Pressing On

From the pages of Volume 12 of Matter Journal, released in June 2009 by the literary working-class heroes at Wolverine Farm Publishing, this is a rambling confessional on the media shitstorm and my own historical take on the loss of independent journalism in Fort Collins and northern Colorado. This essay is also available at MatterDaily, a fledgling website of WFP.

Pressing On

A Dispatch from the Frontlines and the Headlines
By Joshua Zaffos

“I am an exile from newspapers because of the most grievous sin of all—I have lost my belief. I no longer believe that the front page, the business page, the sports page, the arts page can tell a story that matters.”
— Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid

“Remember what I told you a long time ago?” my grandmother asked me over the phone. My ears perked, thinking she was on the verge of revealing some sage advice that she earned through her long years. “There’s no future in the papers.”

Grandma Sue’s hint of ancient wisdom was actually a warning, a taunt of sorts, that she likes to repeat to me quite regularly when I see her in person back East or occasionally when we talk over the phone: Newspapers are a dead end for a smart fellow like her youngest grandson.

My grandmother wasn’t disclosing some lesson gained from a career as an editor at the Washington Post or a beat reporter for Newsweek. I presume her shared insight was something she picked up watching Fox News.brookgreen_reading

“They’re giving it away for free here,” Grandma told me, “here” being New York City and “it” being the city’s tabloid dailies, including Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. “And there’s nothing in there. It’s all crap. People, they’ve got the intercom now.”

I love my grandma, even if she sometimes confuses an in-house communication system with the World Wide Web. And I don’t argue with her over the phone. What’s the point? I’m glad I still have regular conversations with her, and, besides, her diagnosis of the press is only partly skewed. The New York Post is filled with crap, and publishers are facing a crisis. That’s why dailies are dumping free copies on potential readers, and, more critically, slashing bureaus, beats and staff and even closing their doors.

It’s happening up and down the print-media food chain, and I am a minor witness to the carnage. My own (mis) adventures working for local, independent newspapers—far cries from the Post and most other New York City media—have both ended with abrupt closures and tears in beers.

How rough has grown the jungle of print media?

It’s nearly impossible to post an accurate account of the industry’s well being, if only because the casualties keep rolling in. Writing on the topic requires constant dismal revisions. Not that the prognosis has really changed from my grandmother’s conclusion. After weighing the consequences of job cuts and profit-based management at our country’s newspapers, media critics determined 2008 to be a disastrous landmark for the press: Worst. Year. Ever.

In February, the New York Times cut 100 jobs, the paper’s first staff layoff ever. Later in the year, the newspaper revealed that its stock value had plummeted 15 percent in a single month. To stave off a more severe disaster in December, the company borrowed $225 million against the value of its Manhattan headquarters to augment its dwindling cash flow.

The Los Angeles Times cut 150 newsroom jobs (17 percent of the department) and 100 additional staff; the Chicago Tribune lopped off 80 positions. Both major dailies are part of the Tribune Company, which has made similarly deep cuts to daily newspapers in Baltimore, Orlando and elsewhere. The corporation declared bankruptcy in December, citing $13 billion in debts.

In June, McClatchy Co., the third-largest newspaper publisher in the US, disclosed it would eliminate 1,400 jobs, roughly 10 percent of its workforce, among its 30 dailies across the country. For those that survived the purge, there is a locked-in yearlong pay freeze.

E.W. Scripps, which owns newspapers in 15 states, including the Rocky Mountain News, announced in the summer that the value of its print holdings had dropped by $874 million. Before the end of the year, Scripps put the Rocky up for sale, claiming it would likely close down the 150-year-old newspaper if a buyer didn’t emerge in early 2009.

Gannett, the country’s largest print publisher, declared a loss of $2.4 billion in the value of its 84 daily and nearly 900 non-daily newspapers, including the USA Today. A first round of August layoffs chopped 1,000 jobs, which was followed by another cut of 3,000 positions in October, totaling more than 10 percent of the company’s staff. Perversely, but not surprisingly, Gannett’s summer staff reduction caused its stock to jump on Wall Street.

We are watching the equivalent of media climate change, to use everyone’s favorite disaster parlance of late, and this is the tip of the iceberg that has started to melt away in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, due to consolidation of media ownership and other financial forces, companies are getting rewarded for dedicating fewer and fewer resources to journalism and writing.

1793_pressWhere are the media corporations investing their dollars? In September, Gannett spent $135 million to purchase a controlling stake in CareerBuilder, the online job board, which is co-owned by Tribune and McClatchy. And while media corporations are facing plummeting stock earnings and disappearing advertising revenue, the bosses aren’t exactly starving. For the third quarter of 2008, Gannett actually exceeded analysts’ revenue projections and earned $158 million in net income. The company’s CEO Craig Dubow, who pledged to take a 17 percent pay cut in “a show of solidarity” with his newspapers’ rank-and-file, made about $7.5 million in 2008, including salary, stock options and a bonus.

It obviously costs millions to run these corporations, and the largest media empires have the most to lose in this topsy-turvy moment. Regardless of where we live, shrinking resources at institutional newspapers, like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, are a major loss to our national community as a whole. But independent and alternative papers must also tread the rising waters and sinking ad revenue, although they’re much more likely to drown.

Smaller daily and community weekly papers are cutting staff, closing bureaus abroad and in state capitals. Independent papers, like alternative newsweeklies, which distribute for free and rely entirely on ad dollars, are faced with corporate buyouts or shutting down. The pressures have led to somewhat troubling trends among altweeklies, which pride themselves on their independence.

Village Voice Media now owns 15 alternative newsweeklies, in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Denver and several other major cities. Creative Loafing runs six altweeklies, including ones in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Both companies have instituted staff cuts at several papers, and other independently owned altweeklies have expressed reservations over the direction of these decidedly corporate ventures.

When I first accepted a job as a staff writer at the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an alternative newsweekly in Fort Collins, Colorado, in late 2004, a mentoring friend let out a devilish hoot upon hearing my decision. “Have you ever worked at a weekly?” she asked. I had not, and she explained to me that writing at a weekly publication somehow combines the manic rush of filing stories at a daily newspaper with the more exhaustive demands that come with a monthly magazine, where articles are expected to develop from extensive reporting and offer much more than the five W’s.

A weekly doesn’t have someone on a deadline everyday, yet something is always due. The production doesn’t give many breaths or breaks, and the pace is constantly frenetic, which induces a sort of crash-and-burn atmosphere.

“And you and everyone you work with will always be going crazy,” my friend told me.

She was right.

Almost everybody at an independent weekly newspaper is overworked and underpaid, and at the darkest hours we feel alone in that capacity. That’s not true, at a newspaper or in the surrounding universe; there are many more and equally as taxing jobs in the world. But when you are spending 60-plus hours a week working and then sometimes sleeping under a desk, it’s way too easy to find moments to feel both sorry about yourself and for yourself.

The staff is typically a small band of creative-neurotic types. I’ve seen coworkers starve themselves, drop shots of whiskey for breakfast, suffer panic attacks requiring EMT attention, and, literally, chew off their fingers. In the middle of an intense story or a chaotic week, I would sometimes wake up with a compulsion to violently dry heave before getting into the day. Working at a small altweekly makes smoking cigarettes seem like a healthy lifestyle choice (I do not wish to count the number of former coworkers who started or resumed smoking while employed at a paper).

At a small weekly newspaper, everybody is always going crazy.

