The real code of the West: an urban hinterland

Essay by Ed Quillen

The West – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE WEST is a hard thing to put your finger on. For one thing, it has several “centers.” There’s the Center for the Study of the North American West, in Phnix, I’ve heard, along with some centers I’ve actually visited — the Center of the American West in Boulder, and the Center for the New West in Denver.

Those are all centers to explore the political and sociological complexities of “the West.” But past the multitude of centers, what do we mean when we talk about the West? West of what?

When I was little and first learning to read road maps, I got perplexed. There was a North Pass in Colorado, and it was about 500 miles south of South Pass in Wyoming. That didn’t make much sense, and naturally I asked my dad.

He explained that South Pass was named by people accustomed to crossing the divide farther north, up in Lewis and Clark territory. Meanwhile North Pass, a variant of Cochetopa Pass between Saguache and Gunnison, received its name because it was in the northern part of the old Spanish empire in the New World.

And so I figure “the American West” must lie west of America’s center — which must be in Ohio, since all our geographic regions — Northeast, South, Midwest, Far West, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and the West — are named for their direction from Ohio.

As a native of this West, I’ve discovered my own geographic peculiarities. Martha is from Michigan. At a social gathering once, she encountered a fellow Michigander. They talked about the motherland, and I felt left out. I interjected something about “Oh, you easterners,” and they turned on me, “Michigan is not the East,” they claimed. “It’s in the Midwest.”

Well, for a Coloradan, the East starts somewhere around Holly, or maybe La Junta. And I take a similarly parochial view of “the West” — it’s what the Census Bureau calls the Mountain States, and it doesn’t include the Pacific States. The West is the Interior West or the Mountain West.

This is a land of wide open spaces with a low population density. The American average is about 75 people per square mile; in the Mountain West, it’s about 19 — about a quarter as populated.

It is also one of the most urbanized parts of America. Nationally, 80 percent of Americans live inside Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

The truly rural places are states like Vermont, where only 27 percent of the citizenry live in metro areas, or Arkansas with 45 percent — but certainly not Colorado, where 84 percent of the population lives in cities of 100,000 or more, or Arizona with 87 percent, or Nevada with 85 percent.

This tendency toward urban concentration may have been true even a millennium ago — since the Anasazi of the Four Corners, as nearly as we can tell, were an urban people.

Some historians see cities as a result of deserts. As soon as the population rises above the subsistence foraging level, which doesn’t take much in a desert, then irrigation becomes a necessity.

Nobody gets up in the morning and wants to dig a ditch. Irrigation thus requires command-and-control: a high degree of social organization, ranging from digging canals to protecting fields from nomadic raiders, and the result is civilization.

None of us was around then, so it’s impossible to say for certain why cities were invented. But it is impossible to understand the rural West without examining the role of cities. And that requires putting a new twist on traditional American history.

America has a profound anti-urban bias, probably dating back to Thomas Jefferson, who considered cities cesspools of iniquity. Among his other political contributions, Jefferson invented the NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — syndrome. He was an urbane fellow who enjoyed the products of civilization — books, violins, pianos, etc. But he figured Europe had cities enough to provide for those North American needs, so no pestilential cities ever needed to debase his pristine continent.

Our traditional histories reflect Jefferson’s bias. They focus on the states, or on the federal government, and more recently on ethnic groups or gender roles. Our history books seldom look at America, especially the West, as the result of powerful cities competing for resources and markets, usually with transportation as the tool.

And yet even in colonial times New York was competing against Boston and Philadelphia for dominance of the interior. Thanks to the Erie Canal, which gave New York a solid connection with the Great Lakes, New York won.

Then the next big contest occurred 150 years ago and determined whether this would be “The West” or “del Norte.” The contenders were Chihuahua and St. Louis.

Chihuahua was established by Spain and maintained by Mexico as the entrép&ocurc;t for the northern frontier. Until Mexican independence in 1821, all goods for Santa Fé and Taos were, in theory anyway, shipped up the Camino Real in an annual caravan of carretas from Chihuahua to El Paso del Norte (the pass to the north, right?) and on up the Rio Grande del Norte (the great river of the north).

