When the international steel-market crashed in the early 1980s my hometown of Pueblo Colorado took a massive hit. The Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) steel mill on the south side of town was long the main industry and thousands were laid off. My grandfather had retired just in time. My family was also lucky that my father chose plumbing as a profession and my mother went into teaching. We were far from rich but we were fortunate enough to avoid the crushing unemployment that hit many of our friends.
So my teenage years were spent in a tragically depressed town where many people went without work and a once-proud infrastructure quickly began to crumble. Things fell apart and people made due with what they could. By the time I was 14-years old I just wanted out. I wanted to get as far away as possible from that decaying place.
Experiencing that kind of crash in those formative years implanted a dystopian stamp on all my experiences of Pueblo since. Even when I go now (which is quite often as I take my children to see their grandparents) I can’t help but to see it in that somewhat post-apocalyptic light. Admittedly, that isn’t totally fair to Pueblo because it has, in part, recovered. Much of that 1980s decay remains however and it is what I can’t help but see and thus it is a decaying version of the past more than the present that attracts my camera.
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“Another WW2 Vet Passes”
Arriving from the mountains of western Colorado in the 1890s, my mother’s family settled in Pueblo. Our family’s numbers are thinning as the years pass. In 2011 my uncle, a veteran wounded in the Pacific campaign, passed on. His wife accepted the flag and quickly passed on herself.
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“All American 4H Club”
My childhood school mates were always an eclectic mix of rockers, cowboys and wanna-be gangbangers. We came from a wide-range of ethnicities. The cowboy-types typically came from the rural areas surrounding the city where the 4H Club and rodeo competition held a dominate role. A significant number of rural Pueblo kids still join 4H and show their animals at the State Fair grounds every fall.
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“Colorado State Fair Pueblo Colorado”
Several years before Colorado even became a state, Pueblo was the home of the yearly fair where rural Coloradoans came to meet, show and trade. The fairgrounds were just blocks from my home and we could hear every event come and go. In high school the massive Ferris wheel was alternately the perfect place to take a girl or go and drink with the boys.
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“CF&I – 2013″
The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) was one of the giants of late 19th Century and significant chunk of the 20th Century. Owned by John D. Rockefeller, the company was nation-wide but its main steel mill sat not too far from my home on the south-side of Pueblo. My mother’s father worked here for something like 40 years as a railroad-man. Hit by the 1982 steel crash it changed hands several times eventually ending up – as a much reduced operation – in the hands of a Russian steel corporation.
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“Pueblo Union Depot”
Designed by Frank V. Newall, the massive Richardsonian-Romanesque style depot was completed in 1890. By 1920 over 160,000 passengers a year were moving through to locations across the west. A run-down shell I found frightening as a kid, the depot was beautifully restored in late 1980s.
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The 2912 was created by Baldwin in 1944 and rain between La Junta, Colorado and Los Angeles, California. My train-loving kids insist on visiting the engine every time we are in Pueblo. Climbing all over the hulk and ringing its bell is better than anything Disney could offer, it seems.
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Every Friday morning my brother and I would hustle through our paper route then head to The Pantry restaurant with our father for a green chile-laden breakfast. Owner Marty Valdez still cooks at the little place that offers the best place to people-watch the locals.
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Like most of the western USA, typically dry southern Colorado depends on a water supply proving increasingly fickle in the age of climate change. A close look around Pueblo reveals one failed water-based dream after another; from dried up irrigation ditches to housing develops surrounding little lakes that literally dried up and blew away. (Ironically, just two days ago, Pueblo Colorado got such a deluge half the town was momentarily flooded…)
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Pueblo will forever be tied to its manufacturing past, its rail connections and its largely blue-collar workforce – and that is where it can thrive. Pueblo has capitalized on the “new energy economy”, becoming an exporter of wind turbines, a center for steel recycling and a center for other “green” technologies. Using those as a footing the city is seeing steady revitalization.