Sound like hell? It’s actually great. There is a euphoria that sometimes rises like a vapor from this mayhem, a byproduct of collaborating on something creative and essential.

That might sound a little arrogant, but this intense feeling, channeling the heaves and highs, is what good writing—good storytelling—is for me. And, to be direct, most writers are at least a little arrogant.

The intense feeling is what I think of when someone asks if I am a member of the press (I haven’t seen a newspaper printing press since I went on a second-grade field trip). To me, the press is the sleeplessness and self-immolation, the euphoria and drunkenness that come with telling stories with a balance of detail and urgency. The press is that unbearable feeling that what we are doing has meaning to our society, whether as information, influence, or entertainment.

It is a great and humbling responsibility reporting and writing for a community, and it is something I am grateful to be paid to do. I love the crush of an idea or a person that I have discovered or been introduced to, and the snap in my brain that this would be an amazing or beautiful or entertaining story. Then comes the compulsion that people should read (or hear or see) about this and feel the spark that I do.

This is the press that is in trouble, more so than print media as an industry. It’s the thing that feeds and connects writers, producers and broadcasters of news in all its forms. We report and write because we want to make a difference. We want to deliver meaning.

These days, as print media cannibalizes itself, we are losing that urgency to make sure what we report and write is meaningful. Some writers recognize it as morale loss or viral fear. Middle managers spin it as doing More With Less. Readers of daily newspapers get shallow stories with glancing insight from publications that are purposely streamlined. Reporters rarely get to develop relationships with sources and communities. When people complain to me about the Gannett-owned daily newspaper in our city, they often say that the paper fails to connect the dots.

This is supposed to be the great advantage to working at an independent publication, particularly an altweekly: the freedom to dig deeper and write stories that matter. It’s partly what led me to abandon a modest freelance writing lifestyle for a job that made me wake up nauseous. The trick, I learned, is staying in business.

The Worst Year Ever for newspapers certainly proved challenging to my journalistic career. In May 2008, I was a part of an independent altweekly, the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, which shut down a few months ahead of the curve in terms of the year’s media trauma. It was an experience I was repeating for the second time in just twenty-seven months.

After twelve roller-coaster months at the Bullhorn, the five-year-old weekly newspaper suddenly went out of business in early 2006, while we were finishing an issue that would never go to print.

I was heartbroken, along with everyone I worked with, but there was also a strange sense of relief. Amid the chaos that we constantly worked in, it was hard to ignore the financial pressures that the organization was facing. That we were shutting down wasn’t a total surprise, but the timing was a shock.

The same heartbreak strikes when bureaus, beats and jobs are cut at daily newspapers, when TV stations consolidate their newsrooms. On journalism list-serves that I read, prize-winning reporters have shared their decisions to accept voluntary layoffs, rather than continuing to work under the shadow of job losses, redundancy orders, merged beats and pay freezes.

Just seven months after the Bullhorn closed, a good friend announced that she wanted to launch the Chronicle as a new altweekly newspaper in Fort Collins. Born and raised in the city, she recognized the value of an independent newspaper pursuing narrative stories about the people and culture of our region. Our readership grew steadily, but even more impressive to me, as the news editor, were the number of sources and untold stories that emerged.

The Chronicle started in October 2006. We engaged in investigative and in-depth stories, critical music and arts writing, and general quirk. Among editors, we had a lot of passionate debates over the significance and mission of our publication and writing, and the meaning of words like “investigative,” “alternative” and “edgy.” Those discussions may have bordered on the pretentious and the precise, but we were genuine in our desire to write meaningful stories.

When our publisher consulted with other altweekly bosses, they told her she was crazy. Flush some money down a toilet instead, they said. Since altweeklies rely almost exclusively on ad revenue for income, the sub-industry has taken a particularly harsh hit due to free online advertising through venues like Craigslist and the overall sagging economy, which has left local businesses with fewer dollars to spend on advertising.

The experienced altweekly publishers were apparently right about the high odds of getting a startup paper up and running; something we really already knew from the last experience. After a not particularly lengthy existence of just 20 months, the Chronicle announced it would cease printing amid daunting prospects for financial viability.

If you’ve never worked at a small business that shuts down because it cannot sustain itself, I can tell you this: It catches you like a bad breakup to a good relationship and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. At first, a measure of sadness is cushioned in a daze. Grief quickly gives way to anger. At a homegrown newspaper, there is this feeling: Our work is not yet done. There are stories still to be told.

The week after we learned of the closure, I received a hand-written letter from a woman with claims of police brutality and political corruption, begging our paper to look into her leads. She may have been a crackpot—sorting through print-worthy sources and stories is one way to dive into the press—but she had chosen to write our paper, and not others in the city, for a reason. I left the letter pinned to a corkboard after I had cleaned out my office.

We are living through the somewhat predictable circumstances of corporate control and consolidated ownership of media. The current bleak state of journalism has been a slow train coming. The recession is a stretch of poorly maintained rails and the Internet is a behemoth beast standing on the tracks.

Grandma Sue isn’t totally off base in her assessment about the Internet replacing print media. More people now get their news online than by reading a paper. The New York Times estimates that it has ten Web readers for every one who turns through the print edition. The Web has competed, more than complemented, print publications.

From an operational point of view, the catch is that people expect to read for free on the Internet, and businesses expect to pay less to advertise online. From an informational angle, the trend is leading to shorter and more glancing articles and coverage, even if it opens opportunities for multimedia work. We have taken the act of reading and begun transforming it into another way of staring at an electronic screen.

There are some inspiring digital manifestations (among a range of examples, there is the Center for Investigative Reporting and MediaStorm). But corporate-chain media barons are also trying to conquer a new medium and return to the salad days of ludicrous profits and booming stocks. For example, Gannett has kicked up the visibility of its online reporting and resources, as part of its corporate restructuring. The company now calls reporters “mojos,” or mobile journalists. The transition smacks of re-branding, a marketing strategy to perhaps show that Gannett’s newspapers are hip with blogging and the Web, rather than a meaningful new model of journalism.

I do not blame Gannett or Craigslist for the failure of the independent papers where I worked. I do not blame the competition from other local newspapers or blogs for our end. But I lament that we have created an environment (and, yes, We The People are responsible for the current media landscape) that is so prohibitive to running a newspaper that delivers stories that matter, where the press flows for writers and readers—and publishers, too.

We are losing the venues we have developed to tell stories. And we are giving a jaded set of choices to writers and readers. So, now we must learn how to tell stories all over again. We must learn how to tell stories on a computer screen. We have to keep learning how to tell stories on TV, so most of those resources don’t go into entrapping sexual predators at anonymous houses. And we must learn how to keep telling stories on paper.

The pangs of the press kept a few Chronicle staff members searching for life after print. We had told readers we would explore options. We looked at online formats and spoke with people behind nonprofit journalism ventures, where funding comes from charitable foundations and community members—kind of like public radio and television.

The Chronicle did find signs of support and encouragement for continuing as an online publication, possibly with a monthly print issue. But we also recognized that we would be constantly scrambling for operating funds. The nonprofit model was a way to get around the void of advertising dollars as revenue, but grant funding is a tricky avenue to travel during a slow economy.

To be honest and with apologies to our community, I think we were burnt out. I was burnt out. The task felt monumental and, after three months of meetings, I felt pretty emotionless when our remaining crew decided we would give up our revival attempt. When it came time to pen an announcement about the decision to officially end our efforts, I made it as brief as possible. The 100-word-missive was more memo than eulogy.

