I drive through No Man's Land every day.
On this stretch of West Colorado Avenue, the same scenes play out ad infinitum. A car bobbing through potholes along dark, narrow lanes, then swerving sharply to avoid some poor guy riding his bike along the nonexistent shoulder. Women in sweatpants with flustered expressions, trying to drag a stroller or a shopping cart over a chunk of broken pavement where a sidewalk should be. Cop cars crowding the drive of a dilapidated motel. Men, women, dogs and the occasional kid, clustered on landscaped edges of the Safeway parking lot with cardboard signs. Cigarette butts, plastic vodka bottles, and fast food bags rolling about.
The script seems set. But there's a lot of important people in distant board rooms, trying to rewrite it.
No Man's Land is roughly defined as the area on and surrounding West Colorado Avenue between the edge of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs — from 31st Street to the sign near the Rainbow Lodge and Inn. Most of the land along the strip belongs to El Paso County, though the abysmal road is actually maintained by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
But many people refer to No Man's Land as a larger area, the 1½ miles of road extending from 31st to the U.S. Highway 24 bypass in Manitou, as the entire stretch plays host to similar problems: sidewalks that abruptly halt, asphalt that's falling to bits, crime, drug issues, panhandling. Some issues are related to the proximity to Fountain Creek, long a popular spot for homeless campers, and to an abundance of aging mom-and-pop motels, which often rent by the week or month to impoverished tenants.
Other issues stem from the patchwork of jurisdictions: In addition to the county, Manitou and Colorado Springs own pieces of property here. Strange little enclaves like this are challenging to police, difficult for developers to zone projects into, and often overlooked when governments are budgeting for infrastructure repairs.
For thousands of people, though, there's no overlooking this area. Colorado Avenue is a popular route for Manitoids like myself, and for tourists that flood our little town at the base of Pikes Peak. The No Man's Land stretch supports an average of 23,000 daily trips, and provides access to about 75 businesses. It's home to mid-range motels, popular restaurants, pot shops and retail stores.
So naturally, county officials, city officials, neighborhood representatives and business owners have worked for several years to change this place. By as early as 2017's end, $15 million from the voter-approved Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax is expected to have fixed the road from 31st Street to the U.S. 24 bridge. This "Westside Avenue Action Plan" — now in its second phase, and expected to be finalized in late 2015 — is actually being developed with $3.4 million from CDOT.
County Commissioner Sallie Clark says she believes the project will be a first step in revitalizing this part of her district. She adds that it will likely draw other improvements and redevelopment by private investors.
Which sounds exciting enough. But to get there, how far do they have to go, and who stands to lose? That's what I'm looking to find out when I step out of the car and wander around No Man's Land with photographer Bradley Flora on a recent Wednesday morning.
The first person we see in the Safeway parking lot — other than the occasional customer popping out of his car and walking with purpose toward the store — is a young woman in a pink coat with a fur-lined hood pulled up over her head. She carries a cardboard sign that says she's pregnant.
She shyly agrees to speak to me. After being homeless here for four years, she says, she recently received assistance from a veterans charity that helped her get a low-cost apartment. The money's run out now, though, and she's about to be back on the streets. She says she just found out she's expecting.
Unfortunately, I don't hear much more of her story. She clams up quickly when my photographer snaps a few shots of her sign, saying, "I don't want to do this," and promptly marches away.
She's not the only one. We stop into Daylight Donuts, where the smell of sugar meets us at the door, and a few gray-haired men sit in orange chairs for a morning pow-wow. But the owner, a slight woman, shakes her head when asked about the neighborhood.
More friendly is 48-year-old Ron Walters, whose face is cut up and whose eyes wander the parking lot with a sense of longing. He says he's from Indiana, but came here from Nebraska with his girlfriend.
"I can't find her," he says, forlornly. "She knows this town, I don't."
Walters says he used to do chrome plating on cars before he lost his job. Now he just wanders around the country and lives on the streets. He says the beauty here reminds him of New Mexico, but he doesn't know much more about it. He asks for a dollar for coffee — Bradley gives him one — and he's on his way.
Next, we stop by Red Rocks Liquors in the same shopping center, where Mario Ramirez, a long-time employee, says he isn't sure if the neighborhood has gotten better or worse. He notes that the cops found a dead body up the road a few months ago — the man, who was not a crime victim, caused problems because law enforcement officials weren't originally sure whose jurisdiction he was in — but says he doesn't have many problems. The store opens at 9, and business is steady already.
We walk west up the road and tuck behind a car wash and the local Sonic into a woodsy clearing by the creek that used to be a popular camping spot. The place is littered with little more than fall leaves these days. A single doe looks up from a patch of grass to stare at us. On a later stroll along the creek, we'll find a single camp — just a few belongings in shopping carts and piles, covered with leaves and dirt.
