I am nostalgic for the way things used to be, even if those times were not always the good old days that many of us remember. We have always had prejudice, discrimination and racism in this country, but it seems that somehow it wasn’t so bad in the old days. Maybe it’s because as a young man I didn’t pay much attention to those things, even if I do remember getting doors slammed in my face when I wanted to rent apartments in certain parts of our fair city.
But now we are in a time of tragedy. Latinos feel unsafe after mass murder targeting Mexican people in El Paso, Texas. Makes me stop and think about my safety. Many other people are reluctant to go out in public for fear of gunmen who kill at random like the Dayton shooter. Blacks and Latinos feel especially vulnerable. We say to ourselves: “For sure we should fear the racists, but can we trust the police?”
Close to home, the needless death of De’Von Bailey at the hands of Colorado Springs police makes any person of color distrustful of the guardians of public order, in spite of the usual professionalism of the local cops. Makes you feel that the tentacles of racism have penetrated even here, our paradise in the Rockies that we thought was immune to that kind of thing.
So, as an antidote, I want to remind us of gentler more tolerant times. There is no better way to do this than to reminisce with a native Coloradan. A long-time friend of mine, Gary Ziegler, well-known as a Range Rider and rancher in southern Colorado, grew up on Spruce Street in the 1940s and ’50s. Gary is a Vietnam veteran and a former Custer County sheriff. He and his wife, Amy, run an outdoor adventure outfit out of their Bear Basin Ranch in the Wet Mountains. I have gone on trips with them to the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua and the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Westcliffe.
Gary has shared with me the way things used to be, in his words, in “the then small city steeped in Western heritage and acceptance going back to the early blending of race and ethnicity.” As an anthropologist and historian, Gary is aware of Charles Goodnight’s Texas-Mexican cowboys on the cattle drives that passed not far from here, Bent’s “half-breed” trappers and traders on the Arkansas, the Indian tribes who roamed this area, and the Army’s 9th Cavalry Buffalo soldiers.
Gary describes that Spruce Street “formed the eastern edge of what came to be known as the Old West Side. My classmates were a mix of whites, blacks, and a smattering of Hispanics, reflecting the integrated composition of the neighborhood. I can’t recall any racial issues, either at school or in the neighborhood. We played together, studied together, and, yes, occasionally squabbled, as kids might be expected to do. The streets were safe. The rare crime was limited to petty theft and occasional break-ins. There were no drugs, gangs or video games. We played hockey together when the ponds froze in Monument Valley Park, and cowboys and Indians with Red Ryder BB guns near the big irrigation canal running around the nearby mesa ... I traveled safely everywhere on a fat-tired Schwinn bike with canvas bags stuffed with carefully rolled Gazette Telegraphs. When I collected monthly subscriptions, I quickly learned that regardless of color not all paid their bills. Our neighborhood hosted several community notables. Fannie Mae Duncan, proprietor of the famous Cotton Club on West Colorado Ave., owned a large two-story house on Pine Street a block from us. I remember big shiny cars and elegantly attired black folks coming and going. And, yes, Fannie did pay her paper subscription promptly.”
We need to bring back old values. I’m glad that I have friends like Gary Ziegler, who reminds us that, “how privileged we all were to have grown up and to have been educated in a unique and friendly Colorado Springs!”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.