Maneuvering the pickup over the dirt road so rutted and deeply cratered that our heads bounced dangerously close to the cab’s ceiling, Sal Katz, a retired army combat veteran, laughed.
“Just a little bumpy,” he said. “But let’s swing in here and park,” as he stopped the truck. “And listen, be careful of the dogs, they can be aggressive.”
It was an early morning in July and the heat was already oppressive. We were near the banks of the Fountain River behind the northside Wal-Mart, and were checking on people who were homeless and lived tucked away from nearby traffic. Katz and fellow Vietnam veteran Ed Ryan, was part of Posada’s response team who checked on people on camps around town, those who lived near the slag heaps left over from CF & I, and at the campgrounds in Pueblo West, dots on a map that Posada had identified as needing water, medical help, and information about services.
It was 2015 and Pueblo County had recently made the sale of recreational marijuana legal. At the same time, Pueblo had been touted as one of the country’s least expensive places to live. The state had voted to expand Medicaid. All had created a perfect storm for an influx of people from out of state looking for a new home. The out of state plates on cars piled high with furniture and stuffed with families filled Posada’s parking lot: I talked to many of them for a story for the Guardian with the unfortunate title, “Welcome to Pueblo, Colorado: The Pot Rush Town for the Marijuana Industry.”
I say unfortunate because the story was not only about travelers who had come for jobs in the new marijuana industry. It was about the response of Pueblo’s social service agencies to the city’s rising poverty rates among Puebloans, and how the agencies, whether governmental or non-profit, were already struggling to help the city’s poor and had been for many years, when the out-of-staters arrived.
It was about how Edie De La Torre, executive director of Pueblo’s Cooperative Care Center, Anne Stattelman of Posada, and Sister Nancy Crafton of El Centro De Los Pobres, and others, do the daily and unglamorous work of helping people do the most basic things: eat, receive medical care, and have a roof over their heads.
My path as a freelance writer landed me in Pueblo in 2014: a city I had only visited a few times because my boyfriend is here, a place the national media often refers to as “flyover country,” a city that shares many of the same social problems as other former industrial towns across the country: high poverty and crime rates, few job opportunities, failing schools, the opioid crisis, hospital closures.
But in the years that I’ve been reporting about what it’s like to live in Pueblo, a city so different than the rest of the Front Range to the north, I’ve tried to write about the people here who are working to make a difference in the city. These are the untold stories that needed to be told on a national level, to show people around the country that you can’t stereotype people by poverty or unemployment statistics.
In the years since I’ve been here, despite the so-called Pueblo problems, the same ones that as a former state hospital and Parkview nurse told me, “made Pueblo come to a screeching halt after so many people lost their jobs at the mill, and made them feel so hopeless” are being challenged. Residents are forming neighborhood watches across the city—from the Blocks to Bessemer to the East Side, Facebook is being used to connect people who might not otherwise know each other, who share the same interest in protecting themselves and fostering strong neighborhoods. State Rep. Daneya Esgar and State Senator Leroy Garcia, both hometown heroes, have regular town hall meetings about Black Hills Energy rates. You see them shopping at Safeway or grabbing dinner at the Irish Pub.
The national media often portray working-class towns like Pueblo, the ones that don’t share in the wealth of boomtowns like Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and even Colorado Springs, with a black cloud overhead, so heavy that things can’t possibly change.
But they can, slowly. As an outsider, I’ve seen it.
Though drivers still throw out trash out of cars as they speed down Abriendo, there have also been community clean-up days, residential trash service is now a requirement, and the city is picking up the old furniture, mattresses, and beer bottles that used to line Red Creek Road. Local businesses and schools volunteer at transitional and low-income housing so that the families and children there share holidays with the rest of us.
And of course, most recently, teachers are striking, for better pay and better schools. Pueblo is going to choose a mayor for the first time.
In short, people here care. They are tending their community gardens, calling in suspicious houses with people coming and going who they don’t recognize, installing clean-up bags for pets in neighborhood parks, having clean-up days on the reservoir trails, and organizing local artisan shows. They are taking action.
That’s the new narrative to counter the old and why the signs that dot the city that read “Pray for Pueblo” need an adjustment of just one word. Replace “pray” with “pull” and you tell a new story: people who are pulling for their town and working one person at a time to actively change it.
25 by 50: A new series intersecting the voices, people, and stories of Southern Colorado. In 2018, PULP will be taking a look at the region we call home to examine, challenge and highlight what it means to live in this part of the state. We will be asking national writers, journalists, and local voices to start a discussion on what’s been called the “hardest place to live in Colorado.”
Jill Rothenberg is a freelance writer who has written for the Washington Post, CNN, Vice, Forbes, and Runners World, and others. Find her at www.jillrothenberg.com