Almost 14 years ago, my husband and I leapt off a traditional career path to move home to the small town in south-central Colorado where he had lived as a child. Searching for a more sustainable lifestyle and creative inspiration, we squeezed our household, including college-age daughter, Molly, one rambunctious dog, and two home offices into a tiny historic duplex in a formerly wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood within walking distance of downtown.
By the end of our first summer, it was clear we needed more space, including a place for Richard’s storage-unit-full of tools and my garden. So while Molly worked her summer job as a barista and Richard traveled on consulting work, I wrote and prowled nearby neighborhoods searching for a chunk of affordable property. When I stopped to peer into a grimy window in the deserted brick building right across the alley I had passed regularly but never really looked at before, I found the place of our dreams.
The open inside was bigger than the entire duplex, just right for Richard’s sculpture studio. I called friends in real estate and learned that the building sat at one corner of half-a-block of abandoned industrial property, offering frontage on a small urban creek and a view of the nearby peaks, plus plenty of space for a house and garden. It was perfect for us.
Despite appearances. The shop was filthy, its brick parapets and chimneys crumbling; its expansive slope of metal roof leaked. Knee-high weeds and rusting debris choked its sprawling yard, enclosed by a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence topped by three strands of sagging barbed wire. Its block of urban creek, channelized a century before by railroad construction, ran ruler-straight between banks that sprouted chunks of waste concrete, asphalt, and more weeds.
Undaunted, we scraped together a down payment, and soon became the proud owners of what we only half-jokingly call our “decaying industrial empire.”
We’ve spent the decade-plus since making ourselves at home. Healing our much-abused land came first. So before we detached and rolled up the chain-link fence, coiled the barbed wire, yanked the posts, and donated all of that to the city public works department; before Richard cleared the old shop building down to its graceful timber-frame and brick bones and began fixing it up; before we filled construction dumpsters with large debris to clear a space for our house-to-be; before we began building that house, we set to restoring the native plant community, scraped away more than a century before when the railroad sold our bit of river-gravel-topped mesa just off downtown to a lumberyard, which built its millwork shop there. (In the 1920s, the property became a bulk-oil distribution company, complete with a siding where tanker cars pumped their viscous cargo into storage tanks).
Today, the half-block that was so ugly when we bought it–or it adopted us, I’m not sure which–that long-time neighbors remember little about the place, boasts a native meadow yard that blooms in a traffic-stopping display of wildflowers in summer. Hummingbirds zip through to sip nectar, butterflies flit from flower to flower, and our organic kitchen garden, sprouting from raised beds where the above-ground oil tanks once stood, feeds our household and the neighbors, as well as mountain bluebirds, violet-green swallows, a garter snake fat from eating pillbugs, and so far, we’ve identified more than a dozen kinds of native bees.
I’ll tell the story of how we “re-greened” this battered chunk of property, and the gifts it has given us, in subsequent posts. Next time: Weeding and Selecting Pioneers in Restoration
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