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Golden Opportunities for Activist Historians

Essay by Laura Mccall

Growth – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN The American West as Living Space, historian and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner asked his readers to consider the West “as both a space alive with all manner of beings and as a space to be lived in and responded to,” cherished and preserved. Stegner noted that urban and rural sprawl threaten most regions of the United States yet pose particular dangers to the American West. Uniquely delicate ecosystems, limited wildlife habitat for scores of endangered species, and sustainable water supplies are environmental realities. The nature of current development, with its emphasis on tract homes over former farm and rangeland, coupled with the peculiarly Western dependence on the automobile, are eroding our sense of community and identification with the land and the past.

People have to live, work, and shop somewhere but must these places be so ugly? Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been constructed in the last fifty years and most of it is unsightly, spiritually degrading, wasteful, and oftentimes toxic. During the last half-century the wealthiest nation on earth, has erected cheap, grotesque, throwaway, incoherent, and meaningless places. Prior to this sickness of wealth, communities built homes and public places that would last and be cherished beyond one’s lifetime. Our forebears erected town halls, schools, post offices and railroad stations that would endure as monuments to their pride of place, sense of permanency, and devotion to longevity.

Such qualities became evident following the demolition of the City of Golden’s historic Mitchell Elementary School. The city held a meeting to open the cornerstone in which hundreds of schoolchildren, their teachers, and government officials had deposited notes and testimonials. Those who scribbled these remembrances believed the Mitchell School would last 500 years and that people would be reading their sketches in 2439, not 1999.

Because of activist preservationist efforts, however, Golden remains one of the last, best places on the Front Range. It features an historic downtown as well as a variety of housing types and people. Its public and private places are rich with history.

My town has provided me with several “golden” opportunities to utilize the tools of the historian and, in so doing, I have tried to show that historic preservation encompasses far more than the protection of old buildings — a true definition includes the preservation of open space and natural landmarks as well as knowledge of the impacts of changing transportation patterns. I spearheaded a one percent growth limitation which passed in 1995. Although the opposition spent $23,000 to defeat the measure (compared to our $1,300 outlay), it passed with 59% of the vote. We fought the proposal to build a Nike facility atop South Table Mountain, a natural landmark the City of Golden uses as its logo and which Coors, until recently, displayed on the front of its beer cans and bottles.

ANCIENT FOSSILS and dinosaur tracks, including _the world’s first sighting of horned dinosaur footprints, exist where Golden seeks to build a golf course. Although the City claims it will try to preserve as many artifacts as possible, the majority will end up as plaster-cast exhibits in the golf course clubhouse rather than remaining undisturbed in their natural settings. We are currently embroiled in what may be the most important battle to protect Golden’s integrity — preventing construction of a six-lane, limited-access highway through the heart of our historic town.

I wish to suggest some reasons why we are in such a pickle today and how the historian’s expertise may help. I would like to briefly summarize what historians have learned through their studies of the past.

The first is our rampant consumerism. Although the United States counts only 5% of the world’s population, we devour approximately 30% of the world’s resources. If every citizen of the earth consumed as Americans did, the planet would experience environmental catastrophe.

If every Earthling eligible to drive possessed an automobile, as is fast becoming the trend in America today, the planet could not sustain itself. Nothing has done more damage to the biophysical environment than the car and demands for them continue to soar. Some 100,000 automobiles roll off the world’s assembly lines every day; there are well over a hundred million passenger cars on our nation’s streets and highways, as well as millions of trucks and vans. Like our cars, our houses are bigger and require more energy. In 1950, the typical house measured 1,200 square feet. Today, that size has more than doubled to 2,500 square feet and beyond, to trophy castles, and they cost more to heat and cool and furnish.

The average car emits its own weight in pollution every year and consumes 600 gallons of gasoline each year. Taken collectively, that represents 60 billion gallons of gas burned in our automobiles annually. As environmental historian, Donald Worster notes: “the automobile has become the most common and the most potent technological force for environmental modification and destruction.”

DURING COLORADO’S current growth spurt, numerous places have witnessed the construction of enormous homes whose residents are dependent upon the automobile. Downtown areas are drying up or re-fashioning themselves as quaint tourist attractions where travelers can buy picture postcards and T-shirts.

