(photo by Anthony Settipani for PULP)

Is Pueblo on an Upward Trend, or is it all Just Smoke and Mirrors?

“What’s happening to Pueblo?” is the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind these past several years. It’s certainly been the one I’ve asked myself every time I would come home to visit and see something new, gone, or just different from the way it had been all my life. With 2019 fading into hindsight and a new decade on the horizon, the time seems right for a look back at how far this town has come, and a few thoughts on what may lay ahead.

Over the past few years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised every time I would come back to town and see what was new. The realizations always felt more like double-takes: “Wait…We have a Neon Alley? We have a brewery in the old police station? We have a cabaret??” Through it all, I’ve been forced to the grudging conclusion that Pueblo, that city I spent my childhood dreaming of escaping, has actually started to become cool.

The numbers I’ve seen, for the most part, paint an encouraging picture. Population figures in Pueblo have risen steadily over the past twenty years, save for a short downturn in the early 2000’s. According to most available estimates, median household income is on the rise as well. Granted, both are still far below the numbers for places like Denver, Fort Collins and even Grand Junction, but they are positive nonetheless. Housing prices, meanwhile, have shot up proportionally right alongside everywhere else in the state starting in about 2013 or so.

Then there are the more subjective markers. Our staple Pueblo Chile has grown considerably over the past several years, emerging not only as a regional favorite but garnering a loyal following throughout Colorado and beyond. I’ve spent nearly this entire year writing about how chile peppers with names like Mauro, Musso and DiTomaso are showing up in everything from hamburgers and beer to doughnuts and vodka – and people are literally eating it up. Incredibly, our little pepper that could has grown enough in name and notoriety that even New Mexico, certainly one of the biggest pepper-producers in the world, is starting to get nervous.

To me, however, the best indicator of the city’s past, present and future lies in the beating heart that is Pueblo’s downtown business district. Over the two and a half decades I’ve been around, I’ve watched downtown Pueblo grown from a single, stodgy slice of “Historic Union Avenue” into somewhere I actually enjoy spending my time.

“I’m very thankful for the continued renaissance that’s happening in downtown Pueblo,” said Andy Sanchez, co-owner of Walter’s Brewery and Taproom. “Studies all agree that the health of a downtown corridor is essential in the growth of a city.”

Walter’s is about as Pueblo a brand as it gets: one of the state’s first breweries, its doors long closed and recently reopened. Its rise has happened right alongside the rest of downtown Pueblo, and earlier this year, the company signed a deal that will put its flagship products on the shelves of Whole Foods stores throughout the state. If that doesn’t signal mainstream adoption, I don’t know what does.

It was interesting, then, to learn that Sanchez feels not in competition with the other bars in his area, but rather in some kind of loosely synergistic collaboration. When you stop to think about it, however, it makes perfect sense. By building a central place – a town square, if you will – where people can actually hop from one bar to the next over the course of a night, perhaps stopping for some food along the way, all stand to benefit. Once that happens, it goes from a zero-sum competition to something suddenly greater than the sum of its individual parts.

“We as a community of downtown businesses are all working together,” Sanchez continued. “I never want to come off as saying that we’ve done anything more than just built off of what more people are doing. Anyone in downtown Pueblo is just building off of the foundations that other people have built.”

What’s the key to keeping this moving in the right direction? Walkability, according to urban planner Jeff Speck. In his book Walkable City, Speck notes that the proportion of miles driven by Americans in their twenties dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent since the late nineties. And it’s not just that age group either. According to a study from the Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the number of people with a driver’s license has declined across all age groups. Perhaps most tellingly, the number of high school seniors who chose to opt out of earning a driver’s license has skyrocketed, growing from 8 percent in the 1970’s to a whopping 28.5 percent in 2015. If young people are the future, then clearly the future no longer revolves around driving. It stands to reason, then, that our cities need to start to follow suit.

Of course, no one has to tell me twice. I grew up here, and despised the fact that I needed a car to do pretty much anything. During the years I spent living in Chicago, I reveled in the simple ability to get anywhere at all within that city without the need of a car. It’s gratifying to know that I’m not the only one.

“Surveys – as if we needed them – show how creative-class citizens, especially millennials, vastly favor communities with street life, the pedestrian culture that can only come from walkability,” Speck writes. He goes on to explain that social landscapes built around cars are by their very nature invitation-only, whereas cities with robust pedestrian cultures give rise to chance encounters, new friendships and a greater variety of things to do. It all contributes to what he and others in his profession refer to as “fabric,” the everyday collection of streets, blocks and buildings that tie a city together.

To Pueblo’s credit, I believe we’re moving in the right direction. I grew up in a Pueblo where an Indian restaurant – or pretty much anything that wasn’t pizza, hamburgers, Mexican or Italian – lasted about six months before closing its doors for good. Now, downtown boasts not only a long-running Indian restaurant, but also a tapas restaurant, several sushi spots, numerous independent cafes and breweries, and yes, plenty of hamburgers, Mexican and Italian. I grew up in a Pueblo where a river walk was hardly even a twinkle in the city’s eye. Now, all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations, our Riverwalk looks more inviting than just about anywhere else I’ve visited this year – Denver and Colorado Springs included.

Today’s Pueblo is a town where it’s actually possible to wake up, walk downstairs, order a coffee from Solar Roast or the Grind (yes, we all still call it the Grind), walk to work, grab a bite at Bingo Burger or Bistoro, then wrap up the day with a workout at the gym, a pint of beer at the Downtown Bar, some live music at Brues’ or even a little bit of whitewater practice, all without once getting in a car. To me – and many others who’ve left Pueblo over the years – that sounds an awful lot like progress.

Is there still a long way to go? Pueblo’s growth hasn’t been meteoric or prolific, and continued growth is far from inevitable. Yes. But I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t feel all that finally beginning to change for the better.

People always ask me “What does Pueblo have that nowhere else does?” Honestly, I don’t have an answer for them. But when I line up the list of all my favorite cities and ask the same question, I realize that it’s not so much about having something you can’t find anywhere else. It’s about reaching that critical mass of things to do and people to see – weaving that fabric of society and community that makes a place not only livable, but lovable as well. If you can manage to do that, then you must be doing something right.

And for the first time in my life, I feel like Pueblo is actually on the right track.