People still approach me—including souls I have never met before—and ask what’s up with the Chronicle, when will it restart, or when a new publication might arrive in its place. A friend of mine can’t accept that we have exhausted all of our options. A woman at the bar refuses to accept my answers about the closure. A barista from one of the downtown coffee shops listens to my explanations and then says, with a pout, “Well, you left us with nothing to read.”

When my grandmother or anyone else tells me newspapers and the narrative forms of writing that we associate with print media are dead, I think of the book-versus-film debate. So many more people see the film but never read the book. The film makes more money than the book; it’s more successful in those terms. But people that read the book and see the movie, almost always say the book is better. Perhaps for the effort and time it requires; perhaps because of what reading asks of our imagination.

There is a future in the papers, but it’s not going to look like the past. Hopefully, it won’t resemble the present too much either. My guess is that most daily newspapers will become online enterprises. The loss of the morning paper on our front step might be the cost of allowing stock values to steer the media industry.

As for the outlook of independent and meaningful journalism, it will be in the ventures that tap into the Web and all that it has to offer while also pursuing more traditional forms of reporting and storytelling. If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s meant to: If I had a proper bead on the future, I suspect I would still have a job at an independent newspaper in Northern Colorado.

In July 2008, a subscriber to the Raleigh News & Observer took action in a most American way. He announced plans to sue the daily paper for cutting the size of its news section and firing 70 staff members. The reader claimed the newspaper had broken its contract with subscribed readers.

The lawsuit borders on frivolous, but it’s a reminder that newspapers and the media—regardless of or, at least, in addition to their responsibility to stockholders—have a pulsing obligation to the communities they serve. To tell stories that matter and stoke the press.

Rainbow Blight?

Anyone looking for something to do this Fourth of July and within striking distance of the tiny town of Cuba, New Mexico, should go check out the Rainbow Family at its annual gathering on national forest lands. As usual, the”dis-organization” is having run-ins with the Forest Service over the thousands of unpermitted campers and the occupation of a chunk of public land.

In 2005, I spent some time with the Rainbows outside Steamboat Springs on the Routt National Forest, reporting for the Colorado Springs Independent on the group’s disciples, and its annual battles with the Forest Service. Continue reading

Decon Recon

Deconstruction project in Buffalo, New York.
Deconstruction project in Buffalo, New York.

My first column for the Northern Colorado Business Report looks at how the National Center for Craftsmanship, based in Fort Collins, is enabling builders to disassemble structures and recycle materials instead of just demolishing them and dumping the refuse at landfills. For the story, I spoke with Neil Kaufman, the center’s director.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Kaufman proudly boasts that the center runs “the most rigorous deconstruction program in the country.” It even caught the attention of the producers of “Renovation Nation,” a program on Planet Green, a Discovery Channel cable network. A film crew spent a day this past March shooting center-trained crews of students and contract workers deconstructing farm buildings on the Andrejeski property on Overland Trail in north Fort Collins. The city now owns the land and plans to protect it as open space. The coverage will be part of an episode filmed around Colorado, scheduled to air sometime this summer.

Kaufman says deconstruction taps into environmental, educational and economic sustainability (can you say “green jobs”?), but the economic advantages have always been the most tricky to cultivate.

The Road Less Traveled

Over the last four years, the U.S. Forest Service has been working through travel management plans for every national forest across the country, to determine which trails and routes should be open to hikers, ATVs and everything in between. The plans pitch frequent outdoors rivals: the “quiet” users (a.k.a. hikers and backpackers) against motorized users. Some recent research — completed by my grad school colleague Marc Stern — indicates the government could be doing a better job at achieving successful results, although that doesn’t mean keeping everyone happy and going wherever they want on the national forests.

I have a short news piece in the Summer 2009 issue of Forest Magazine (put out by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, better known as FSEEE), looking at what forest users think of the travel planning process and the resulting plans, and how Forest Service officials are trying to please recreational visitors and protect the land.

(As a sidenote, go check out the historic photographs within the archives of the Umatilla National Forest.)

Unmapped Terrain

Forest Magazine, Summer 2009

The Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho received a double whammy when staff released its travel plan in February 2008.

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts said there weren’t enough roads allowing motorized recreation. Environmentalists and “quiet recreation” advocates, like hikers, equestrians and (sometimes) mountain bikers, said there were too many. An ORV representative appealed the travel management plan; environmentalists filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service.

The reaction to the Sawtooth plan is no surprise. The nation’s 155 national forests and twenty national grasslands are in the process of creating travel management plans, and just about every plan released so far has sparked the wrath of hikers or ORV riders, and sometimes both. There is not much room for agreement between those who make noise in a national forest and those who prefer silence. But according to new research, team leaders should be striving for middle ground if they want their travel plans to be successful.

“We found that a predictive factor of success is whether compromise took place,” says Marc Stern, a social scientist and professor at Virginia Tech who has led surveys and studies of agency travel planners. But he added that participating Forest Service staff members don’t necessarily aim for that when it comes to the plans.

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth called for the travel plans in a 2005 ruling. The rule mandated that all national forests draw up motor vehicle maps, restrict motorized use to recognized routes and ban cross-country travel. Under the conditions of the National Environmental Policy Act, the travel plans would be developed with public involvement and follow standards to protect the environment. All forests are supposed to complete their travel plans by the end of 2009.

Stern says the travel management rule presented a landmark opportunity for the Forest Service to accomplish concrete goals. Travel planning accomplishes an explicit objective, or a “critical task,” Stern says. “A critical task is often difficult to define for the Forest Service. Its mission statement is, basically, balance multiple interests.” Stern collaborated with Forest Service research scientists to examine how team leaders approached the goal of creating their travel plans. He published his findings in the July 2009 issue of the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

The research showed that, during the NEPA process, few team leaders strived to reach compromise among stakeholders or to achieve staff satisfaction. Yet statistical analysis showed that these two factors were leading indicators of positive outcomes as defined by individual agency staffers. In other words, even though compromise or agency harmony isn’t the goal of NEPA or the travel management rule, those elements are usually part of an “excellent outcome.”

A pilot study conducted by Stern and his colleagues also found that many team leaders were unable to articulate a clear purpose for many of their actions—meaning managers were more consumed with bureaucratic procedures than achieving a plan objective or critical task—other than avoiding litigation.

In a follow-up to the survey, Stern and a graduate student completed eighty-one anonymous case study interviews of travel plan staff. The studies revealed communication breakdowns when Forest Service employees were working with each other and the public. There’s a need for agency specialists from different disciplines “to speak a common language,” Stern says. Facilitating communication between hydrologists, range managers and recreation planners, as well as between the agency and forest users, is often a function of leadership and management skills.

Few forest users think in such academic terms, but the researchers’ findings about leadership are apparent to travel plan stakeholders.

“The decision comes down, ultimately, to the manager, and if the manager is willing to make the decision to get recreation under control,” says Aaron Clark, recreation campaign director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, an ad hoc coalition of twenty-six conservation and recreation groups.

Clark and other quiet-use advocates support plans in which the agency followed the requirements of NEPA—to manage against cumulative environmental effects of motorized trails, including user-created routes and old logging roads. For Clark, that means travel management should be resource-driven, not demand-driven.

But Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national motorized-access advocacy group based in Idaho, says some plans went beyond the scope of the travel rule or didn’t follow NEPA. Hawthorne claims that extensive route closures on some forests aren’t about managing access in sensitive areas, but restricting motorized use across the landscape regardless of the conditions or impacts on the ground.

As an example, Hawthorne refers to the Lewis and Clark National Forest along the Continental Divide in Montana, where local motorized groups felt they were ignored in their request for loop routes or connectors between designated trails. “We feel it was very arbitrary, very capricious,” Hawthorne says. “It was lame, lame, lame.”

Harv Forsgren, regional forester for the Intermountain Region covering Nevada, Utah and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, says people’s reactions to the plans are understandable. “What makes it so personal is that every trail has a constituency,” he says.

Forsgren, formerly the regional forester in the Southwestern Region of New Mexico and Arizona, implemented travel analyses on all of the area’s national forests before any of them proceeded with designing travel plans. The internal analyses created route inventories, gauged public use and promoted consistency on how to manage certain issues, such as dispersed camping and big-game retrieval. The regional office absorbed some of the ensuing criticism over contentious designations, Forsgren says, and the agency “did not put off the big decisions.”

From an academic point of view, the travel analyses are a good demonstration of leadership and an effective framework for communication among agency team members. Forsgren believes the process provided a context for the decisions that followed and reduced the heartache for both staff and users.

Clark says the travel analyses guided public involvement and led to plans the conservation alliance generally supports. Hawthorne says the assessments were a reasonable attempt to do the advanced work upfront, and that “hopefully it will lead the agency to something that can work on the ground.” But he adds that motorized users in the region were “mildly critical” of some management decisions.

The lions and lambs of recreation travel aren’t going to lie down together anytime soon. Backcountry hikers and ORV riders might not want to cross paths on the forest, but Forsgren believes the Forest Service can facilitate “those diverse interests to sit down and find the common ground and the things they can mutually support.”

— Joshua Zaffos

Two Birds in the Bush

The discovery of a new species of flycatcher in Bolivia and Peru came about through research on the wintering habits of other migratory birds, including the threatened cerulean warbler. I wrote a short piece on the birds for the summer 2009 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine, but unfortunately didn’t get to go to the Yungas to check out the wildlife in person.

Weed Warriors

tamcoriverjuly2001Last fall, I spent a bluebird day not far from Telluride, hauling felled trunks and branches away from the San Miguel River. The brush and debris were all invasive species, including the nefarious tamarisk, or salt cedar, which can suck up copious amounts of groundwater and load the surrounding soil with toxic levels of chemicals. The clearing effort wrapped up last fall, after three years of work, and its completion marks the first time a river’s banks have been liberated from tamarisk invasion. I wrote about the experience, the threat of tamarisk and how land managers are trying to solutions stick in the Spring 2009 issue of the Nature Conservancy Magazine.

Review: Bargaining for Eden

Writer Stephen Trimble watched Snowbasin, a small-time ski hill outside Salt Lake City, transform into another glitzy resort and wondered why. His book, Bargaining for Eden, which I reviewed for Orion Magazine in its Jan/Feb 2009 issue, offers introspection on how we utilize and live on our lands, set in contrast with the biography and actions of the reclusive billionaire behind the remaking at Snowbasin.

(I mostly read this book while traveling through Mexico via bus, and so it will forever be linked in my mind with the Chiapas rainforest, the smell of bus toilets and the Spanish-dubbed version of Santa Clause 2.)

Anywho, check out the full review at Orion’s website. Here’s the first graf:

What drives individuals and corporations to erect mega-malls and luxury resorts in place of open meadows and sleepy communities? It is quite literally the million-dollar question. Money, however, is usually only part of the answer. As Stephen Trimble writes in Bargaining for Eden, “Caught between dreams, we are all greedy, and we are all generous. How then do we create a structure for our communities that expresses our altruism more than our self-interest?”

My Mingus Immersion

This is a long essay I wrote that appeared in the Mountain Gazette in February 2005, exploring my compulsion to listen to Mingus when I’m driving through national parks and other open landscapes. The piece is no longer available on MG‘s website, since the publication changed ownership hands, so I’m reprinting it here, Ah Um…

Mingus in the Mountains

Mountain Gazette, #111, February 2005
By Joshua Zaffos

I was somewhere around Tower Falls near the heart of Yellowstone National Park when Mingus began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “That’s definitely a wolf retreating into the trees….” And suddenly there was the crash of cymbals and the mashing of piano keys flooding the car, which was going about fifty miles an hour with open windows to Mammoth Hot Springs. And a voice was screaming: “Oh yeah, Oh yeah, Jesus, I know…”


mingus_1976Charles Mingus was a jazz bassist, pianist and composer, one of the most innovative musicians in the genre. His music evokes both Duke Ellington and Johann Sebastian Bach. His songs are ornate and scripted opuses peppered with both compositional virtuosity and emotionally wrought improvisation.

Mingus strived to create music that was an extremely detailed scheme in spontaneity. America’s national parks are similar experiments to Mingus’ balancing act between composition and improvisation. The national park system – as it was conceived in the second half of the Nineteenth Century – is an innovative approach to preserving the natural and wild landscapes of our country in tidy boundaries and structured regulations. It’s a model that the entire world has copied: There are more than 30,000 parks and other protected areas around the globe covering roughly 12 percent of the Earth’s surface. In Yellowstone, remnant populations of Grizzly bears and bison and reintroduced wolves live on, rivers flood and flow freely, and undisturbed geysers burble and erupt.

Of course, just driving through a park leaves a body suspended between the controlled setting of combustion engine-powered vehicle on paved road and the wildness beyond the windshield. I usually listen to Mingus’ late 50s and early 60s recordings on my car stereo at these moments – when I’m driving from fee station to trailhead, visitor center to campground. The composition, “Ecclusiastics,” blares as I spot Canis lupis stretching her legs for the groves of aspen and Doug fir. The music stirs both earnestness and excitement towards nature. Which may be why it sounds so damn good coming out of my speakers in Yellowstone, or any other national park.


Charles Mingus was born in the Sonoran Desert in Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border in 1922. His father, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, was a mulatto born in North Carolina; his mother was half-English, half-Chinese. When Mrs. Mingus became deathly ill shortly after Charles’ birth, the family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. She died when Mingus was only eight months old.
In Watts, his father told him he was superior to other blacks because of his relatively light complexion and blue eyes. But on the playgrounds, Mingus was called a “yellow nigger” and his friends were other outcasts including Japanese, Mexican and Italian children.
His father remarried a woman, half-black and half-Indian, who encouraged Charles and his sisters to embrace European classical music and take up instruments. Further stirring the pot of early cultural influences, his stepmother would take little Charles to a “Holy Rollers” church where the choir belted out improvisational big-band gospel music.

He had a trombone at age six, heard his first Ellington record at nine. He switched over to the cello as he approached his teens but eventually began playing bass to gain a seat in the high school band. Mingus listened to Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy while simultaneously discovering jazzman Lester Young and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. He studied and played with jazz bassists but also learned from symphonic players and attended classical music workshops.

Mingus got his first major studio gigs with Lionel Hampton and Illinois Jacquet in the mid 40s. One reviewer praised the young bassist for “a different style, completely his own.” On one of the first recordings under his own band, critic Ralph Gleason reported that Mingus “has proven there should be no segregation in music between classical and jazz.”

