City in Flux

You can't step in the same Springs twice.

by Abi Censky


Paris, New Orleans, New York City, Vienna, Prague, London—they’ve all got this je ne sais quoi to them. Even cities like Denver or Boulder (two of Colorado’s three largest metropolitan areas) have a tangible spirit to them. Denver, the business and industry hub of Colorado, has stuck to its origins as a nexus of trading and an entry point into the Rocky Mountain West. Meanwhile, Boulder is known as the liberal outpost of the Front Range—a Colorado Brooklyn complete with the requisite foodie scene, university, burgeoning start-up hub and even a renowned farmers market. Yet, Colorado Springs, the second-largest city in Colorado, is definitively anemic when it comes to a strong sense of identity, culture or spirit. We almost have a hold on who we are, but not quite. We’ve been reinventing ourselves every 20 years since our creation. 

Or at least that’s Matt Mayberry’s hunch. Curator of the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, Mayberry makes the case for why Colorado Springs can’t seem to find itself. 

“So I have this view of Colorado Springs, which we reinvent ourselves every 20 years and we’re going through a reinvention right now,” Mayberry tells me one September afternoon in his basement office. 

I’d gone in with the popular belief ordained and distributed by Colorado College students that Colorado Springs was an “almost boomtown.” After all, Old Colorado City was going to be the capitol of Colorado at one point and after the Cripple Creek Gold Rush, the Colorado Springs Mining Exchange ran a trading floor that rivaled the floor at the New York Stock Exchange through the 1890s—both tidbits of information I’d picked up at CC. Colorado Springs seemed to be the victim of “almost” becoming a city with that je ne sais quoi before fading into oblivion of “not quite” or “not yet.” Mayberry quickly corrected me, taking me back to our founding before delineating the stages of our reinvention—each 20 years, just a spoke in the wheel of our perennial reinvention cycle. 

At the city’s founding in 1871, we were “founded as almost the opposite [of a boomtown], if there is such a thing as a boomtown” said Mayberry. In Mayberry’s philosophy, there are two basic community-building prototypes: a boomtown model (the Cripple Creeks and Old Colorado Citys of the world) or the colony model. The boomtown model is “largely founded on economic drivers” like gold mining and railroad construction. However, Colorado Springs follows the other major model, the colony model. 

“Limited to the post-Civil War American West…colonies were based more on philosophy than economics,” he told me. 

When General Palmer founded the city, he originally called it Fountain Colony, envisioning Colorado Springs as a resort town. For our first 20 years, from 1871-1891, we existed as a resort town idyllically set below “America’s Mountain.” The population stayed at a steady plateau, leveling out in the range of 30-50,000 people until WWII, when these reinventions really become obvious to the naked-eye historian. After the military arrived with its corresponding industrial complex in the 1940s our population growth graph starts to look like a hockey stick. 

Starting from the founding, Mayberry takes me through things step-by-step. 

“The first 20 years, we’re a resort town, the second twenty years it’s a little bit mixed industry but we become this wealthy…magnate for the millionaires out of Cripple Creek and the second one that’s going on simultaneously is we become a sanatorium community, so we’re treating tuberculosis patients. And it’s during that second period tens of thousands of people come to Colorado Springs to recover from tuberculosis [(TB)]…we have 12 major TB facilities in Colorado Springs where we’re treating those people.” However, in the 1930s and 40s chemicals are discovered as effective in treating TB, prompting the city to develop a different strategy for economic growth. This kind of economic shock to the city’s system is usually what denotes the beginning of one of our many reinventions. With that economic boon no longer there, the city has to diversify and the military answers the call. 

The 40s herald the arrival of the military to Colorado Springs, which begins a “20 year cycle of [Colorado Springs] recruiting other entities.” Camp Carson, Ent Air Force Base, the Air Force Academy, NORAD and Schriever Air Force Base shape the decades-long process of military outfit acquisition to bolster Colorado Springs’s hunger for growth. 

The 1960s in the Springs are a time spent pursuing technology. “We become a high tech community, and the nickname that we used for that period, or we tried to coin was Silicon Mountain” after the infamous Silicon Valley in Northern California. According to Mayberry, the dream was that Colorado Springs would rise to compete with Silicon Valley and become a bona fide high tech center. Yet again, dreams don’t come true, and the city was left seeking growth drivers and another calling. 

In the 1980s, Colorado Springs sees yet another reinvention with the arrival of the evangelical sector and church community. This populace moved mostly from California, and the city did its fair share of recruitment of non-profit and church-based organizations with evangelical focus. This period, according to Mayberry’s theory, spans the 80s through 2000s. However, several economic downturns in the 2000s shocked the military community and burgeoning evangelical hub. The effects of the downturn were compounded by post-9/11 changes in military structure and the subsequent international recession. “So that’s the shock that is part of what I see as our tradition of ‘we better rethink how we’re doing things’ and so that’s what we’re going through right now.”

As a city, we’re here again, seeking something to define us, to give us that je ne sais quoi that’s so compelling about other cities, but which we perpetually lack. I ask Mayberry if he is ever astonished that Colorado Springs ballooned to become the second largest metropolitan area in Colorado. Evidently, he’s familiar with the question, “What would General Palmer think?” so he responds with measured conviction: “I think he would be completely baffled by how large we’ve grown…but in his eyes Colorado Springs was supposed to be a resort town…the community has just taken advantage of…opportunities that have presented themselves over the years.”

That we have, and in that sense Colorado Springs has exceeded all expectations. Colorado Springs is not an “almost” city but a tremendous exception to what should have been, according to Palmer, a small resort town. The Springs’ defining characteristic may just be its entrepreneurial spirit. 

Whatever the case may be, Colorado Springs is an amazing anomaly. Born a resort town, the Springs Frankensteined its way into something far greater than General Palmer could have ever imagined. And it has evolved beyond what anyone could have expected: a chameleon city bent on perennially reinventing itself.