In the early nineteenth century, St. Louis controlled water transportation south to New Orleans, north to Minneapolis, northwest into today’s Montana, and a network of wagon routes known to us today as the Oregon, California, and Santa Fé trails.

Those two urban empires were bound for conflict, which became an armed one in 1846 and is known to us as the Mexican War — whose sesquicentennial no one has been celebrating, perhaps because both participants are embarrassed. Mexico lost, and the United States likes to pretend it never waged a war of imperialist expansion.

In modern times, the St. Louis West might be best exemplified by the reconstructed Bent’s Fort about 120 miles southeast of Colorado Springs.

Bent’s Fort was built for trade, not occupation. There was no attempt to displace the Cheyenne, Comanche, or Arapaho. Instead, Bent wagons brought forth pots, beads and blankets, and rolled back with bison hides, brought in for trade by the Indians.

Nor did St. Louis attempt to develop the resources of the territory. Occasionally there was a garden at the fort, but most of the foodstuffs were either hunted or imported from St. Louis.

While visiting Bent’s Fort once, I saw the blacksmith in his 1846 character, and asked why the fire at his forge was so small. He had to be chary with his coal, he explained, because it all had to be hauled in from St. Louis at great expense.

Yet every summer day, Bent wagons struggled up and down Raton Pass — right past some of the biggest and finest metallurgical coal deposits in the world. They weren’t even looking for resources that they needed, and I think that tells us plenty about the nature of the St. Louis West. It was willing to leave things as they were, to deal with native peoples where it found them, and profit on the trade.

The St. Louis West, triumphant in the Mexican War, collapsed almost immediately thereafter. The winner of the war between Chihuahua and St. Louis was Chicago.

To see why, we have to look at America in those 15 years between the Mexican War and the Civil War.

The nation had acquired a vast new territory, and there were competing plans for organizing it. Nobody proposed leaving it alone. One plan supported plantations and slaves. The other replicated the Midwest — “the old Northwest” — with small family farms.

Politicians of the day were eager to use the power of the federal government to support their own visions, and therefore the major proposal before the federal government was the Pacific Railroad.

Thus Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, when he served as Secretary of War, commissioned railroad surveys west from St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. If one of those cities dominated the new territory, the economic and cultural systems it represented would naturally follow.

Northern politicians realized this, and commissioned their own surveys to the Pacific, and naturally these originated from Chicago and Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the arguments over extending slavery into the territories caused the birth of a new political party — the Republicans. Although they drew support from anti-slavery New England, the Republican Party of 1854 was essentially a regional party of the Midwest, organized to advocate and extend Midwestern attitudes.

The Civil War erupted in 1861. During the war, the South wasn’t a player in the federal government, and the president, Abraham Lincoln, was from the Midwest. Now consider Lincoln’s accomplishments with Congress in 1862 as they organized the Mountain West.

Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act. Although the route technically started in Omaha, its actual terminus was Chicago. Thus the Mountain West would be connected to Chicago, not St. Louis or New Orleans.

Also adopted was the Homestead Act, putting the federal imprimateur on 160-acre family farms, like farms in the Midwest, not plantations in the South. And to make sure people could figure out what to grow on those farms, Congress passed the Morrill Act, establishing land grant colleges.

Taken together, those are significant legislative accomplishments. Chicago got a huge hinterland and made it decidedly Midwestern.

The ensuing development is well explained in a wonderful book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, by William Cronon.

It is the Chicago West we have in mind when we talk of “the Old West.” Chicago’s packing plants needed cattle, and so the bison were exterminated in favor of Herefords, cowboys, windmills and other Marlboro Man paraphernalia.

The prairies were filled with homesteaders, who bought their goods from Sears Roebuck in Chicago, shipped their grain to Chicago elevators on lines like the Chicago & Northwestern; the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

I could go into ample detail, but Cronon already has, and I commend this book to anyone interested in the development of the West. Along with Chicago’s economy came a Chicago way of looking at the landscape — that it consisted of resources to develop, and that it was immoral not to develop those resources.

Consider John Evans, a Chicago physician who also founded Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His Republican connections to an Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln got him an appointment as Colorado’s second territorial governor in 1862.