By the 1950s, Mingus started holding “jazz workshops” in New York City. These were mostly jam sessions, according to biographer, Brian Priestly, where Mingus wouldn’t write down any of the compositions for his fellow musicians while “freeing (or forcing) them to interpret arranged passages in a more musical, and more personal way, rather than merely reproducing something fixed.”

Mingus seemed to know he was hitting stride, even if the record companies didn’t. His albums of the late 50s and early 60s (those that provide the soundtrack for my auto-treks through parks) were recorded on a variety of labels. That music evokes church gospel, nightclub jazz standards, big band follies, slave work songs and classical concertos. His works borrow from Charlie Parker, Sergei Rachmaninov and the Gershwin brothers. Drummer Dannie Richmond remembers Mingus schooling him through the bewildering arrangements: “No, at this point you have to whisper, and there have to be other points where there’s planned chaos!”

As he continued to compose, he also advocated for “collective improvisation.” He hated sidemen that couldn’t read music; he hated sidemen that could only read music. He would chew out fellow musicians for repeating a solo.

“‘I’m trying,’ adds Mingus, ‘to play the truth of what I am,’” read the liner notes of his 1962 album, Oh Yeah. “‘The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.’”


Nature is changing all the time, too, and in more and different ways than the casual park tourist might recognize after a handful of Yellowstone vacations. There’s a constant transformation at play in the natural world – but we still think of Yellowstone as a fortified and fixed haven of Grizzlies, bison, wolves, bald eagles and cutthroat trout, forever free to roam, soar and swim amid a sheltered environment.

“‘Wilderness’ has a deceptive concreteness at first glance,” writes Roderick Frazier Nash in the prologue of his classic natural history book, Wilderness and the American Mind. The concept of national parks and wilderness areas as neatly arranged parcels of nature insulated from threat reinforces this myth.

According to Nash, the American wilderness movement grew in Eastern cities, where intellectuals romanticized the vanishing, Wild West frontier. Osborn Russell, an 1830s explorer of the Yellowstone region, was mesmerized by the “wild romantic scenery of this valley.” Nash says Russell’s era marked the beginning of an American ethic towards discovering aesthetic value in wilderness, beauty in bedlam. Romantic musings caused wilderness to become part of the evolving American culture.

Intellectuals and artists of that era, most prominently represented by Henry David Thoreau, believed wilderness was an integral ying of American culture if properly balanced with the yang of a civilized and refined society.  But Nineteenth Century wilderness appreciation failed to recognize the truly dynamic character of natural landscapes even as it gave birth to a preservation movement. Nash calls the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 the “world’s first instance of large-scale wilderness preservation” and it started a groundbreaking trend towards protecting forests, canyons and rivers and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them. But capturing wilderness in a box, even as big as Yellowstone, is practically absurd.

One example among many is fire management in and around the park. In 1872, everyone assumed that Yellowstone was a wild and pristine environment, existent through the mysterious workings of nature. Nobody recognized the role of Native American tribes in manipulating the landscape through fire. Modern research including studies of tree rings shows that fires occurred up to five times more frequently in the Yellowstone region before settlers pushed the Native Americans out of the area. Fires sparked by the tribes mimicked lightning-caused strikes but were started in order to thin dense young stands of lodgepole pines and regenerate aspen groves for the benefit of wildlife.

The frequent burns also precluded massive infernos. After Yellowstone became a park, the manmade blazes that had created the “wild” landscape ceased. A century of fire suppression created the crowded forest conditions that resulted in the cataclysmic wildfires of 1988. Modern fire management has progressed beyond extensive fire suppression, but at the same time park officials remain wary of more frequent prescribed burns.

In the context of this example, ecologist Daniel Botkin says our mode of thinking towards resource management remains a Nineteenth Century perspective. In his 1992 book, Discordant Harmonies, Botkin says we still choose to protect and manage natural landscapes by merely throwing a fence around them. We treat parks as if they were divine mechanisms that maintain a balance on their own.

Botkin tells the story of elephants in Tsavo National Park in Kenya that, although native to the region, grazed the grasslands to a wasteland when they were unable to migrate outside park boundaries during severe drought. Similarly, when bison herds leave the confines of Yellowstone and cross onto private or state land in Montana, state officials kill them for fear of brucellosis, an infectious livestock disease that bison may carry. The 1988 Yellowstone fires were acceptable and even desired until they pushed outside park borders and threatened private lodges and ranches.

The outdated strategy in parks is akin yet crucially different to Mingus’ musical approach of “planned chaos.” Improvisation, for Mingus, wasn’t just getting up on stage and letting his front line blow. Such spontaneity ironically required frequent gigging to build familiarity over the musical landscape and understanding between the collective parts of the band. And then to assure that each player wouldn’t reproduce the same solo each time but instead let his intuition guide the course through the music. Jazz critic Max Harrison once lauded Mingus because “The unity of his works depends not on their technical organization…but is largely of an emotional order.”

It is the Native American version of fire management – and planned chaos – that more closely resembles Mingus’ experimentation. Botkin laments that we manage by “the analytic and the rational…and tend to deal with nature by freezing it conceptually,” without assimilating “the intuitive and emotive” into management plans. In other words, not only have we failed to account for our scientific knowledge of nature’s dynamic character when thinking about parks and wilderness, but we don’t figure in our emotion and passion for the environment either.

Yellowstone, at 2.2 million acres, is still the largest national park in the lower 48. But landscape ecologists now recognize that a conservation area of approximately 382 million acres – from Yellowstone all the way north to the Yukon, known as Y2Y – is probably necessary to actually preserve the plants and wildlife we hoped to save in the national park.

The increased land base of Y2Y follows wildlife migration corridors and physical watershed boundaries instead of political borders. It also accounts for regional and global pressures on Yellowstone’s localized resources including air pollution from coal-fired power plants, water quality degradation from hard rock mining, and climate change.


Through the 60s and 70s, Mingus continued to experiment between composition and improvisation. His works became larger and more complex, culminating in performances at New York City music halls with 20-person ensembles often freelancing through songs. He was trying to resolve through his music all those varied – and constantly changing – aspects of his self.

“My need is to express my thoughts and feelings as fully as is humanly possible all the time,” Mingus wrote in his manic and sometimes fictitious autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.

Throughout his musical career, Mingus played with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and many, many other titans of jazz. He also wrote scores for films and plays, worked with classical composers and even collaborated with Joni Mitchell. In 1972, Mingus undertook an “operatic ballet” of symphonic jazz where the players needed to “compose as they improvise.” “But I want to get to the point where everyone playing something of mine will be able to think in terms of creating a whole,” said Mingus, “will be able to improvise compositionally so that it will be hard to tell where the writing ends and the improvisation begins.”

By the time Mingus died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he had won a Guggenheim Fellowship and had been honored for his musical accomplishments at the White House by President Carter. And his legacy of jazz experimentation was fully prepared to live on. Today, you can walk into an East Village club, Fez under Time Café, on most Thursday nights and see the Mingus Big Band perform his music. The 14-piece band rotates through more than 40 regular musicians. Sue Graham Mingus, the composer’s widow, oversees the troupe as well as the Charles Mingus Orchestra and she challenges the musicians to continue to honor the vision of Mingus.

