My grandparents live in Montrose, Colorado – a smallish town so far west that it may as well be Utah. While they both spent significant portions of their life living in or near the city, they hate coming to Denver or really anywhere near it now.
Too much traffic!
Too many people!
What’s with all the homeless people?
Their life in Montrose consists of keeping things that are strange or uncomfortable away and preserving a warped sense of safety. There is no clearer signal than the number of times they manage to use the word “property” in a conversation. This guy built something that crossed into their property. That guy drove his tractor onto their property. If the phrase “get off my lawn” was a couple of 70-somethings living in Western Colorado, it would be my grandparents.
Fortunately for me, my dad moved away from his Western Colorado upbringing, and I grew up in the suburbs near Denver. I attended college in Downtown Denver, and in my early 20s, I escaped the strip malls, and chain restaurants, moved into an apartment in the Five Points area of Denver. I wanted to be in the action, I wanted more diversity, and I wanted to be around people who cared to talk about anything other than my prospects for marriage and children.
No offense to suburbs. I love a Chili’s.
With all eyes seemingly on cities right now (or at least the ones with Democrats in charge), a lot of people suddenly have strong opinions about what’s happening to our “crumbling” cities despite the fact that they have not recently or ever set foot in an actual city. I now live in the southwest corner of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Denver. I am just over 1 mile from Downtown Denver. This neighborhood along with the central business district have been the epicenter of protests, marches, and yes, a really bad and getting worse homelessness problem.
When you live in a city, it’s pretty likely, you live in an apartment, where you are in a shared space as soon as you exit your front door. Above you, below you, and next to you, is the place another person calls home. When you step outside, people are buzzing by you on bikes, or walking their dog, or going for an evening run. You may not know anyone’s name, but you are forced to care about their space and their well-being because it is also your space and your well-being. I’ll admit that in the middle of a pandemic, the unavoidable closeness of other people has felt unsettling, but it’s also somewhat comforting.
Here’s the thing… you can’t remove yourself from the situation in a city. You can’t not see the homeless encampments. You can’t not hear the helicopters flying overhead capturing a standoff between protesters and police. You can’t listen to people saying that your home is going to hell in a handbasket and walk away without defending your community and its citizens. You can’t not care. You can try, and I’m certain there are some people getting by blissfully on apathy.
This all adds up to one thing: Empathy. The closeness of others, the diversity of thought and background, and the exposure to struggle create a collective of conscientious and activated people who desire a world where all are included and lifted up. It’s why our citizens show up to help our unhoused neighbors pack their belongings before an impending sweep and then scream (into what feels like a void) at our leaders for a humane solution. In cities we recognize humanity. “Other” doesn’t exist in a city because we couldn’t keep the unfamiliar away if we wanted to. The way we tend to vote isn’t a coincidence.
Some might argue that Denver is barely a city compared to places like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. You wouldn’t be wrong. Denver’s population is less than 1/8th the population of New York. Some might argue that a city hardens you, and to a certain degree, you wouldn’t be wrong about that either. Living in a city requires boundary setting and the ability to be independent. Underneath that is the care a city-dweller must have for their small and densely populated corner of the world.
Denver is far from perfect, but Montrose, Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the state. There are theories as to why that may be, isolation and lack of resources being just a few of them. I can look outside and see community right in front of me. It’s not scary for other people to be close (except there’s still a pandemic, so 6ft and wear a mask please and thank you), and what the hell is the comfort of home, or “property” as some may call it, if you’re too afraid to see what’s beyond it?