November 21st, 2004



Someone asked me why I like Boulder.

Thursday evening Van took me to Hapa sushi. I tried a roll I'd never had before - whitefish, salmon, mandarin orange, and a chive - turned out to be a great combination. Seated near us at the bar was a waitress Van knew, and the one who served us also knew him, and gave us a big discount. But it's not just him; the last time I visited Boulder, in August, Liza took me to Hapa sushi, and a similar thing happened.

Then we went to the Boulder Theater to see a sanskrit band. One of the people at the ticket desk decided she liked us and gave us two tickets for the price of one. The next morning, I had breakfast at the Walnut Cafe. Other people at the counter were having conversations with the staff, and I got included in a couple of the conversations. I gave my waitress a CD when I left.

That night, I was at the Boulder Theater again, to see the Everyone Orchestra, and while they played a long jam, I thought about how Boulder feels like a community, where everyone is connected, but you don't have to be from here to be part of it. If you're here, you're included. As I was thinking this, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the woman from the ticket desk from the night before, she'd come in to see part of the show and recognized me and wanted to say hi. When the show ended, I ran into her again by the door, we talked for a bit, and I got a hug and a flyer about an African drumming & dancing thing the next evening that she was performing at. I went to the studio and found the Boulder parallel of Ibrahima Camara's community in Boston in the 90s.

Which brings me to music. I love music cities, where music is a big part of the local culture, and there's a wide variety. Where national and international acts like to come play, and local musicians thrive. I'm a little spoiled by Boston, so even New York disappooints me when it comes to music, but sometimes little cities have far more than their fair share, and this is one of them. The Boulder Theater's schedule is as exciting as the Iron Horse in Northampton, Palookaville in Santa Cruz (I heard that closed?), Tipitina's in New Orleans, and local acts compare well with the ones from out of town. It doesn't take much time or effort to find local bands and musicians, reggae, bluegrass, funk, rock, folk...

It takes more than the presence of willing musicians to make a music scene succeed. You need audiences - a sizable population of people who like to go see live music regularly, instead of sticking to movies or staying home. You need venues. And locally controlled, preferably noncommercial radio.

Radio matters to me, and I like places better if they have better radio. In Boston, I can fill up my car stereo presets with great local stations, playing a wide variety of music, both popular and obscure, with local bands and local commentary. Some of them have locally produced community and public affairs programming, too. Outside of a narrow swatch of the northeast (Boston, western MA, Connecticut, and metro New York), I've only found one other place in the country where I can fill my presets with good stations like this: The Colorado front range. KGNU Boulder, KRFC Fort Collins, KCSU Fort Collins, KUNC Fort Collins/Greely, KUVO Denver - there's even one of the few commercial music stations in the country that I actually like, 99.5 The Mountain. It's not unusual to have my choice, at one time, of NPR news, Democracy Now, bluegrass, jazz, techno, or 80s music, as I flip through the dial. That's home to me.

I was born on the Mediterranean, lived a while on the shores of Lake Victoria, and have been in Boston on the Atlantic for most of my life. Most of the places I've visited often - San Francisco, Seattle, DC, and so on - are on large bodies of water. Water gives me my sense of place. I'm always aware of what direction the nearby big water is from me. Being far inland, not being aware of an ocean or sea or great lake near enough to go to, has always made me feel a bit unsettled.

Colorado has no large bodies of water, but the first time I came through here, in 1998, I noticed that the line of mountains running down the middle could substitute. A few visits later, and I've gotten used to it. It doesn't work in western Colorado, where the mountains surround you, and gradually climb down and get more scattered. It's beautiful there, but definitely inland. Here on the front range, where the eastern plains stay flat right up to the mostly north-south line of sudden mountains, I can look to them for direction.

Haifa, the city where I was born, has nature. Not just parks and landscaped rocks, but real, wild nature, right inside the city. Our family lived on one of the spurs of mount Carmel, overlooking the sea. Between us and the next spur of the mountain towards downtown, was a wadi - a small narrow valley. Completely undeveloped. You could hike down to the beaches through scrabbly dirt trails between centuries-old olive trees. Remains of prehistoric people were found in rock caves there. The edge of the wadi was about three blocks from our house.

