July heat and at last seeing Pikes Peak on the western horizon. Soon I’d be home, after two decades. I was 40, without much in the way of marketable skills.
What would I do? What did the future hold?
The Colorado Springs of 1981 was very like the Colorado Springs of 2018. A new generation of men and women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s was taking over from a sclerotic, largely male power structure. Then as now, the city was open and accessible to newcomers. Thanks to my old friend Kathleen Collins, I came to know some of them, including Steve Schuck, Mary Ellen McNally, Steve Bach, Mary Lou Makepeace, Mary Kyer and Charles Ansbacher. At one event, Kathleen’s pal Jim Ringe introduced me to a guy whom he characterized as “the most powerful man in southern Colorado.” He was a friendly, unpretentious Pueblo native — Bill Hybl.
I renovated houses, got my real estate broker’s license, bought and sold historic Colorado art and was elected to city council in 1991. My spouse became a successful psychologist; we raised our kids, and embraced our chosen city.
And although I missed the quiet little city of the 1950s, I understood why most of my high school class had left to seek opportunity elsewhere. There were no jobs and apparently no future in the Colorado Springs of 1958, but the city of 1981 was very different.
In retrospect, that city was a great city. Yet, in 1991 and 1992, city voters abandoned the sunny optimism that had driven the city’s explosive growth and embraced the sour negativity of Douglas Bruce’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights initiatives. That contributed to “generation stagnation,” a time of angry cultural clashes, crumbling infrastructure and dysfunctional politics. Yet despite such difficulties, ours was still a remarkably pleasant city.
And now? It feels a lot like 1981, a functional city with lively debates and disagreements, but common goals. There’s an understanding that great cities are not created by great individuals, but by thousands of small lives and small contributions to the common weal.
We all have a part in this great project, simply by living decent lives and doing what we can to better our community. And what have my current wife Karen and I done lately? Well, we rebuilt the recently collapsed low stone wall topped by a Hassell Ironworks cast iron fence that was installed in 1899 when our house was built. It improves our property, enhances our neighborhood and makes life easier for pedestrians.
Next project: to train our three rescue dogs not to bark and snarl at those pedestrians!