Ten years ago, Golden did not have a mall and only a handful of fast-food joints existed along Old Golden Road. We had our local Safeway, a mere two blocks from the downtown area, and the best hardware and drug stores in the region in the center of our community. Most residents did not need to get into their cars to obtain the basic necessities of life. In a pattern re-created hundreds of times throughout Colorado, Golden’s elected and appointed officials turned a beautiful horse pasture on the south edge of town into a King Soopers complex which contains a number of shops that compete with our downtown merchants. They also gave King Soopers a 3.7 million dollar subsidy and then had the audacity to name this site the “Golden Town Centre.” This is not a town center — it is a shopping mall with architecturally hideous box stores fronted by a sea of concrete parking because cars are necessary to get there. Even farther south, the city gave another 3.7 million dollar subsidy to Home Depot to build another mall. How long will our great downtown hardware store last?

TEN YEARS AGO, no major highway existed in our vicinity and the intrepid travelers who sought to get through Golden had to come through Golden. Many of them stopped in our downtown because that was the only place to visit — but the town fathers built a by-pass which has become the driver for the Northwest Parkway. Today, approximately 60,000 motorists by-pass Golden daily and few come into town to shop or dine. That by-pass, by the way, spawned a grotesque subdivision on the north end of town, what one resident has appropriately named the “beige glacier.”

Historians know about earlier expressions of civic life as well as attitudes toward the land. Many understand there is more to community than big-box stores or easy access to highways. As Professor Todd Pistol has written: “Historians have an obligation to speak out against this mindless sprawl…. If historians remain disengaged from the ongoing debate over community… the face of twenty-first century America will be determined by others.”

Donald Worster believes “history ought to be more than knowledge chasing its own tail. Environmental history ought to have a few ideas to offer the public” regarding the policies of development. “The historian should let people know what he cares about and encourage them to care about it too. He should not hide all day in the archives or write only for a graduate seminar, but now and then try to take part in the great public issues that animate our times: the fate of…communities,…the aspirations of [people], the future of the earth.”

Permit me to conclude with a thought and some solutions. Whereas Euro-Disney in northern France lost close to one billion dollars in its first two years of operation, Disneyland and Disney World gross billions of dollars in the United States every year. The explanation is simple. Disneyland and Disney World speak deeply to a way of life Americans have lost. These theme parks recreate America’s small-town nostalgia. When tourists visit them, they surrender their cars and enter a world of castles, flowered promenades, and uncluttered small-town, friendly ambiance. Europeans do not have to travel to these fantasy places; they exist as part of their reality. Historic Golden still maintains a fragment of this natural beauty and historic significance, which in large measure helps explain its appeal.

What should activist historians do next and what have we learned? Most have discovered we cannot keep the people (too busy with work and family) at a continuously high level of involvement — something politicians and developers learned a long time ago. We cannot compete against their money and influence and time. But, if we care about our historic and natural places, we can campaign and vote for statesmen — not politicians but statesmen and women — who openly proclaim their strong opposition to sprawl and their support of historic places. We must elect people who have a vision and not merely a plan.

WE HAVE ALSO LEARNED that preservation has its ups and downs, its victories and its losses. We are engaged in an ongoing battle to protect our past. In the short run, we save individual sites but in the long-run, the goal is to maintain the involvement of busy preservationists, work with sympathetic officials, change the climate of public opinion which has come to accept a throwaway culture, keep pressure on the business community, and get rid of Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment which has resulted in an artificial tax structure that contributes to sprawl. We must talk about Colorado’s dramatic population growth which has created unbelievable development pressures in our state.

We must think about balancing the quest for money with the historical context of community. Using a wealth of available statistics, we must demonstrate how growth promises short-term benefits for a few but long-term nightmares for the rest of us.

So, out of the ivory tower and on to the barricades.

Dr. Laura McCall, a former Gunnison resident, lives in Golden and professes history at Metropolitan State College. This is adapted from a talk she delivered on April 28 to the Golden Gathering Conference: Using the Past to Better the Future, an event sponsored by the Colorado History Group.