Biologists such as Michael Soulé, Reed Noss and Botkin advocate for Twenty-first Century park management that emulates Mingus’ approach to music. Blurring the realms of man and nature, encouraging adaptive and collective management, thinking “in terms of creating a whole.” Despite entrenched paradigms, we are beginning to base our decisions on the constantly growing pool of technical knowledge – but we’re still lacking the “emotional order” that should also drive our protection of wild landscapes.

Most parks like Yellowstone with its Grizzly bears and highway loops are already contradictory organisms. Parks are chaos and plan, garden and jungle, composition and improvisation.  For now, they are the largest experiments our society is ready to conduct.

You don’t need to be a Ph.D. ecologist to question the outright wildness of Yellowstone or other national parks. The lines of the boxes are significant constrictions on fire patterns, wildlife migrations and flood cycles. The exit ramp and industrial-sized parking lot at Old Faithful geyser looks more like Newark Airport than a park scenic area. Most tourists take in the landscape through their vehicle windows, hurtling 45 miles an hour on asphalt no different than the Jersey Turnpike. Clearly, I’m also guilty of cruising through our ecological gems; I’ve even gotten a speeding ticket in Yellowstone.

Parks are explicitly for the ever-changing mass of people with their ever-changing values, too. But the miles of paved roads, the visitor centers, guest lodges and concession stands are all tweakings to these packaged natural areas. And the refrigerator magnets, ice cream cones and snow globes are all distractions to the emotions these places call forth in us. Mingus used to stop performances if he felt the audience wasn’t giving him proper attention. The passionate shouts and soaring crescendo of his music override the dulling of my senses that comes from sitting in my car in Yellowstone.

When people finally step out of their vehicles, away from the gift shops and into the forests, they recognize a park as a geographic and biological opus. I too have to get out of my car and turn off the Mingus to truly embrace this idea. I hike up Bunsen Peak, wander along Slough Creek or sneak off to Imperial Geyser to escape the asphalt and the view from behind my steering wheel and cracked windshield. I can travel on crowd-friendly boardwalks or bison trails and recognize chaos and plan, garden and jungle, composition and improvisation, both, neither, everything in between. After all, even Mingus believed that it’s not just two poles that tug at us.

“‘In other words, I am three,’” Charles Mingus began his autobiography.

“‘Which one is real?’” a psychiatrist asks the character Mingus.

“‘They’re all real.’”

Kinder, Gentler Dams?

“Off-channel” reservoirs – that don’t block river courses – are all the rage among would-be dam builders these days. In the September 9, 2008 issue of High Country News , I wrote an article, “A river runs near it,” examining two potential off-channel projects in Yakima, Washington (Black Rock Reservoir), and Fort Collins (Glade Reservoir, a.k.a. NISP, the Northern Integrated Supply Project).

Check out the full story at, but here’s a little taste of why environmental critics aren’t buying the hype:

Glade is “the same (as any dam) in terms of impact to the flow regime,” says Mark Easter, a spokesman for the Save the Poudre coalition. Although Glade is supposed to bolster low river flows, some worry that its diminishing effects on high flows could threaten plans for a new kayak park.

Easter is also doubtful about the agricultural benefits. A draft environmental impact statement says that constructing Glade would save 33,600 to 69,000 acres of farmland from development and the loss of water rights. But Easter calculates that the reservoir would make it possible to build at least 20,000 acres’ worth of new subdivisions and encourage breakneck growth so towns could repay their debts.

Up in Washington, the environmental benefits of Black Rock appear to pale in comparison with its costs. According to the draft environmental impact statement, the project would provide only about 16 cents in benefits to fish and farmers for every dollar spent. That doesn’t include regional economic growth and tourism, but the skewed cost-benefit ratio has united reservoir opponents.

Phil Rigdon, the Yakama Nation’s deputy director of natural resources, says the tribe is not opposed to a new reservoir. But his agency is skeptical about Black Rock’s potential for salmon restoration. More significant habitat improvements and new fish-passage devices on the existing dams would also need to be built before the release of water from Black Rock could help salmon, Rigdon says. “We’re saying you need a full package; otherwise, don’t sell it as a fish project.”

Northern Might

North Fort Collins is separated from the rest of the city by the Cache la Poudre River, a geographic break that historically kept Hispanic and other foreign families segregated from downtown. In recent years, development pressures have initiated a makeover for the north-side, but citizens and city officials remain concerned that changes may impact the social and cultural fabric of historical neighborhoods.


Northern Might

ANorthernMightRMCcovers the north-side makeover continues, longtime Fort Collins residents assert their heritage.

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 28, 2008

Frank Martinez calls the new Northside Aztlán Community Center “gorgeous.” He repeats the compliment three times during a twenty-minute phone conversation, emphatic in his praise.

And after a tour through the $10 million building, which opened last November, it’s obvious what he means. Light filters through the windows of the expansive open lobby, and the center’s 
exposed steel and cast
 concrete purposely evoke 
an industrial-chic atmosphere. The state-of-the-art
 construction from energy-
efficient components and
 recycled materials of the 
former building will probably 
earn LEED (Leadership in 
Energy and Environmental 
Design) certification. Bilingual signage and Latin American-inspired artistic elements of glass and concrete fuse the center with a creative display of multiculturalism.

Martinez grew up at the old Northside Aztlán, running around the playground, participating in sports, staying off the streets. “Northside was huge for me,” he says. “It really did give me the confidence to succeed in school and at sports.” After graduating high school and serving in the Army, Martinez came back to work at the center, coaching and mentoring children as he was coached and mentored when he was young. He gave up his job when the new building opened to finish his degree and pursue other work, but he helped hire his replacement. Now Martinez is a member of the center’s advisory council, an unofficial committee that serves as a liaison between the facility and the community.

“I’m familiar with a lot of the insides and outsides,” Martinez says, “and I’m worried about the squeezing out of programs and it not being a community center that is accessible to all people in the community. That’s what made Northside beautiful.”

The difference between “gorgeous” and “beautiful” is a feeling among local families, many of them Latino, that the spiffy, new facility doesn’t offer the same amenities as the old center — or that it does but with prohibitive new fees and rules.

In other words, the multicultural vibe needs to be more than decoration.

Discriminating Geography

Outside the doors of the Aztlán Center, other changes are afoot on the north side of Fort Collins. There are plans for an outdoor amphitheater and a kayak park. Mixed-use developments, combining apartments and “loftominiums” with shops and offices, are popping up all over. Many of them are similarly using sustainable-design elements and being marketed to the cultural “creative class,” coveted by retailers and Realtors. In this context, the north side is an untapped frontier for growth, where Old Town can meld with plans for the city’s Beet Street cultural and arts area.

Since its settlement, Fort Collins has grown south from Old Town, away from the Cache la Poudre River. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Great Western Sugar Company sited its sugar-beet factory north of the river, and farm-labor families populated the surrounding neighborhoods — first Germans from Russia and then Hispanic families from New Mexico and farther south.

German Russian 
immigrants, unwelcome 
to live among the general 
population of Fort Collins, 
moved into the north-side neighborhoods of Buckingham and Andersonville in the early nineteen hundreds. Mexican Americans later followed and mixed with the German Russians. In 1923, Great Western started a new settlement
 and provided straw, lime, gravel and lumber for families to build two-room adobe homes. Workers could, over time, purchase a house and property for under $200. Latino residents called the area La Colonia Española. Today, it’s called Alta Vista, and all three neighborhoods are known as the colonias. Adobe homes are still scattered among the blocks, and the area remains — for the moment, at least — predominantly Latino.