West of the Sonic, the sidewalk ends. We trot along the narrow edge of the road, cars whizzing past.
Under the Action Plan, Colorado Avenue will see the addition of sidewalks and streetlights. It will also likely be cut from four lanes to two lanes and a center turn lane. An 80-year-old bridge will likely be replaced, and stormwater culverts enlarged. In all likelihood, the stretch will also be spruced up in a similar fashion to the new streetscapes that have done so much for Manitou Springs. You know the drill: street art, park benches, bus shelters, planters.
Word on the street is that developers are interested in this new, cleaner, less confusing No Man's Land. One idea that's come up among local players is that No Man's Land would be an ideal place for a multi-story parking garage. Tourists could park there and take shuttles to Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs — perhaps uniting the strip in a single business district that would have similar weight and influence to downtown. There could be fancy apartments and new businesses sharing space in the same "mixed-use" developments.
The area would be called by the name supporters are already using: "The Avenue."
Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder is among those who would like to see large swaths of No Man's Land redeveloped. His town has already designated its share of the stretch as an Urban Renewal Area. Asked if he thinks property owners here would be willing to sell, he laughs.
"Everything is for sale," he says, if the price is right. He adds, "You want properties to gravitate to their highest and best use."
Past the apartments and motels, and the handmade signs reading, "Beautiful Handmade Crosses $2.00 and $5.00," Bob's Westside Liquors, notable for both its distinctive blinking sign and its drive-through service, sits next to Amanda's Fonda, probably the region's most famous Mexican restaurant. Farther down the road, at the entrance to Manitou Springs, is the neatly kept Rainbow Lodge and Inn, a set of brightly painted stucco buildings surrounded by mature pines.
Eric Bala, who has owned the place for 16 years, comes out to greet us. He says he's excited about the projects planned, and he thinks it's already gotten safer here. "Before," he says, "You had people walking at night screaming at each other."
Downtown Manitou Springs, he notes, was a ghost town before it redid its streetscapes. Now he's had six months of solid business from tourists attracted by the little downtown's quaint charm. Soon, he says, he thinks the area nearer to him will see a similar renaissance.
"I suspect, probably, probably, it's not going to be No Man's Land," he says. "Someone else is going to claim that."
Across the street, sitting outside their consignment store, Unique to Antique LLC, Travis and Marie Garrigan have a different take.
All the money going to infrastructure strikes them as another way for the government to spend money on something unnecessary. Sidewalks, they say, aren't heavily used, and anyone who really wants to walk or ride a bike can use the Midland Trail that runs along the same route as Colorado Avenue.
As for the homeless people, the Garrigans say they don't mind them. With eight kids between them, they say they're pretty hard up, too. They help whomever they can.
"If our biggest community problem is bums," says Travis, "I'm sure we could feed 'em and clothe 'em and give 'em enough wheels and send 'em on their way."
The couple thinks that when Colorado Avenue is redone, they will likely lose the dirt plot of government land outside their store that currently provides all their customer parking. It's just the latest issue they've had. An earlier plan to expand into a bigger space was thwarted, they say, by Manitou Springs government, which layered on so many bureaucratic requirements that they finally had to give up and lose tens of thousands of dollars they had spent renovating the new space.
To them, it seems the government is always willing to help the business owners who need it the least. People like them are left out. And a redo of No Man's Land sounds a lot like economic gentrification to them — a big developer buyout.
"We'll take a check and happily go," says Travis, who towers over his slight wife. "This isn't sacred ground to us."
"But do it fair," Marie adds.
We turn and walk east back down Colorado Avenue, passing the newly renovated building that houses the popular Adam's Mountain Café. Back at the Safeway shopping center, we come upon 61-year-old Arthur Romero and 49-year-old "Boxcar" Lukat sitting along a curb asking for change.
Romero, who has startling blue eyes, says he moved here from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to be closer to family a few months ago. Lukat has been here for years. They stick together because it isn't safe to camp alone. And they don't camp along the creek these days, because the brush is no longer heavy enough to hide their camps. Romero says police stop and talk to him often, but he doesn't mind. They're nice, he says.
"They even stop by here and see how we're doing," he says.
Not everyone is happy with the panhandling common here. Welling Clark is the president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors and leader of the Avenue Task Force, a group that has pushed the revamp of No Man's Land, which includes representatives from Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs, El Paso County, and neighborhood/business groups. He says the task force has been working for two years, along with the Avenue Merchants, the area's business group, to discourage people from giving to panhandlers. They say the money mostly goes to drugs and alcohol.
Using police, fire, ambulance and emergency room records, Clark says, his group has determined that the average local cost for a homeless person who gets drunk and is sent to the hospital is $2,970.