Did Evans have the St. Louis view that Indians were there to trade with? Of course not. Here’s his Midwestern view: it is “ridiculous” that “a country 1,000 miles long and 500 miles wide, one of the most fertile in the world, should belong to a few bands of roving Indians.”

And so this Midwestern viewpoint triumphed. Chicago presided over an invasion of the West, with the land occupied by people who would work it for cattle, for crops, and for minerals. The colonizers brought their attitude and their social organization with them, displacing everything that had been before them.

Only along the upper Rio Grande and in Deseret did they encounter persistent resistance. Everywhere else, Midwesterners basically took everything over and organized the territory as part of their homeland.

And that system stayed in place, pretty much, through World War II, and in some tracts, even longer. The Old West of mining, ranching, farming, and logging was a zone of resources to be developed and used in the Midwestern Industrial Complex, whose capital was Chicago.

But the Chicago West reached its limits in about 1980, just when it looked as though the West was going to go totally industrial with synfuel plants and oil-shale refineries.

Commodity, mineral, and fuel prices collapsed. We can blame it on free trade, or Reagan deflationary policies, or a host of other causes — which aren’t important here. The important thing is that the Chicago West, the Old West of yore, began to recede.

And what replaces it? The West has no real cities of its own — that is, cities capable of distilling and disseminating their own cultures and world views. The difference between Denver and yogurt is that yogurt has live culture. Some other city had to begin organizing the West into its hinterland.

And so Los Angeles began to take over from Chicago. Its city dump is in Carbon County, Utah. It buys its electrical power from coal-burning plants all over the West. The great river of the Southwest, the Colorado, is operated for the benefit of Southern California.

Beyond that, there’s the LA worldview, that the West isn’t resources so much as it’s scenery — and that it should be managed accordingly. The issue before this panel — hiking vs. logging — pretty much says it. The Chicago West assigned economic value to logging; trees weren’t worth anything in the ground. And the LA West assigned economic value to hiking, and thereby to the trees in the ground.

LA sensibilities have turned recreation from a personal pursuit into an economic force. And thus the arrival of the New West — the Los Angeles West, superseding the Chicago West, the St. Louis West, the Chihuahua Norte, and the Chaco Canyon Center.

For about a decade, Los Angeles has been exporting people — primarily white people of comfortable means — to the Interior West. Are these people refugees, happy for a refuge and willing to accommodate themselves to the prevailing culture, or are they in fact colonists, eager to make the new land into a replica of the old, or at least what they wanted the old to be?

I think the answer is obvious: the West is faced with new colonists and invaders. Los Angeles has been defined as fifty suburbs in search of a city, and the very title of this session — Suburbanization of Western Values — should tell us who’s winning here.

The town I live in, Salida, was built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1880. It’s a classic Midwestern T-town, where the railroad depot once stood at the end of the main street. And it stayed that way for a century or so, mostly on account of poverty — nobody could afford to change much.

But it’s sure been changing lately, and the changes I see reflect the arrival of suburban values.

For instance, the city commissioned some consultants to prepare a new comprehensive master plan last year. The plan, which faltered thanks to strenuous and vocal local opposition — which I am proud to have been part of — called for these suburban values:

Income segregation. Instead of mixed neighborhoods strung along narrow tree-lined streets, there would be zones with two-acre lots for the rich bastards — excuse me, let me be politically correct and call them People of Money. And the poor could live in subsidized “affordable housing.” The funny thing about the two-acre lots is that the plan also talked about how the town needed to develop additional water supplies, and I’m trying to think what might waste more water than big lots.

Blight removal. Suburbs have to be attractive, not productive, since they’re merely residential zones. And so the guy fixing cars in his back yard is a blight. The lot that is less than 10,000 square feet is blight. The chain-link fence is blight. In other words, anything that hints of practicality is a blight, unfit for the new suburb.

Gateways at the entrances to town — that is, let us know we’re entering something like Salida Heights, rather than the limits of a city.

Auto-friendly. Scatter the commercial district — especially national big-box retailers — where no one can walk to it, so that people are forced to drive. Thus we’ll need wider and faster streets, and pedestrian or bicycle traffic will become less and less practical, while more congestion will mean more streets.