Tony Rodriguez’s home in Andersonville sits on the busy corner of Lemay Avenue and Vine Drive, where trains rumble by and cars back up at the intersection all day. As a young boy, Rodriguez moved to Fort Collins with his parents, migrant farmworkers from Texas. Rodriguez and his wife have lived in the home for 58 years, raising five children along the way.

“It was a rough life, let me put it that way,” Rodriguez says of his youth. “I didn’t have an education. I had to start working the fields all over.” He keeps a thin moustache on his thin face, and his creased cheeks are a testament to years of outdoor labor.

North-side residents lived with pollution from the factory and passing trains. The city dump was adjacent to the neighborhoods. River flooding was a looming danger each spring and summer. When the families crossed the river into downtown Fort Collins, they ran into a different set of threats, from prejudiced citizens who refused to associate with them or sell them goods.

Neither the City of Fort Collins nor Larimer County wanted jurisdiction over the colonias, so roads were unpaved and muddy, and houses relied on wood stoves for heat. Into the Seventies, families had outhouses, because the government refused to extend a sewer line to the region.
 A 2003 historical report for the city (PDF link) calls the area “a geography of discrimination.” In this void, AltaVista elected unofficial mayors to advocate for the most basic services, such as street maintenance and indoor plumbing.

“The town here — the racism was real bad,” Rodriguez recalls. “When we came here, [shop windows] said, ‘No Mexicans, White Trade Only’.” He pauses as his mind fast-forwards to the present. “It’s a little better.”

Over time, progressive citizens advocated for the removal of signs that denied Mexican Americans access to stores. And the north side’s cultural identity finally got a physical home
 of sorts, when the City of Fort Collins built the Northside Community Center in 1977 at the site of the former landfill.

New and Old Kids on the Block

On a weekday morning, the new Northside Center bustles
 with kids shooting hoops in the gym and grownups working 
out with free weights and on treadmills in the fitness center. There’s a Tai Chi class underway and a children’s education program, themed around “Dora the Explorer,” in progress. Other programs teach cooking, Spanish, badminton and Salsaerobics, among dozens of other activities for children, adults and seniors.

The building is two-and-a-half times larger than the old center. The new gym — “the Cadillac of the whole facility,” says city Recreation Manager Steve Budner — has an elevated track around its perimeter and is three times bigger than the former center’s single basketball court.

But they don’t hold any funerals at the new center.

It used to be that every once in a while, if they didn’t have enough money for a loved one’s funeral, a north-side family would approach the staff of Northside Aztlán, which would arrange for a reception at the center, free of charge.

“A lot of the people we’re talking about here have a hard time paying for 
a funeral, let alone a reception,” Frank Martinez says. He estimates about five to fifteen services used to take place at the old building every year, and the assistance built loyalty toward the community center among residents of the colonias.

Kids under eighteen used to walk in free to the center and spend afternoons playing sports and games. That doesn’t happen anymore either. Now, children ages six to fifteen must pay a dollar to use the new center each day, while teens must
 pay two dollars. Punch cards for multiple visits do offer cost breaks. “And although it’s just one or two dollars,” Martinez says, “there are kids that I’ve talked to who are not going.”

(A lounge, with pool tables, computers, a big-screen TV and PlayStation, is open for no charge.)

If the fees sound minimal, think of a family with two working parents and two children in need of after-school activities. Now the family must pay $10 a week
— $500 a year — for weekday access, a significant amount for people struggling to buy groceries and pay property taxes or rent and utility bills.

The center also offers scholarship funds that reduce fees for children and adults who qualify for federal- or state-assistance programs. But Martinez says some parents who don’t qualify for other government programs still need financial help. Some are overloaded with work or otherwise reluctant to fill out the forms.

Martinez has also heard from children who fear that rates for summer sports programs, including basketball leagues, will be raised. Martinez remembers back when a team used to pay $10 total to enroll to play. Last year in the old facility, each child paid $25 or $40, depending on the league, but higher fees could reduce participation among kids from low-income families.

“It’s a program that’s been used to keep kids off the streets and out of gangs, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works,” Martinez tells me. “It really does create a home for the kids all summer. Hopefully, that’s not lost.”

“A lot of activities were free and it was a good place to find adult leadership and guidance,” Budner says, “and I think we still have that here. The old Northside was a close community. I think this was pretty scary to a lot of people.”

Budner, who has spent 22 years working for the city’s recreation department, has a neat, graying goatee, and today,
as we walk around the new Northside, 
he wears a mock turtleneck and a blue sweater with a city recreation logo. He is disarmingly friendly and not at all scary, but he realizes that he is the face of a new regime (the recreation department is now headquartered at Northside).

The center has no plans to raise summer league costs, Budner says, but
 he acknowledges that the facility won’t accommodate free funerals or other family services. Everyone must pay $25 per hour for a community room, which includes access to a full kitchen.

Martinez responds that the benefits of waiving costs in the dozen or so cases each year — and the community pride toward the center fostered by the assistance — outweigh the $150 or $200 the city would collect for each event.

As far as the new fees, Budner says the changes bring Northside’s operations and rates in line with other city facilities, although he recognizes the complications
 regarding the scholarship applications.

“We do whatever we can to get that filled out,” Budner says, including contacting teachers when parents are unavailable. “We
 do not turn anyone away.” He says he’s also encouraging longtime staff to reach out to children who formerly used the center but haven’t shown up to the new space.

“I think we’re seeing more new faces than old faces,” Budner says. “We’re glad to see the new faces, but we don’t want to lose the old faces either.”

A Brewing Storm

If there is an industrial
 face to the north side
 these days, it’s New Belgium Brewing Company. Since 1995, the enviro-friendly microbrewery abuts the Buckingham neighborhood at Linden and Buckingham streets. (The sugar beet factory site is now the city’s streets department headquarters.)

Upstairs from the brewery’s tasting room, its flowing taps and overflowing crowd, Kim Jordan, New Belgium’s CEO, keeps her office where the sounds of clinking glasses and buzzed conversation provide background ambiance.

“I love this neighborhood. We moved here because we love this part of town,” Jordan says. “But sometimes it makes me sad, because I feel like it’s not as integrated with New Belgium or the downtown.”

The disintegration, as it were, of the north-side neighborhoods has bubbled 
up in a few standoffs in recent years. The Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Fair, which happens one weekend every September at the “Oxbow” property, bounded by both New Belgium and Buckingham, has faced criticism for clogging neighborhood streets with parked cars. New Belgium’s Tour de Fat, an annual bike parade and carnival of sorts that brings out thousands of costumed bicycle riders and beer drinkers, has also drawn complaints about noise, traffic and public intoxication. And sounds from the brewery’s late-summer, bike-in movie series in its parking lot are said to echo through the neighboring streets.

If the colonias still elected a local mayor, Betty Aragon-Mitotes would probably be the perennial frontrunner. She has lived,
 on and off, in Buckingham since the 1960s, and she is a frequent spokeswoman and ambassador for the neighborhoods. She led local opposition to a truck-bypass route and helped build support for the purchase and preservation of the Romero House, an adobe home in Andersonville, as a museum of local Hispanic culture.

Aragon-Mitotes says the events and crowds, despite their green credentials and philanthropic motives, are noisy shake-ups to a neighborhood that has long suffered
 a range of affronts and injustices. But her concerns also ring as a preemptive, defensive stance against proposed development.

