"Shaping an urban area" in the rural West: Part I
A 50-year old Durango planning document and your chance to play the "used-to-be" game
The manila envelope arrived in the mail last summer, containing a long-tabloid-sized document on aged, brittle newsprint. The washed out cover photo was black and white, but it was framed by a thick blue square. Sunday, August 15, 1971, it said on the top right hand corner, then: DURANGO! Shaping An Urban Area above the old school Durango Herald flag.
It was accompanied by a handwritten note from Richard Ballantine, the Chairman of Ballantine Communications, the Herald’s parent company. He had excavated it from the depths of his desk-pile (if you’ve seen Richard’s desk, you know what I mean) and thought I’d be interested, in part because the document—the Durango-area comprehensive plan—was compiled and edited by my father, but also because of the window it offers into my hometown’s history.
At first it seemed a bit quaint, a relic from a simpler time, when folks in Durango—and dozens of other similar communities across the Western U.S.—couldn’t even imagine the sorts of challenges their town would be facing half a century later. Then I started reading and realized I was wrong. The “planners” of the time, a group of local volunteers, anticipated the hurdles to come with remarkable foresight, and the goals they set shaped Durango into what it is today—for better and at times for worse.
Durango was established in 1880 as a supply town and the mercantile and professional hub of the area’s mining camps. During the community’s first several decades, coal mines dotted the surrounding ridges, a massive smelter on the south edge of town processed concentrates from the Silverton-area mines, nearby farms and ranches fed the mining camps, and rail lines stretched out of town to the north, west, south, and east. During World War II the smelter was converted into a uranium mill that supplied the Manhattan project.
In the 1960s, however, many of Durango’s extractive-industry roots had begun to wither. The uranium mill shut down in 1963 after locals figured out it was contaminating the Animas River and the Southside’s air with radioactive materials. Trucks and highways displaced rail transportation, and by 1970 all of the rail lines out of Durango except the Silverton segment had been abandoned. Only one Silverton mine, the Sunnyside, continued to churn out significant amounts of ore. The San Juan Basin just south of Durango was home to a major natural gas drilling boom, but Farmington became the hub of most activity, not Durango.
That left Durango with tourism and—though the coin wasn’t yet in common parlance—the amenities economy. If it couldn’t make it from extracting minerals from the hills, it would have to bank on the scenery, history (real and imagined), and elusive “quality of life.” To this end Denver oil man Ray Duncan established Purgatory Ski Area in 1965. The Durango-Silverton train became a tourist attraction and a major character in various Western films, from Ticket to Tomahawk, to Rio Grande, to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And the Animas Regional Planning Commission, of which my grandfather was a member, set out to guide inevitable change to result in a community, “which will become progressively more fulfilling and livable for all of us.”
The challenge we face is whether or not as a group of 12,000 we will let that change shape us or whether we will shape the change. … Durango is a series of communities: labor, education, retirement, agricultural, professional, service, youth, educated, uneducated, Chicano, Anglo, poor, middle income … and among many of these sub-communities there is almost no communication, no feelings of concern for the other. It is this fragmentation that makes us very much “urban” in the modern American sense. We are not a small town.
I’m going to digress a bit here by playing the “used-to-be” game to help readers who may not remember or may not be old enough what Durango was like in the early 1970s. I don’t remember anything from 1971—I was less than a year old. My first memories with a time stamp kick in during 1974, when nearly a block of buildings on Main Avenue burned and we drove up onto Cemetery Hill to watch the drama unfold.
I’ll start from the north side of town, leaving some answers blank to give y’all a chance to play the used-to-be game! If you can fill in the blanks, do so in the comment section (accompanied by the number next to it):
Animas View Drive and County Road 203 (West Animas) used to be the main highway out of town (the “new highway” was, indeed, new in 1971);
There used to be a nightclub where the Hampton Inn is now called (1a)_______. I always found it a little titillating, though I never went inside. Maybe it was the pink neon sign?
The place that is now Griego’s restaurant (green chile Frito pie!) used to be one of two (1b)_______ in town (and Griego’s Taco House—29 cent sno-cones!—was where (2)_______ is now).
The current recreation center used to be the county fairground with a stone/wood grandstand that was hell to run up and down (for xc ski training) and splintery as all heck. They held circuses, rodeos, and Durango high school football games here.
(3)________ was located where the public library now sits.
Camino del Rio, known at the time as the Truck Bypass, was brand new in 1971. Prior to that, Main Avenue had been the primary highway through town; travelers turned left on 6th Street (College Drive), then right on 8th Ave to get to the main highway out of town, Highway 3, on the east side of the river, past a huge sawmill. In 1971 Highway 3 remained the primary southern artery (the “High Bridge” near Walmart wasn’t constructed until the early 1980s).
Second Ave., meanwhile, was home to car dealerships, including Morehart Chevrolet and Murphy Motors.
In 1971 massive uranium tailings piles loomed over the south side of town, at the current location of the dog park.
(4)_________ Road, now a popular mountain biking area, was open to motorized vehicles (and served as a de facto town dump, off-roading area, and high schooler party zone).
The (5)_______ used to be the Thompson Saddle Shop (and other businesses—bonus points for whoever can name them in the comment section). To its south was the (6)_________ movie theatre. and downtown Durango also sported (7)_______ (where you’d go for a tie or suit) and (8)_________ (you got your Levis or Wranglers here). You could get a steak and cocktail at The Lost (9)______, and pizza and a beer at (10)_________ (Ralph Dinosaur’s home bar). The back of (11)________ pharmacy was a soda fountain, where one could get a phosphate and a burger and where, purportedly, town powerbrokers met. The 11th Street Station really was a service station named (12)__________. And there was a lunch counter in (13)______________, which is now an upscale restaurant on the 900 block of Main Ave.
I could go on, but I’ll have mercy on you all. What is it about the used-to-be game that’s so appealing? Is it just nostalgia? A reminder of how much things have changed? A reminder of how old we really are? Whatever it is, if you enjoy it as much as I do, please go ahead and throw your favorite “used-to-bes,” from Durango or elsewhere, into the comment section.
The planners hoped to retain the community’s assets and fix its weaknesses. Their major and land-use goals include (highlights mine). If it’s fuzzy, go to LandDesk.org to view in hi res:
Wow, these guys (yes, all of the planning commission members were men and all but one were white) used some pretty strong—and, in my opinion, accurate—language regarding suburban development and wanted to limit strip malls. In America, no less! They also clearly stated the necessity of providing housing to everyone because “all economic levels are necessary to assist economic and social growth.” Damned good point.
They also were fired up about establishing greenbelts, open space, parks, and other areas for recreation. So for all those folks who try to say that bike paths and recreation are imposed upon Durango from the outside are, well, wrong.
The planners planned to guide growth and development via subdivision regulations, zoning, land-use and building codes, and—see above—by acquiring and establishing green spaces to “limit population growth within set boundaries” and “increase the density of the population within these boundaries instead of having urban sprawl.”
So did the planning succeed? Did it succeed too well? I’ll tackle that in a future post, along with some planning suggestions for Durango—and similar towns—for the next 50 years.