Our exotic backyards

I’ve been thinking about regionality, and the sad recognition that it is disappearing in America.  I’ve been traveling, which always leaves a person a little dizzy–it’s hard to know where you are sometimes. 

But it wasn’t that.  It was the movie theater the other day.  The Peak, it was called when I Peaktheater was a child, a downtown theater with plush velveteen seats and a great theme of the Old West.  I shot this photo because I was intrigued by the adobe-imitation of the wall.  It’s a very regional, southwest touch, to go with the sand-painting colors of the murals of bluffs and desert on the wall.  It made me think of Manitou Springs and copper bracelets from the tourist shops and the whole world of angle of travel that existed pre-what? 1980? When did regionality start disappearing?

Because it has.  Not entirely, of course, and any devoted traveler can plunge into the history and culture of an area of the US to find its true flavor.  Across the southwest, there are still concrete teepees alongside the highway, right there in Navajo country, where nobody ever lived in a teepee, which is a funny and silly and ingrained part of the entire tourist parade.   

Sitting in the Peak Theater, I thought about Garden of the Gods and the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe and the Redwood Forests and Maine and Florida.  I have a vintage post card from Florida in about 1927 that’s beguiling and laced with the promise of adventure.  The Far Away.

Manitousprings1 Once, Colorado Springs was steeped in regionality, with a particular look and spirit and feeling.  Some of those buildings still exist–the Cheyenne Canon Inn, on the far west side of the city, holds the spirit, and you can feel it on the top of Pikes Peak in that gaudy gift shop, and the strip of theme motels heading up Manitou Avenue stands in Spabuilding tribute to that era.  Manitou itself, though spiffing itself up, feels very authentic old Colorado Springs to me. The town is working hard to preserve it.  The spa building, right, was nearly destroyed by a flood some years ago.  It sat empty and forlorn for years while the council and owners tried to figure out what to do with it.   Happily, the past year, it has been rescued and restored.  Adams Mountain Cafe (the restaurant upon which Annie’s Organix in Madame Mirabou is modeled) just moved to the lower level.   Manitou is working hard at preserving its spirit.

But Colorado Springs, in general, looks like any other American city.  The flavor of Native American spirituality and turn of the century gold boomers is starting to fall away.  The landscape is still spectacular, thank goodness, but I mourn a lot of the old buildings that once kept a finger in the pages of history–the old trading post at the Garden of the Gods, the old Antlers hotel, the Chief theater.  As with every other growing city in America, the old gets torn down to make way for the (more profitable) new. 

How do we preserve the heart of our special places? The kitschy tourist heart isn’t that heart, either, but at one time, differences were embraced and paraded around, rather than tucked away beneath the creeping American beigeness of Starbucks and Borders, subdivisions and Targets,  Cinemark monster theaters and clever little shopping center with quaint lighting. 

Maybe this is one reason I love the southwest so much.  New Mexico still holds the sense of itself as a separate entity.  I knew I was in the southwest the second I stepped off the plane. Everything about it still feels like Another World.  The building materials, the style of building, the decorative aspects that are valued by the population, and the way the population identifies itself. 

I’m not saying regionality is gone. But homogenization is spreading through our landscapes, erasing the peculiar and the quirky and the specific in many, many places.  No answers. Just thoughts.

What makes your region peculiarly itself? What quirks are being preserved for future generations?

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8 thoughts on “Our exotic backyards

  1. Jill

    I live in the Northeast Ohio area (near Cleveland) and I find it interesting how regionalism is here when you look for it. This was an area that was settled by a lot of Eastern European cultures. I think that as an outsider, it is easier for me to see it.
    Every Friday during Lent, almost every restaurant has a fish fry and/or a pierogi (potato dumpling) special. People don’t blink if you have a Polish name with eight syllables. There are even some churches that have onion domes. This all very exotic to someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town where to be anything but a vaguely Protestant Anglo-Saxon was almost akin to being a Martian.

  2. Jill that’s a wonderful snapshot!

  3. Jill– I lived in NE Ohio for ten years and I remember that as well– and how it struck me, having come from, respectively, growing up in South Florida, then spending close to ten years living in the south. (You know you’re in the south if you have to ask for your tea to come unsweetened.) For me, Cleveland was both familiar and exotic– then, when I moved to Hudson (25 miles SE of Cleveland) it was definitely like moving to a whole new world, a very Pleasantville sort of place, with its village green and Main Street. What’s fascinating about Hudson, is that it was settled in 1799 as part of the Connecticut Western Reserve, so it has a very New England vibe to it, with lovely, muted Colonials and Victorians and an almost prim, genteel air to it, as if it’s a lady wearing gloves and pearls. Yet, you go 25 miles west, to Medina, which was settled as part of the Westward expansion, and it has a decidedly Midwest feel, with Craftsman style bungalows and a more “frontier” feel to its town center.

    It’s interesting, Barbara, that you bring up this theme of our regional differences disappearing since it was something I was sort of ruminating on recently. I was in San Francisco last year, for the first time in years, and I was shocked and a little saddened, to realize that if I was standing in the middle of downtown, it felt like I was in the middle of any big city downtown. It shocked me, frankly– I never recalled feeling that way in SF before. By contrast, Miami, which, when I was growing up didn’t have a real clear identity, is more and more becoming a unique city with its own fingerprint, as it were.

  4. I’d like to visit Miami, Barbara. It gets a lot of press as being specifically itself, unique, highly flavored.

    After I posted, I wondered if I was being sentimental. But I don’t think so. The regional differences are not *gone*, but they’re slowly slipping away.

  5. I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with proximity and distance. I mean, when the areas out west forged their initial identities, they were so far removed from “civilization” and often, each other, by hundreds of miles. They had no choice but to take on the aura of their surroundings. But as we’ve grown increasingly more mobile, those distances that so often took weeks to cross, now only take hours. Alaska still has a very distinct wild frontier feel and from what I understand, Hawaii still maintains a very unique culture.

    By contrast, since Miami has a much closer proximity to Caribbean and South American cities, it’s easy to understand how it might have been more influenced by them, than by Heartland USA.

  6. Sadly, living in Southern California one can drive down the freeway and experience deja vu. One town blends into the other with all the same restaurants and stores all looking the same.

    Interestingly, I’ve lived in Cleveland, Colorado Springs, and my husband lived and went to high school in Hudson, Ohio so the comments about those places are all very familiar to me.

    I loved Garden of the Gods when I lived in the Springs. I went often in the two years I lived there. Tell me, is the old Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad station still there? When I lived there I worked for the real estate broker, Rich Walker, who bought and renovated it. I went through the process with him of it getting historical designation. What’s up with it now?

  7. Barbara

    Rosie, how funny, because I am in So California and just wandered around Venice Beach and the canals today, which I found very unlike anything I know.

    The railroad station is not still there at Garden of the Gods. I don’t actually remember it.

  8. Barbara, I worded that badly in my earlier comments. I meant the ATSF in Colo Spgs not at Garden of the Gods. I think Rich ended up calling the complex THE RAILROAD STATION, but I’m not sure. I found true love and moved away before the project was completed.

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