Teri Orr: Park City is upside down. How do we recapture our sense of community?
We consider the Fourth of July weekend a marker for the fullness of summer — picnics and produce abundant. Yet this year somehow amid the expectation of such ease and predictability we are tip-toeing from day to day. The rains have come to the picnics and the cold winds of winter have refused to become memory.
Yet the beauty of all that resulted in such lush green it is a magical slightly surreal start to July.
The farm stands have early crops of cherries and berries and apricots — lettuces and herbs and wildflowers. Still, it is a rare night I can leave my windows open. I have yet to switch from my winter bed covering to a lighter summer one. Climate change seems to have hit home. Because while the planet may be warming — this summer locally — is still below average.
And more than any other time I can remember it all feels unsettled. The weather — the politics — the rapid changes continuing in a mining camp that grew from worshiping the metal in the mountains to relying on the mettle of its people. So very many of those people no longer chose to be actively engaged in the politics of place. The hard work of creating a city shifted to the ability to run all those things we said we needed and valued in a small town in the middle of the West. We created a place that now needs new ways to sustain the quality of life we wanted.
Open space in these parts has always meant so much more than unfenced land. It has been a metaphor for our shared desire for fierce independence fence post to our interdependence. We need our neighbors in bad times and good — we just don’t want them too close. Hardworking, self-reliant and quick to help those in need are all characteristics of a Western personality. So is physical and emotional distance.
Over the past 40 years Park City had so many opportunities to fail. From the collapse of the mines in ’79 to the collapse of the national economy numerous times. There was a certain lawlessness of spirit all that time melded to an overarching Golden Rule of care. We grew our church communities more quickly for decades than we grew our government budgets or open space. We wanted/needed those weekly gatherings and touchstones to remind us that, for all the control we wished to impose on the land and shape of the setting — there were greater powers at work. We needed to remember in song, our gratitude and shared sorrows. And maybe we needed to be reminded to love our neighbors from time to time.
Council meetings and school board meetings were both entertainment and obligation of those paying dues and mortgages to stay here. Fundraisers were for new high school band uniforms, painting the senior center or planting flowers at the women’s shelter. We have exceeded all those expectations as Steven Covey would say and now we have created expectations that can no longer match the abilities of a town of less than 8,000 full-time residents serving more than 100,000 people in peak periods.
No one wants to say we are upside down but … we are upside down and broken.
We cannot continue to grow at the rate we have and be able to expect a reasonable quality of life. It turns out much of the “open space” we have cherished for decades was owned by folks ready to sell. Now those unbuildable steep rock hillsides and grazing lands are approved for dense housing units — many of which are second and third homes for folks who love the image of what we created to attract people here to invest in that dream to help us grow our schools and buses and water system and vibrant nonprofit service community.
Because of our ability to communicate now with a speed unimaginable just a generation ago, we have the additional burden and joy of being the most informed population in the history of history. So we know in an instant the fate of a local climber on Mount Everest just as we learn of the freak summer hail storm in a town in Mexico as it is happening. Anticipating learning the news of the world when the glossy four-color monthly magazine arrived in your physical mailbox seems so quaint now. All the advances in science and how we learn what we learn have us left feeling it is impossible to know where to study and what to study to be useful and productive and of service.
So along comes summer with more light and longer days and warmer temperatures and sweet-smelling flowers. We leave the windows open and we listen to bird songs and children bouncing balls and engaged in water gun fights. We want time to suspend just long enough to regroup, rethink, reconsider how the place we love has changed. And is that change something we want to sustain or is it time to admit we have gotten ourselves — as Obama once said of Biden — “a bit out over our skis.”
To continue to love where we live we need to recognize the kabuki theater we perform with shadows and illusion that we are a well-run town filled with a majority of folks who want the same things. What we need is to hit the pause button and catch up. Over and over I hear the lament we are losing our sense of community from all age groups and corners of the basin. I don’t know how we recapture it but I know it involves speaking up and matching those words with actions. These are the longer days with more light. The very time to consider what we each can do/are willing to do to actively create community. I don’t know what that looks like but I am willing to explore it any Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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