Clark (who's Commissioner Sallie Clark's husband) also says not all panhandlers are homeless — a point also made by Colorado Springs police officers — and some are actually professionals. He shows photos taken at a house that was searched by sheriff's deputies and Manitou Springs police in recent years. The walls were covered in cardboard panhandler signs and, ominously, photos of children.
Clark says that if people want to help the homeless, they'd do better to give to a charity that serves them. The task force has had campaigns to that effect, and plans a sign campaign in the coming months. In 2013, El Paso County commissioners passed a resolution supporting their efforts.
Lukat, who speaks haltingly, doesn't deny that he's a drinker. It's just one of his problems these days. He says he's been using a wheelchair for a few years now, ever since a girlfriend hit him in the back of the head with a cast-iron skillet that left "gray areas in [his] brain." He says he also has pancreatic cancer, but he's not worried about it.
"I ain't afraid to die," he says.
Life has been rough for him recently. He says he was kicked out of the Safeway where he was trying to cash a check because he "scared the customers." And Romero often struggles to push him down Colorado Avenue because of the lack of sidewalks.
"We're just trying to make it, you know?" Lukat says. "Day by day."
We head into the Grandview neighborhood, north of Colorado Avenue and west of 31st Street. New condos and renovated old beauties sit next to bombed-out houses that sink into the earth. One of my coworkers lives here, and while her street is usually quiet and pleasant, she once arrived to discover a drug addict asleep in one of her bedrooms.
The neighborhood seems quiet today — not many people are walking the streets on a Wednesday afternoon. We run into a jovial couple fixing up the landscaping outside their new condo — empty nesters who seem unaware of the area's issues.
And maybe that's not surprising. While Grandview sees impacts from No Man's Land, it's surrounded by areas that are steadily improving. The popular real estate website, Zillow, predicts Old Colorado City home values — which haven't always been a great bet — will increase 2.7 percent next year, slightly better than Colorado Springs as a whole. Predictions for Manitou Springs are even rosier, with a 4.5 percent increase expected.
Naturally, some would like to see similar outcomes for No Man's Land and Grandview. But losing motels, cheap apartments and low-cost homes wouldn't be good for everyone. Many poor residents catch the No. 3 bus — one of the busiest transit routes in the city — from here to downtown. It runs every half-hour on weekdays.
Mayor Snyder says his town recently closed a loophole that had allowed motels to essentially act as apartments. He says its not safe for people to try to live in rooms meant for tourists — they don't have appropriate fire exits, and people often cook on dangerous hot plates. But he says he's also aware that Manitou has a shortage of low-income housing. Colorado Springs recently conducted an affordable housing survey and found it had the same problem.
Snyder says that perhaps there's a way to make it easier for owners of at least some of these old motels that no longer serve the needs and wants of modern travelers to remodel their buildings into apartments that meet code requirements. Such a plan could help the poor — and he suspects that there will be more people in need in the coming years.
"Where do you think all these people that are being shrunk out of the middle class are going?" he asks. "They're not going into the high end."
Down West Pikes Peak Avenue, we spot 73-year-old Carl Wright repairing a cross-link fence at the Colorado Springs Shrine Club. He's a slight man, his plain clothes punctuated by American flag suspenders, his hair white under a trucker's cap on which he's drawn a mountain scene. Wright says he's been the janitor here for 11 years and a licensed minister since 1968.
Asked about the area, he says he knows that people worry about the poor and homeless, fearing that they'll bring crime. But to him, it just seems like a shame that anyone would have to live on so little money — it seems like a loss of the country he once served in the military.
"The earth has been taken away from the people who need it," he tells me, his blue eyes holding mine with unsettling sincerity. "I think everyone on the planet should take care of everyone on the planet," he adds.
We linger with Wright by his old truck, listening to his story of growing up on a farm in Arkansas, looking at his hand-carved walking sticks and drawings, taking in his unique brand of spirituality.
"Everyone who really cares and everyone who really prays is caring with us and praying with us right now," he tells us.
Wright is taken with Bradley, and tries to give him a walking stick when we leave. Bradley politely turns him down, noting that journalists aren't supposed to accept gifts. Wright looks crestfallen. He calls at him as we walk away, asking him to come back sometime, to talk with him again.
Bradley and I drop back onto Colorado Avenue and stop by a local restaurant.
The owner agrees to talk to me, so long as I don't reveal her name or business. She says she's afraid to aggravate the nearby residents, whom she already blames for breaking her windows more than once and scattering drug needles around her property.
Asked about the neighborhood, she smirks.
"We have to chain the trash can so they don't steal it," she says. "Does that tell you anything?"
In the years she's had a business here, she says, she's found drug addicts hiding on her property — she thinks the meth problem here is growing — as well as abandoned stolen cars. She's called the police routinely — a pain, she says, because of the mix of jurisdictions.
