Greening Our Very Own "Decaying Industrial Empire"

Ten years ago, my husband and I moved back to his childhood home, a small town in a deep valley in Colorado's Southern Rocky mountains. Our friends assumed we'd buy some acreage and live out where we could see coyotes, golden eagles, and elk every day. Instead, we moved into a tiny turn-of-the-previous century brick duplex on a postage stamp-sized lot two blocks from downtown, where we could walk to almost everything needed. We rejoiced in rarely starting our car and in getting to know the place the old-fashioned and intimate way--on foot.

But sharing our 854-square-foot half-of-a-historic-duplex with our two home offices and our dogs, first a perennially energetic Shar-Pei and then a Great Dane who loved to sleep, but whose bed took up most of my office floor was a challenge. Too, Richard had an entire storage unit full of woodworking and stone-cutting machines that cried out for a home. So we began looking for a place he could have a shop.

We found it right across the alley, where a crumbling old brick shop building bigger than the entire duplex sat in one corner of a half-block of abandoned, decaying formerly industrial property. It was no prize: the shop's once-ornamental brick parapets had tumbled down, its tin roof leaked in a dozen places, and the inside was filthy and smelled of oil. A six-foot-high chain link fence topped by sagging barbed wire surrounded the property, which was blanketed with invasive weeds and assorted rusted industrial junk. Along one edge, a thread of urban, channelized creek ran ruler-straight between dusty banks dotted with weeds and chunks of concrete and waste asphalt. Naturally, we bought the place immediately.

Our home, pre-restoration

Richard set about fixing up the shop building and helped me set to work on the creek. Ten years of weeding and planting tiny native shrub sprouts later, "our" block of creek winds sinuously under a cover of willow and other natives, and is visited by violet-green swallows in summer and American dippers in winter. The shop building is light and tight and home to Richard's sculpture studio. And what once was a blighted stretch of decaying industrial junk now sprouts our house, heated by the sun in winter and cooled by valley breezes in summer, plus our kitchen garden, and a yard restored to the mountain bunchgrass and fringed sage prairie that would have flourished here long before the railroad birthed our small town. The wildflowers stop traffic in summer, and feed four species of hummingbirds, along with butterflies and native bees. Now when we laughingly refer to the place as our "decaying industrial empire," people who didn't see it before don't know what we mean.

It's true that you can't go home again. But returning to Richard's childhood roots gave us the gift of being able to give back and re-green the place we love.

An Indian paintbrush--one of the many native plants we've nurtured in our yard.
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