Pedestrian paranoia. Along with the love of autos comes the hatred of pedestrians — the Southern California belief that anyone on foot is a felon. Reading old newspapers has shown me that louts have been hanging out on Salida street corners for more than a century — that’s what people do in small towns. But not in suburbs. Now, inspired by LA values, the people have organized and persuaded the Salida city government to pass a loitering ordinance — what use to be a harmless pastime is now a crime. Suburban values replace small-town values. Young people are no longer neighbors and co-workers, but potential gang members.

Dreamers. A few months ago, the local paper carried a long and sympathetic account of a family who’d bought a big old Victorian house, to pursue some dream, and found that dream disturbed because children, as children always have, played in the park across the street. And these people complained and got sympathetic hearings from the newspaper and the city government. Nobody asked the obvious question: Just how are we obliged to organize our community for the benefit of the “dreams” of a recent arrival?

This isn’t growth. Growth is more of the same, and Salida could accommodate an indefinite number of new arrivals who lived in 600-square-foot shotgun houses on 25-foot-wide lots. This is invasion, the overlaying of our landscape and lifestyle with a new one.

Plans that call for huge lots in gated communities sprawled across a countryside dotted by parking lots and mini-malls force us to duplicate LA.

We fought Salida’s first plan off temporarily, but let’s face it — the real estate industry wants it, and Colorado is a wholly owned subsidiary of the real estate industry. It’s coming, plan or no plan.

The mayor told me we needed a plan in order to control growth, and yet the kind of growth this plan promoted would have trashed old Salida. We’re perfectly capable of doing that on our own without any help from plans and consultants — we need them to help us find ways to keep from trashing our towns.

This is a battle on the ground in one little spot. But I read a lot of small-town newspapers, and I see it happening elsewhere in the Rural West. One person made a fairly thorough study, Raye Ringholz, and the results are reported in her fine book Little Town Blues. And Ringholz couldn’t find any town with any plan that had managed to resist this invasion by the People of Money.

This contagion has infected several million square miles, and the natural question: Is there anything we can do about it?

Well, Dr. Power here would tell me to relax and be happy — my house is worth a lot more than I paid for it eight years ago, and so in economic terms — and he’s an economist — I’m better off.

But as the property values rise, we lose the marginal people, the funky people, the people who make life interesting. I have to work more and more just to stay in the same place.

So I don’t feel better on that account. And where can I turn? The local government has its goals, and even if it shared my goals — well, look at our political system.

Not one candidate, to my knowledge, has ever run in favor of more suburban sprawl, more traffic, more congestion, more limitations on my property rights, more intrusion into my life — and yet, no matter who’s elected, that’s what we always get.

Our governments don’t represent our ambitions and interests any more, if they ever did. Indeed, in much of the Rural West, the government, at any level from county to federal, is seen as an alien occupying power, and this explains the presence of militias and the like — voting doesn’t change anything.

We, like the Indians our great-great-grandparents displaced, are being displaced by a richer and more sophisticated civilization, one that writes the rules to suit itself, and one whose triumph seems inevitable.

I fled to the mountains from the Front Range back in 1974 to avoid Generic America, and I thought I was safe, especially in about 1985, living in a depressed and toxic valley, an abandoned part of the Rust Belt. Anyone with ambition left to seek his fortune elsewhere, and we who stayed had a place of our own — a Losers’ Reservation, as it were.

But we have no way to protect ourselves — no economic or political power — and the suburbs are taking over. Some of us will find a new hustle, some of us will flee even deeper in the hope of finding territory that hasn’t been discovered yet by the People of Money, and some will join militia movements and declare independence and try printing their own money.

They’ll lose, of course, just as the Arapaho and Utes lost. Or as a friend put it during a hearing in Salida last summer, if the Red Army couldn’t keep McDonald’s out of Moscow, what hope do we have if Wal-Mart wants to install a superstore here?

The West is a hinterland, whose decisions have always been made elsewhere. Its ranches, farms, and mines have always produced for global markets. Its tourism industry, based on national parks, was invented by eastern-owned railroads desirous of increasing their passenger traffic. Its real-estate is now being chopped up, developed, and sold to invaders, who will arrange the legal, cultural, and social systems to suit themselves.

This has happened before and it’s happening now. That’s the real Code of the West.

— Ed Quillen

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