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George Sibley: Down on the Ground With Resiliency and Vibrancy

As usual, in trying to figure out what I’m actually doing with my life here in Year One of the Republican Thousand-Year Reign, I’m finding myself spread-eagled over a typical set of random experiences.

A sampling from the month since last writing: finished up a bathroom enlargement (a half-bath expanded to a seven-eighths bath), attended a town meeting about creating a more “vibrant” city, Rotorooted the sewer line, danced rather than marching in Crested Butte’s Independence Day parade, participated in two water conservancy meetings in one morning, sampled craft brews at a “Beeroque” chamber orchestra concert, hauled 400 pounds of entropic stuff to the landfill, pumped a few more pounds of carbon gases into the atmosphere (including some pretty intensive gases from a bout of indigestion caused by thinking too much in the night about things I can’t do anything about).

In trying to make sense of it all, I guess I will start with the bathroom. We are enlarging an upstairs half-bath because we are trying to look ahead. Next year my partner completes her three score and ten, and I blew past that half a decade ago, so we’ve been thinking it is time to be thinking ahead to when one or both of us will no longer be interested in negotiating the stairs to the second floor.

We first thought we should list the house and start looking for a new, smaller place to buy with no stairs involved. But we looked before listing, and realized that most of the places that fit that scenario were either out on the edge of town or out-of-town entirely, or entirely out of our price range. We realized we really like being close enough to downtown to walk there. So, we were struck with the brilliant idea of downsizing enough to fit into the first floor of our house and turning our upstairs into an apartment – a very feasible idea, thanks to some fortuitous structural features of the house (not including the tiny half-bath).

So that is what we are working on doing – beginning with really the only major task, getting a shower in that upstairs half-bath. The only real downside of this idea is that an apartment there will require a pretty significant variance in the local zoning ordinance, since we have already turned our attached garage into a studio apartment, and an apartment upstairs would make us a triplex in an R-2 zone. But the people of the valley have, through our One Valley Prosperity Project acknowledged that affordable housing is one of our four biggest problems, so we are confident, yes, confident, that the town fathers and mothers will change the zoning ordinance to permit a more reasonable density than we are now allowed.

Haw. We have no such confidence at all. Everyone in the valley hates sprawl; the only thing everyone hates even more is density. But with a little common sense, leavened with some imagination, I think we ought to be able to increase our neighborhood density without significantly eroding the acreage of useless lawn that everyone so loves to try to keep green here, in our hardpan clay soils under our high-UV sun.

There is some precedent. Back in the days before zoning, in a college town with lots of single students needing housing, a lot of people practiced density in the form of little alley houses. Tiny houses are being presented in the media as a new phenomenon, but Gunnison has had quite a few tiny houses back on the alleys for a long time, all grandfathered in when the conventional zoning code was adopted with setbacks and maximum square footages and limits on units and other restrictions on everyone’s property, in the name of protecting us in our space from whatever our neighbors might do in theirs.

[InContentAdTwo] We took an evening off from bathroom reconstruction to attend a public meeting introducing the City of Gunnison’s Vibrancy Initiative, at which we were invited to brainstorm on how to create a more vibrant Gunnison. Vibrancy is one of those words that is suddenly on a lot of tongues, much like resiliency. According to my dictionary, a vibrant place would be one that is pulsating with vigor and energy, a place that is stimulating and exciting. Is density a quality of vibrancy? We raised the question, to thoughtful silence.

A resilient place, on the other hand, has the capacity for rebounding from difficulty or injury, for recovering or restoring an original condition after a disruption. I probably witnessed the relationship between vibrancy and resiliency – and density too – on Independence Day in Crested Butte, where I went to participate in the big parade with my fellow former kings and queens (“Has-Beens”) who once reigned over that town’s annual Flauschink end-of-winter festival. Crested Butte definitely qualified that day as vibrant as well as dense; the town was indeed pulsating. I’m no good at estimating crowds, but there must have been several thousand visitors lining the streets – enough so that it probably tested the town’s resiliency.

“It is July,” said Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman in his editorial that week, “And we could all use a bit of help.” I remember a term from physics: elastic limit, the limit to the amount of flex in something flexible, beyond which it breaks. A town whose vibrancy grows to where it exceeds its elastic limit could lose its resiliency; we should be careful what we wish for.

Meanwhile, we Flauschink Has-Beens – most of us still resilient enough to get off and on a flatbed trailer with only a little assistance – did have a good time singing on the trailer and dancing off it on the street to Pete Dunda’s accordion, while three thousand strangers probably wondered if we were crazy.

But back to the bathroom – and that’s what it’s been for three months: when the vibrant whatever ends and we were back to testing our resilience, it was back to the bathroom for me, where a seemingly endless tangle of details needed to be dealt with – not least calling to find out whether the plumber or electrician or tile setter could maybe squeeze in a couple of hours for our nickel-dime job along with the big 10,000 square-foot Midas manors they’re working on up-valley.

But plugging away at my general contractor/half-assed carpenter role in this fandango, working around the pipes bringing the clean water in and the drains carrying the “used” water out – why did I find myself thinking about public meetings? I guess there is a parallel there, of sorts, a kind of give-and-take with the rest of the community. Although most of us don’t think of it often, we are all collaborating first on a common water supply from which we each take what we need for our individual homes, then a common repository to which we all give the, um, leftover water and its other products, and we all participate in cleaning that water and putting it back in the river. Give and take with and from the larger community, a discourse that doesn’t only ebb and flow but occasionally reverses or flows both ways simultaneously, as when we try to talk about the right density for the right vibrancy, and end up mostly testing our resiliency and elastic limits.

Another random adventure to add to this mashup of a month of give-and-take with the larger community: the Independence Day dance. Historically it’s a day for marching, but every Independence Day, Pete Dunda, himself a retired Air Force pilot and so far as I’m concerned, a national treasure, fires up his accordion and plays all afternoon at the old dance pavilion in Almont, between Gunnison and Crested Butte. What more vibrant and resilient way could there be to celebrate our independence as a people than to dance while the rest of the world marches? Dunda plays the official march for every military service branch – to a polka rhythm.

I’m always a little surprised though – and disappointed – at how few people dance today. We go to the Sundays @ 6 concerts the Gunnison Arts Center puts on, and even when the musicians literally beg people to get up and get their yah-yahs out, Maryo and I are too often the only people dancing, which leaves me with the funny feeling of not knowing whether I’m being a showoff or a fool, or both.

Maryo and I occasionally mutter, on such occasions, “People who won’t dance it together, won’t chance it together,” which may be either utter nonsense or maybe something about vibrancy. Or resiliency, or both. Not to mention density, which no one here wants to mention.

And what else am I spread-eagled over and trying to hold together as my ramshackle life? Well, there was the final step in the bathroom project, hauling 400 pounds of entropic debris to the valley landfill, but that’s a story for next month.

George Sibley thinks too much and writes too little in the Upper Gunnison River headwaters.