I miss having nature in my city. Boston has some great parks and lagoons, but nothing like a wadi. I longed for it when I visited Edinburgh, and saw that huge cliff in the middle of the city. In Boulder, the wilderness isn't really in the city, it's beside it. But it's a small city. About ten blocks from downtown is a trailhead, leading into rocky mountain wilderness. You can be on red rock cliffs, no people around you, looking down at the city, then walk 15 minutes and be in the pedestrial mall in the center of Boulder.

I like the politics, and the liberal atmosphere.

I can be at a concert, notice a guy and a girl, realize the guy is scoping me out, and the girl spins into the arms of her girlfriend. I like that feeling, of a place where it's not reasonable to assume people's sexuality, a feeling you get in places like Northampton and Davis Square.

And then, on the way out of the venue, I run across a table for an environmental group that's trying to build a network of musicians and fans to use music to promote environmental protection projects on a local level. Democracy Now is broadcast on two different radio stations you can get here, twice a day - more than in New York, where the show is produced. The day before I got here, one of the big news stories was about a high school talent show that got a visit from the Secret Service. Some students formed a band called Coalition of the Willing, and planned to play Bob Dylan's Master's of War. The Secret Service wondered if the lyrics were intended as a threat on Bush's life! The school principal, and the town, backed the students wholeheartedly.

My first time in Colorado, on a road trip in 1998, I stayed a night with Jonah who was then living in Erie. The next day I drove through Boulder and on into the mountains. My next trip here was in 2003, and I was stunned by the look of the place. In 1998, Erie had been a small cluster of settled blocks in the middle of a vast emptiness. By 2003, the I-25 corridor has half-filled with sprawl, subdivisions, office parks, and strip malls, and it's not stopping. The vast emptiness that once surrounded Erie will probably be all filled in by the end of the decade. When you drive up US-36 from Denver towards Boulder, through Westminster and Broomfield, open land exists in islands surrounded by new development and subdivisions being built...
... until you crest the hill leading into Boulder County. You're back in wilderness, with Boulder off in the distance. Not once, not twice, but at least three times recently, when I mention sprawl, people have volunteered to me that "that land is owned by Boulder county and they'll never let it be developed." I had already assumed that, but it's nice to know everyone else is so confident about it.

There's a lot of newageyness here, speculative yet passionate dynamic spirituality, aka "flakyness". A comedian I saw at Penny Lane in August said he'd heard some part of town described as "the ghetto" section of Boulder. What happens in a Boulder ghetto, he wondered? You're walking down the street and someone does a drive-by meditation on you? You see addicts in the alley, strung out on wheatgrass? The other night one of the musicians I saw, after the show, was telling his friends his theory of how if we all got spiritually connected, government would be unnecessary. This is not my stuff, though I find it interesting to be around.

More valuable, though, is the way extremely liberal communities like this manage their environment. I don't just mean wildlife, I mean land use planning, zoning policy, and distribution of tax money. An attention to the needs of the community, and a belief that government should take an active role in guiding the city's structure and development. Republican leaders hate this stuff, big business owners scream and yell about it on the national stage, and even local residents often find it frustrating and annoying. But, it works. Places like this - like Brookline and Cambridge and Northampton, MA, Portland Oregon and Madison Wisconsin, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica - are great places to live, and people flock to them in droves. It's places like this where property values shoot up, and small businesses thrive and proliferate. They stand in stark contrast to the Dallases and Houstons of the country, where personal property trumps planning, developers and national retail chains trump community, and short term private profit determines municipal policy.

This city reminds me a lot of Santa Cruz, another one of my favorite places. It feels about the same size, and has a big university filling it with students. The music culture, the drumming, the mountains right at the edge of the city, the downtown shopping area, the random but fulfilling conversations with strangers - the only thing missing is a beach.

P.S. Get thee to a MoveOn house party near you now! :) They start in 30 minutes (7pm eastern, 4pm pacific). And if you're going, take a look at my list of suggestions - maybe bring a copy with you.

And watch cosmusic - if I get a chance in the next few days, I meant to write something about that Sanskrit rock band I saw a few days ago. Also I've been meaning to make a post there about Colorado radio, since August.