As we approach the 150th anniversary of our fair city on July 31, 2021, what single trait links us to the city’s founders and to virtually every inhabitant since? We’ve been home to distinguished authors, explorers, athletes, businesspeople, actors, inventors, photographers, murderers, ministers, philanthropists, swindlers, gamblers, ranchers, farmers, rodeo riders, hoteliers, hockey players, architects, builders, bibliophiles, politicians and journalists, as well as those of us who muddle cheerfully through undistinguished lives (that would be me!).
We’re optimists, every one of us. Came and stayed, born and stayed, dragged here as a kid and stayed, moved here for a job and stayed — doesn’t matter. We like the city, and think that our lives will get better if we stay. And even in downturns when the economy goes south, the unemployment rate shoots up and businesses close, we expect that things will eventually improve.
“From [the city’s] founding until the present hour,” wrote Colorado Springs Mayor John Robinson in 1902 in an essay titled The Ideal City, “there has been before the minds of its builders the vision of a city of beauty, culture, righteousness and healthfulness — a city, in brief, where, in the words of Aristotle, ‘Men may lead a common life for a noble end.’”
“The results are now here,” Robinson continued. “We are beyond the experimental stage…Predictions are easily made, and are traversed by the actual facts, [but] when we predict that Colorado Springs will be a large city, our prediction is based upon the operation of causes which have produced results, and are still in operation.”
Robinson’s lengthy essay is part of a 250-page bound, printed and profusely illustrated account of the city as it was on July 1, 1902. Funded by the city and edited by the city auditor, the book also included annual reports and financial statements. It’s as sunnily optimistic as Mayor John Suthers’ 2015 swearing-in speech.
“Citizens of Colorado Springs,” Suthers said, “that is our enduring challenge. To create a society that matches our scenery. Let us embrace the challenge.”
In December of 1989, the city’s economic landscape was somewhere between dreary and dismal. CSBJ noted that the city’s jobless rate had increased from 6.1 to 6.4 percent, Colorado Springs School District 11 had cut its budget by $4.3 million, and the U.S. Memories consortium had fallen apart. The latter was a particularly shattering blow to the city, which had anticipated becoming the headquarters of the billion-dollar, seven-company joint venture between four chip producers and three computer companies. Yet editor Chuck Shelden always looked on the sunny side, predicting that work would soon start on the Olympic Hall of Fame.
“As [local developer] David Sunderland told me,” Shelden wrote, “we’ll be standing together at the groundbreaking in 1993.”
Economist Tucker Hart Adams was equally sanguine, if less specific. Commenting on the long recession of the 1980s, she said, “The things that were attractive in the 1970s are still here — quality of life, mountains … we are positioned for a good final decade of the 20th century.”
Thirty years later, are we positioned for a good third decade of the 21st century? We’ve had a great 148.5-year run so far, and it shows no signs of running out of steam.
The urban utopianism of Mayors Robinson and Suthers seems slightly far-fetched now, even as the city prospers. Climate change, unremitting population growth and national political dysfunction may bode ill for the future. When today’s Millennials celebrate the city’s 200th anniversary in 2071, we’ll still have the mountains, but what about quality of life? El Paso County has grown from 235,000 residents in 1970 to about 720,000 in 2020, suggesting an area population of around 2.3 million in 2071.
I know one thing for sure — I won’t be around to see it. But for such a city to be sustainable and livable, we’ll have to start planning now. Just as we abandoned landlines, gigantic mainframe computers and coal-fired residential furnaces, we’ll need to give up lawns, private cars and single-family detached dwellings. We’ll have to become a dense, walkable, medium-rise city with great local public transit and access to nationwide passenger rail.
Ours (or should I say yours) is a time that needs both the long-term vision of William Palmer and the brilliant execution of John Robinson. So here’s some advice.
Get to work, kids! You young optimists can make it happen.