The Bohemian Foundation, under the control of local billionaire Pat Stryker, owns the Oxbow and has plans to build an outdoor amphitheater on the property, which could regularly host concerts and events, attracting thousands of people through Buckingham, on a nightly basis for months. Aragon-Mitotes says the constant crowds would be a major imposition on the neighborhood, and she’s even more worried about the venue triggering an increase in property taxes, which would price out longtime residents who get by on fixed incomes or modest wages.

“The music venue is the most important issue facing the Buckingham neighborhood,” Aragon-Mitotes says.

Bohemian Foundation staff and a project design firm met with local residents in April 2007 to talk about plans. (The Coloradoan ran a below-the-fold, front-page article about the meeting; the above-the-fold front-page story on a looming snowstorm had an ironic headline: “Brewing storm could whiten city.”)

Merry Hummel, the Bohemian Foundation’s executive director, says, via email, that plans for the Oxbow are still conceptual, and the organization plans to meet again with neighbors before submitting its plans to the city.

“We don’t have specifics to share at this time, but we are committed to talking and working with our neighbors,” Hummel writes. “As you may know, the Bohemian Foundation believes in creativity, imagination and spirit and is dedicated to improving Fort Collins, and our plans for the Oxbow will focus on this mission.”

Infill, Then Move Out

Anne Aspen of the Fort Collins planning department walks into our meeting at the city offices on North College Avenue carrying an armload of rolled-up maps. She unrolls them all, and we focus on one that frames the north side of the city.

From a bird’s-eye view, north Fort Collins looks vastly open. Huge parcels of vacant and former agricultural land surround the colonias. On Aspen’s map, every sizable chunk of green space is labeled, in Sharpie, with the name of a prospective development.

A development with 163 residential units is already undergoing city review. A conceptual project, in the early stages, would include about a thousand residential units and another 270,000 square feet of commercial real estate, right next to Alta Vista. Another conceptual development could build low-density, high-end student housing designed to look like single-family cottages. An open lot along Vine Drive, near Conifer and College, isn’t markered, but Aspen tells me a “major retailer” is interested.

The North College corridor, heading out of Old Town, is the city’s “most promising and underserved area for growth,” says Mike Jensen, of Fort Collins Real Estate. “I’d love to be a property owner 
in those neighborhoods, because they’re going to make out.”

The expansive redevelopment, plus
 a number of urban-infill loft projects, requires some infrastructure overhauls. The city has already spent $10 million on control measures to reduce flood-prone property and open up parcels to commercial and residential development. Next, the city plans to realign Vine Drive and expand the street’s intersection with Lemay Avenue. The expansion alone will cost around $20 million, and its impacts on Andersonville, including Tony Rodriguez’s home, aren’t clear.

“There’s a lot of culture and a lot of pride in these neighborhoods, and it’ll be interesting to see if these people will get forced out,” Frank Martinez says. “People look and say, ‘That’s low-income, that’s rundown.’ To the people that live there, it’s home.”

The colonias are already seeing an infusion of young couples and individuals looking for reasonably priced property near Old Town. That isn’t a bad thing — to have a 
new and diverse next generation of homeowners who appreciate the neighborhoods. But it’s likely that nearby quarter-million-dollar lofts and a new wave of shopping centers will also inflate property values — and taxes — among the colonias, which could, over time, eliminate affordable housing in the area.

Jensen says it’s important not to displace the “fiber and fabric of these neighborhoods.”

“I think everyone is pretty committed to [affordable housing] and sustainable and environmentally conscious growth,” he adds.

Betty Aragon-Mitotes isn’t quite
 so optimistic. She walked away from
the affordable-housing task group of UniverCity Connections, a partnership among city-government officials, Colorado State representatives and civic boosters, because she thought the discussions 
were focused on student housing, not accommodations for low-income families.

The task force has suggested, preliminarily, that one-fifth of new housing along the Mason Street Corridor, which is slated for 
a public, bus-rapid transit line, should be affordable. Mixed-use projects in Denver and Boulder already lock in below-market-priced units to rent and own. Whether Fort Collins city officials and developers will support the targets when the time comes — and the case can be made that it already has — is another thing. New and under-construction loft projects around downtown have hardly any price-restricted housing.

“We have every right to be in this community, and I feel like we’re being pushed out,” Aragon-Mitotes says. “Is that what Fort Collins is about? Becoming a city for the elite? I’ve heard that my neighborhood is not going to be around in five years.”

Moving History Forward

None of this is unique to Fort Collins. It’s just another case of gentrification in America. But the especially distressing part for our city is that much of the north-side growth is catering to the so-called creative class, the progressive and environmentally conscious people who drink microbrews, watch independent films, shop at farmer’s markets and bike instead of drive — the people who are supposed to embrace community diversity among incomes and cultures.

“I’d like to think that, too,” Kim Jordan says of the targeted populace, when I raise that conundrum and ask if she thinks the decline of the colonias’ culture and affordability is inevitable.

“The future? To me it is, Can we be extraordinary?” Jordan says, with a daring tone that would just sound like rhetoric 
if she hadn’t launched New Belgium as a model for sustainable and profitable business. “I think we’d lose a lot in turning our backs on recognizing the Hispanic contribution to Fort Collins, and the same thing goes for the agricultural contribution.”

But hope is not yet foreclosed upon.

Aragon-Mitotes and others are trying to raise funds to build an interpretive center next to the Romero House museum to accommodate funeral services and other family events in the future. The city is also considering a playground, basketball courts and a park at the streets department site that was once the beet factory.

Most significantly, neighborhood discussions have begun to consider landmark designation for the colonias. Residents met with city staff, including Anne Aspen and Karen McWilliams, the city historic preservation planner, in November to talk about options, including the differences between protection of individual adobe homes, and others that represent the “vernacular architecture” of the neighborhoods, versus recognition of entire blocks.

Landmark preservation would recognize the area’s history and create financial incentives for homeowners to rehabilitate and repair houses, McWilliams says. It would also provide greater protection against out-of- sync development next to the colonias and prohibit property owners from demolishing structures from within designated boundaries. (Some residents have questioned whether preservation status could also have negative effects, banning some renovations.)

Aspen hasn’t heard of any interest in specifically targeting the colonias for a full-scale makeover. A developer would be “stupid” to do so, she says.

Aragon-Mitotes is drumming up support among neighbors and hopes to submit an application for city historical preservation soon.

“The recognition they’ll receive in the public realm will be huge,” McWilliams says. “I think it will be a great source of pride for the communities themselves. Finally, after years, Fort Collins will formally recognize their contributions, instead of them being an afterthought.”

The reality is that, despite the anxieties and setbacks, the culture and character of the north side are still visible among the homes of the colonias and even the design of the new Northside Aztlán Community Center. Fort Collins is perched at a moment when the city can decide how to identify and incorporate these elements, beyond old and new architectural designs.

“There was a lot of history in that old facility, and we want to bring that history forward,” Steve Budner says of Northside Aztlán. “We have the ability to impact the lives of so many people and make a positive impact for the rest of their lives. That’s what we had at the old Northside, and we want that here.”

In Frank Martinez’s mind, the connections between accessible community center and thriving community are inseparable.

“I think the center is very symbolic
 of the north side,” he says. “I count it as a resource, where people can come together, where they can meet and they can work. It’s always been a little heart of north Fort Collins. That’s how I view it as a center, and that’s how I view the future.”