Essay by Laura Mccall
Western Life – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
IN THE 1970s, Gunnison’s only franchise was A & W — an old and somewhat quaint chain that employed car-hops in the summer months. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Taco Bell did not exist. In 1987, a company named ALCO came to town and built their cinder block discount store, the site of the present-day Wal-Mart, over a pasture where the largest and most-magnificent bulls used to graze.
Less than one year after ALCO’s opening, seven downtown Gunnison businesses had failed. That bull pasture now also houses a City Market, a number of unnecessary stores, and modular housing that is really unsightly — even though, in its defense, some of it is listed as affordable. Ranches are being broken up into 35-acre parcels, over which the county has no planning or zoning authority, and 47% of the residences in the Gunnison Valley are second homes whose inhabitants may not share the same commitment to community.
Eighty percent of everything ever built in the United States has been constructed in the last fifty years and most of it is ugly, spiritually degrading, wasteful, and oftentimes toxic. The growth taking place in Colorado promises short-term benefits for a few, but long-term problems for the rest of us. Because growth is not paying its way, we all suffer a decline in services.
One reason why growth occurs as it currently does is because the system favors developers. Cities and counties grant thousands of dollars to pro-growth advocates. My county provides 300,000 taxpayer dollars annually to the Jefferson Economic Council, whose sole purpose is to attract industry.
Because Colorado is at full employment, every new business has to import its workforce. These new arrivals contribute to traffic congestion, air pollution, crowded schools, reduced police and fire protection, and the loss of open space.
Developers and their minions often dominate local politics, especially by serving on the Planning Commissions and City Councils which are responsible for approving new development. In Golden, City Council members receive a paltry $200 a month for their services and all but one of our Council members has a personal, monied agenda.
Another reason for this toxic spectacle rests within our culture.
A culture of complacency and apathy insists you cannot fight City Hall and if you don’t grow you die. People must remember that, when working together, they are a most powerful constituency. I did fight City Hall, enacting a one percent residential growth limit with a citizen-generated initiative. We were outspent $22,000 to $1,500. The newspapers which are in the hands of the rich and powerful vehemently opposed it, and we nevertheless garnered 59% of the vote.
We also live within a culture of throw-away consumerism. The average household generates 13 tons of garbage per year and makes ten vehicle trips each day. Consumer expert Barry Lopez ties our lust for the newest and hottest items to our loss of community — we don’t have each other so we shop and amass possessions to fill the void.
Americans have an almost-slavish attachment to the familiar. A few weeks back, National Public Radio reported on the generification and homogenization of the world. Many of our citizens do not like to travel to places that lack generic Americana. They feel comfortable because a McDonald’s now sells fast food on the Champs Elysées in Paris, France, and in Beijing, China. Rather than experience the newness of another culture, Americans long for the mind-numbing sameness that reminds them of “home.” Welcome to McWorld.
The system favors sameness, too. Getting start-up money from the banks for a one-of-a-kind operation is difficult, whereas franchises will bankroll expectant capitalists, often, however, at the cost of their souls.
SHOULD WESTERN STATE COLLEGE play a role? There will be opposition to any institution that teaches an activist agenda or even greater political awareness. One school of thought, championed by Harold Bloom, its most articulate spokesperson, argues that colleges should be ivory towers, havens of æsthetic repose far from the corrupting influences of the outside world.
A valid point, and Western State could indeed fashion itself as an æsthetic haven. The ivory tower image, however, is historically inaccurate. Our oldest colleges — the Ivy Leagues and William and Mary — were founded to train ministers and those schools made no secret of their well-defined agendas.
During the American Revolution and beyond, colleges were hotbeds of political activism. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to fuel the fires of Republicanism. Oberlin College, in an Ohio that was far more remote in the 1830s than Gunnison is today, had a respected national reputation for grassroots commitment, and was a seedbed in the movement to abolish slavery. It was also the first institution of higher learning in the United States to admit women. Colleges were in the advance guard for Civil Rights, in opposition to the Vietnam War, and in advocating environmental responsibility.
The faculty and students of Western State College and an impressive number of Gunnison’s citizens have the energy and expertise to become part of the solution to the serious problems that plague the West. Economics and business courses can explore alternatives to gentrification, they can teach the full range of small-business formation, and they can utilize the experiences of those who have begun small and highly-successful operations as well as those who manage chains.
Political science and history courses could convey the stories of the early Republic, when causes born of democratic and reformist principles flourished.
A COURSE ON THE MEDIA might teach about a phenomenon professors term “Western Journalism,” wherein most newspapers, radio, and television stations in the West eschew investigative reporting in favor of a civic boosterism consciously designed to convey the feeling that everything is right with the world.
As a result, citizens must be the watchdogs. We have to write the Letters to the Editor that expose the sweetheart deals made between local governments and the developers. Who pays when the government agrees to widen the road to that new shopping center or subdivision or when the government gives, as they did to the local City Market, tax breaks for erecting their big new store only to leave the old one standing empty and cold and with no provisions for its future use?
People, however, need tools to become activists, they must build from foundations based upon reading and discourse. Western State is ideally situated for this role because, for one, it attracts a disproportionate number of idealists. Think of it — Western State College, the Oberlin of the West.
Dr. Laura McCall lives in Golden and professes history at Metropolitan State College in Denver. She previously taught at Western State College in Gunnison, where this was delivered as part of the Headwaters Conference Nov. 14-15. She is the co-editor of A Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender, published in 1998 by New York University Press.