*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on December 31, 2017. It can also be found online here.
I don’t always do it. But I scrolled through the comments in response to a recent opinion column of mine on the giant blue frame in the Garden of the Gods (may it rest in peace). I read them all.
This time, there were a couple that pierced my armor. One called me a “military carpetbagger,” and another said I “haven’t lived here long enough to have a stake in this issue.”
Both are worth a moment of thought. Just how long does it take a resident to gain “a stake” in local decisions? When does a “carpetbagger” become a “local?” And what is the right balance between the wishes of long-term residents and ideas of relative newcomers in a city?
The place to start is with the term “Native,” which has long been capitalized on by green sticker peddlers. It typically has a positive ring to it; that the sticker-bearer is somehow elevated over others.
But this doesn’t seem right. The dictionary tells us a “native” is “a person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth.” It’s simply a statement of geographical fact that a person has no control over. This location may or may not describe much of anything. For example, the mayor of Colorado Springs is a Denver native. The governor of Colorado is a native of Pennsylvania. Their birthplace doesn’t impact their commitment to the communities they lead. In the land of the pioneers, the place of someone’s birth doesn’t seem terribly important.
Like the mayor and governor, what matters above all is a passion for the place. Those that have read my previous columns know that’s the case with my family. We feel Coloradan. We’re Pikes Peakers. We’re Manitoids.
But to some, we’re still not “locals.” We’re mere “military carpetbaggers,” an echo of the post-Civil War dig used by Southerners to put down Northerners said to be carrying cheaply made carpetbags on their way to take advantage of a helpless society. Today, the term is associated with exploitation by newcomers.
But exploitation is extractive, a deliberate attempt to suck dry the good from a community like oil from a well. But that’s clearly not the case in Colorado Springs. The military community gives as well as it gets. A recent statewide study found that the active-duty military presence in Colorado Springs contributes 40 percent of the region’s economic activity. That doesn’t include the 31,300 military retirees and surviving spouses in the local congressional district, who in 2016 spent nearly $1 billion of their retirement income in the local economy, according to the Southern Colorado Retiree Activities Office.
That’s just the dollar figures, of course, as military members contribute to the community in many other ways. We eat, sleep, pray, exercise, read, think, love, help, volunteer, and, yes, criticize – right here in town.
Which calls to mind that other classic label: “townies.” Similarly divisive, it’s meant to impugn long-term residents for a lack of sophistication and worldliness. I first heard it in college, when I went to a “townie” bar owned by a guy with a glass eye that seemed to look everywhere but directly at you. The bar was dirty, dark, dank, and forever defined the word in my mind.
This term doesn’t represent the lifelong locals I’ve met here. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher, our mechanic, the neighbors and small-business owners – all are great people, nothing like the “townies” of my college-bar experience.
As the calendar rolls over to 2018, let’s scrap the surface labels, and recognize we can all contribute in some meaningful way to this city. Newcomers bring energy, youth, investment, and a sense of public service. Lengthier residents bring experience, wisdom, equity, and a deep sense of community. Both are better together.
This important “human collaboration,” as Edward Glaeser has written in “The Triumph of the City,” “is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.”
As citizens, we may disagree on the matter of a (now moot) enormous blue frame. But our common denominator is that every night we choose to lay our heads on pillows here, and when we do, we dream of a better life in the shadow of Pikes Peak. Regardless of label, what matters most is we all want to make this community an even better place to live, for however long we’re blessed to be here.