To My Dearest Boulder
I sat in traffic the other day on the way to work, a midmorning shift, and though it was already well past 10 a.m. the streets were as congested as I’ve ever seen them. As I sat at the same light for a third iteration without yet crossing the intersection, I felt the sun nearing its peak and watched the pavement breathe with heat. I was restless the way that only rush hour traffic during off-peak times can make you restless, the sensation of crawling single file towards something ominous and unknown. A truck with various endorsements for Donald Trump plastered across the back window sat through a green arrow, its driver inattentive, the fourth iteration arriving. In the lane beside me, the sustained blare of a Prius’s horn let the car in front of it know that someone was very, very unhappy, and as traffic began to move once again I caught a glimpse of the noisy offender’s bumper sticker, Jimi Hendrix’s famous plea for peace. I stared into space, still stalled, and had only one thought: I love this city.
It was a strange sensation to be having in that exact place, at that exact moment, but sitting there, ensnared by civilization, the truth of it was palpable. I do really love this city, and that day in traffic may have been the first time since I’ve relocated here that the affection occurred to me so spontaneously, as if from nowhere. Boulder is alive in ways that other cities in my experience have not been – I used to say of Manhattan that nowhere have I been so surrounded by people and yet so alone. Boulder has always felt, in all of the time that I’ve spent here, like a community full of individuals identifying with one another, as opposed to just with the space they occupy.
And yet it has seemed to me that one of the strongest unifying forces here is a sense of self-awareness that is all too quick to judge. “Boulder has lost its soul,” someone told me recently. It’s a complaint that I hear often enough, especially amongst some of the people who seem to love it the most. This place has changed, sure: even in the last six years since I first visited and spent a summer here, there have been noticeable refinements, a set of slight differences in the social structure. These could, of course, be fabrications – after all, if there is one thing that is able to unify people regardless of place, it’s a sense of dissatisfaction, and we as human beings focus naturally, myopically, on our issues.
There has been real, tangible development, however, that has affected Boulder in the last decade, for better or for worse. Median household income is up over 10%, property values have almost doubled, and the population is increasing steadily, with all of these numbers only forecasted to rise. Boulder is growing, and in the midst of growth it is all too easy to feel displaced.
Most of my anecdotal evidence, admittedly, is from people in my own demographic, young adults of the workforce who have either recently finished school or are pursuing graduate degrees. At times we feel lost between generations, slipped through the cracks – the technologic and societal shifts of the last ten years have changed so drastically the course of our world that it’s hard to believe we’ll ever have anything in common with the next collective, today’s youth, just as it’s impossible to deny that the transformations that have taken place have rendered the old ways of doing things impossible, obsolete. These feelings of marginalization and disenfranchisement are not unique to this place, of course, and in so many people with whom I have shared experiences across the world a sense of helplessness has emerged. We have finished university and, upon reaching the summit of such achievement have been dragged back to the bottom of some new hierarchy by an avalanche of debt and apparent immobility in a shifting economy and all of the pessimism that this breeds.
I speak of the psychic pain, both conscious and not, of but a single generation, one group stuck in time. But I know that this existential terror follows man through blood like a parasite, is the ultimate communicative disease, ravages the womb and damns all who will come next in some different form, yet to be revealed.
The truth as I see it is that, in the face of this, we all seek the same things, regardless of the point we occupy on humanity’s timeline. We need community, validation, love. The sensation that we are justified in our existence, our pain, the lives and the strife into which we’ve been thrust without choice. Vindication in the eyes of some creator, whose concern for us has never been truly apparent. The annals of history are filled with attempts to answer the question of where we come from. Perhaps now we have begun to try to figure out where to go.
How else to explain the constant influx to this place, without even factoring in university matriculation? I think that, in the last year, I can count on both hands the number of people I have met in Boulder who actually hail from Boulder. We are gravitating, maybe. There are theories that certain areas in the world hold energy and draw us in magnetically, and while I have yet to hear anyone liken this place to Cassadaga, the very idea of Boulder may be all of the energy needed. Long heralded as a community that is different in some way, unique, I think of epithets such as “The Bubble” and petitions to “Keep Boulder Weird.” Was it not only a matter of time until these prophecies written not in the stars but rather on tee-shirts and bumper stickers would attract the very attention that would bring equilibrium sweeping across the plains like so many summer storms?
Coming off of the mountain one day, I was rushing home and needed to stop to get a few items at the market. Unthinking, I hurried into the store without bothering to put on my shirt or my shoes, vestigial carelessness from my time spent in Hawaii, where the weather and the culture have shifted expectations of what’s acceptable in public. Not realizing until I was deep in the aisles, I became immediately self-conscious, worried that I would offend, desiring to draw no extra attention to myself and simply get what I needed as quickly as possible. And yet it seemed that nobody looked at me twice. Not my fellow shoppers, the staff, or even the others silently frantic with afternoon hunger and places to be trapped on both sides of me in line for those self-checkout kiosks that always seem to malfunction with a machine’s indifferent disregard for the pettiness of our schedules. I was free to go on my way, acquitted by a jury of my peers.
Boulder may no longer be the counterculture paradise it is in the halcyon memories of the city’s collective consciousness, if it ever truly was, but it’s still a city with so much more to be appreciated than scoffed at. It’s the city kept safe under the watchful eye of the Flatirons. Of Band on the Bricks and the Thursday Night Cruiser Ride. Of municipal compost bins and sprawling libraries and public transit and enough parks and bike trails that one need never even see a car if they don’t wish it. A place to not yet know who you are, and to have that be okay. It’s a place to be grateful, to be reminded that we must be grateful, no matter where else we may go.
Has Boulder lost its soul? I don’t know enough to say, and I would doubt that anyone does. Perhaps it has only been reincarnated… if that’s what you believe in, of course.