"No one's sure of which response team is going to come to us," she says.
We leave the woman to her customers and walk farther west down Colorado Avenue, before pausing at a set of white buildings offering weekly rentals. A group of young men lingers outside. A few of them are painting the exterior. A couple carry a large white bucket with a pot plant in it.
One young man, who identifies himself only as "Texas," tells me he likes it here, that it feels "almost country-like."
At this point, I've gotten used to this disparity in descriptions of No Man's Land. People here can't seem to agree whether it is dangerous or just quirky.
As a regular here, even I have this problem. Most of the time I feel safe in No Man's Land, but there have been times when I've been scared. One night a couple years ago, the same man knocked on my car window twice — once in front of the Walgreens and once in front of the Safeway — asking me to help him with his broken-down van.
Other times I've simply been disgusted, like the bright evening a few months ago when, driving home in rush hour traffic, I saw a man about a half a block east of No Man's Land flagrantly pissing on a bus bench.
There is occasionally a high-profile crime here. In 2013, Howard York was found guilty of killing Crysta Chisholm, a 32-year-old mother of four, and stuffing her body under his trailer; he was also charged with using a machete to rob Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza in the Safeway complex.
But because of the different jurisdictions, it's difficult to tell how much crime is here. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office does keep statistics, but doesn't include any calls within the city's jurisdiction. In 2012, it had 115 cases and calls from No Man's Land. This year, as of the end of October, the number had increased to 129. The cases pursued range from drug offenses to traffic calls to theft. It's perhaps worth noting that in 2012 there were four assaults, and in 2014 there have been 10.
Colorado Springs Police Officer Brett Iverson, a member of the Homeless Outreach Team, points out the area doesn't rank as a top spot for calls for service. Iverson, who grew up in Manitou, says he's worked the area for years, and feels comfortable here. For the past two years, he says, two officers have been assigned here and dealt with the problems — mostly nuisances like panhandling and campfires. He feels like many of the issues have cleared up.
"I think it's just the diligence of not only our team and then the other two officers up there making contact, and maybe just people moving around," he says. "The [homeless] people that wanted help, got help."
But Welling Clark says he's concerned about many issues here, particularly prostitution. Massage parlors here have been busted in the past for that and for human trafficking. Clark says a big part of the problem is lax regulation, which could get worse.
Currently, an expiring law could mean that non-home rule governments like El Paso County would have no option to oversee parlors, which the state also doesn't regulate. Clark is working with county officials, state regulators, and human trafficking experts to try to ensure better enforcement is possible in the future.
"That's going to be one step forward to reclaiming the No Man's Land/Avenue area," he says.
Traveling farther up the road, we stop at what has to be the most confusing junction along this stretch of Colorado Avenue.
At the base of the Columbia Road bridge, which is narrow and lacks sidewalks on one side, Columbia Road meets Colorado Avenue meets a strange diagonal access road meets an entrance to an RV park meets the Midland Trail. The trail has nowhere to go from here, and cyclists and walkers must traverse this bizarre and dangerous intersection, head down a block, and cross Ridge Road before they can reconnect with the trail.
Under the Action plan, this missing link in the Midland Trail will be added. For now, we watch an older couple cycling, smiles spread across their faces, until they have to stop. They cautiously try to cross.
Then we spot something orange heading under the bridge — a construction cap.
Alvin Maes and Tony Macias are bridge inspectors with the Colorado Department of Transportation, and they're here to make sure the aging Columbia bridge is still up to snuff. We follow them under the rusted and cob-webbed structure, jumping along rocks to keep our feet from getting wet.
Maes says a bridge usually lasts 75 to 80 years, which means this one, built in 1934, should be on its last leg. Despite that, he says, it's not in bad condition structurally, though it could probably stand to have its deck replaced.
Still, the bridge only scores a 55.4 percent sufficiency rating — most bridges score around 80, he says. The problem: "It's not wide enough for the amount of traffic and it needs other components."
Like sidewalks, for instance.
"If anything, they might rehabilitate it," Macias adds. (Of course, they probably won't. The PPRTA plan is to replace this bridge.)
Bradley and I thank the men for their time, and wander back through the neighborhoods. We stop to chat with an auto mechanic, pass an old mom-and-pop motel that was recently boarded up, and wave to Lukat and Romero, who are still sitting on their corner.
Driving back to Manitou, I slow down by the Columbia bridge, where a police car and fire truck have blocked off the outer westbound lane due to a two-car crash.
The car in front appears to have plowed into the side of the bridge — easy to do for a driver unaccustomed to the narrow curved lane. It looks like the car behind him didn't react quickly enough and plowed into him.
A young couple sits along the railing of the bridge, their legs dangling, their faces drawn. They look eager to be on their way.