The northeast corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue has always been the heart of downtown Colorado Springs. It used to be the perfect corner for drugstores, which in one form or another have occupied the space for over a century (the header picture shows the corner circa 1882-86). Although the culture has changed since the city’s founding, and the population demographic of downtown ebbs and flows, people have always gravitated toward what is known to locals as “Busy Corner.”
Back at the turn of the last century, Busy Corner was the hub of business transactions of all kinds. The Mining Exchange building wasn’t built until 1902, so up until then people exchanged stocks, made deals, and caught up on the local news by gathering there. Anyone who wanted to take a picture of the new Antlers Hotel only had to take a few steps off the corner to get a grand view of the hotel with Pikes Peak in the background.
By the early 1920s, the streetcar system had been up and running for 20 years, and its wires crisscrossed downtown Colorado Springs as it carried travelers from one end of the city to the other, with Busy Corner right at its heart. People gathered there to share gossip and trade stories with others. The downtown area’s taller profile started to emerge as multi-story buildings replaced their shorter counterparts. The big snowstorm of 1921 didn’t keep people inside for long. They crowded the sidewalk in droves as they watched the icicle-laden streetcars and hardy Stanley Steamers make their way through the deep snow in the street.
The next decade brought advances in motor transportation as Ford made cars more affordable, and soon the main streets of Colorado Springs were lined with them. The downtown area was the place to gather as movie theaters and a wider variety of shops were added within easy walking distance of civic centers like the County Courthouse and City Hall as well as Colorado Springs High School. Instead of being the center of business talk, Busy Corner evolved into the social hub of the city. Local gossip and news became the favored topics of conversation, and young people considered it the best place to meet and hang out.
Somewhere after World War II, Busy Corner’s foot traffic and social caliber began to decline. This degeneration could be due to the construction of the Bon Shopping Center north of downtown in 1953 or the introduction of parking meters in the late 1950s, which many people considered a nuisance. According to one long-time resident, some unsavory influences reached the few blocks to the newly re-named Palmer High School, which started seeing its first gang activity. 1962 brought big changes to Busy Corner, beginning with the demolition of the existing building.
No matter what caused the initial downfall, the construction of the nearby Marian House, which began serving free meals and providing free services to transient people in 1970, may have exacerbated the problem by drawing hundreds of vagrants to the downtown area over the next few decades. According to one former worker, the Marian House used to serve an average of 300 clients until they expanded in 2007; now they serve almost 300,000 meals a year. Business owners have complained about the excessive panhandling, drug use, and loitering on all the downtown street corners, but Busy Corner is by far the most problematic.
The owner of the Seven-Eleven store on Busy Corner has complained to the city multiple times about the vandalism, stealing, and drug deals that occur right outside his doors, and he has resorted to blaring loud holiday music during the winter to keep the vagrants from staying too long. Other business owners near the corner have reported increased incidences of theft, property damage, and blocked ingress and egress to their stores. They have pleaded with City Council to curb deviant behavior and encourage the shopping and social life that used to be what drew people downtown.
The City Council responded to this outcry with ordinances such as #9.2.111, which prohibits aggressive solicitation, and #9.2.112 ,which prohibits sitting or lying down in commercial districts, but even with these statutes in place, the downtown area has become dominated by legal offices, banks, and other commercial buildings, and with the advent of Internet shopping, it may never have the vitality it once had.
The ordinances seem to be having some effect, though, because I took this picture only two weeks after the “sit/lie ban” went into effect, and for the first time I can recall, no one was sitting on the low wall in front of the Seven-Eleven. The homeless population seems to be drifting away from the city’s center.
On Busy Corner, cars speed by where horses and buggies were once parked, and posters in the windows have replaced newsboys hawking The Gazette to local townspeople in front of the drugstore. Making the city streets safer for the public is only one step toward the downtown area returning to its former glory, but are these ordinances enough? Only time will tell.