In the 1970s the national craze for urban renewal swept city planners. Urban renewal authority planners targeted the “blighted” sections of the city south of Colorado Avenue for renewal. As happened throughout much of urban America in the 1960s and 1970s, the zeal for renewal meant wholesale destruction of the dense urban fabric that grew organically over decades to be replaced with large scale, institutional structures occupying entire city blocks. And by no coincidence, the landscapes deemed “blighted” were usually minority neighborhoods with low-income housing and a plethora of shops and businesses to serve that community. Colorado Springs was no exception, and the blocks from Sierra Madre Street to Weber Street south of Colorado Avenue, the areas of historically African American concentrations, were bulldozed. In the heart of this zone was the Cotton Club, razed in 1975. Today the city’s legacy to urban renewal are numerous large office buildings, the Pikes Peak Center, the Sun Plaza, the County Courthouse and Jail, and County Office buildings— institutional structures that, in the spirit of modernism, create a clear break from the past and embrace supposed rational progress. The scale and use of these buildings present an imposing, sterile face to the pedestrian. Today’s vibrant pedestrian zone hits an abrupt halt as one walks south on Tejon Street and reaches Colorado Avenue and the urban renewal projects, until shops again pick up three or four blocks south. The Cotton Club and the many other shops in the small-scale buildings that foster human interaction were sacrificed in the name of modernity and a bright vision for a clean urban future. The urban fabric now is interrupted by an abundance of surface parking lots where once stood shops, club, houses, and businesses—the stuff that encourages human mingling and makes a commercial zone function. Much of the early African American neighborhoods are gone, particularly the largest in what was then the southeast of the city. Urban renewal again took some of those as the Lowell neighborhood developed after South Junior High closed in 1983. The neighborhoods around the AT&SF depot were particularly hard hit as clearance slowly removed nearby houses. Housing that remains in the neighborhood along south Cascade Avenue towards Mill Street gives a clue to the character of the old blue-collar districts of the city, even as individual houses continue to be torn down in the downtown.
Generously Submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs