Why is our Green City so White?

Via elephant journal
on Jun 14, 2009
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boulder yoga

Today, I posted a Boulder/green/LOHAS-related blog to Facebook and received the following “riddle.”

what’s the definition of a boulderite? someone who would rather hug a tree than a person of colour.
Waylon Hart Lewis
Waylon Hart Lewis
Actually, as I always say to city folk when they visit, we have a fair amount of diversity, with a strong, vibrant Latino community…and part of the reason we (sadly) don’t have the kind of diversity you see many cities in US is Colorado was, proudly, never a slave state.

That said, Boulder is getting more and more expensive—a side effect of our otherwise-visionary height restrictions and love for Open Space—which is sending our middle and lower classes and young people fleeing to Denver…sad.

Oh, and you think we’re so green? We don’t even have recycle options all along our lovely, green bike path, or in many of our parks, or on most of our mall or at the popular Vic’s and Pekoe shopping centers…we have a long ways to go on that count, too.

Victoria at 12:29pm June 14
well stated Waylon

So why is fair-minded, liberal, progressive, dying-to-be inclusive Boulder so White?

Answer: it’s not.

It’s an accusation that’s bothered me for years. Why? Because, well, it’s glaringly true—especially since all those Californians moved here following the ’89 SF earthquake and tried to turn our rough-around-the-edges Beat Buddhist town into a little Aspen.

Hunh? So are we whitey, or ain’t we? Which is it? Well, both. Allow me to provide some context:

  1. While Boulder may be 84.2 percent “white,” white of course is itself comprised of Jewish, Italian, Scottish, Irish etc…it’s not a bloc.
  2. And by day, Boulder is far more diverse—the above stat doesn’t count the 40,000 University of Colorado undergrads and grads, who of course hail from all parts of the US and our big blue planet.
  3. Boulder doesn’t exclude racial diversity so much as it excludes class diversity. While Boulder, only 20 years ago, was largely made up of cowboys, poor hippies and macrobiotic-eating yogis, real estate’s gone crazy. The house my poor single momma bought for $40K (and sold for what she thought was an incredible $150K, 15 years later) is now worth $850K, par example. Sadly, Boulder’s forward-thinking Open Space plan—whereby Boulderites, starting in the ’60s, bought up surrounding farms to forever-preserve them from Denver’s suburban sprawl—has created a real estate market that makes living in Boulder difficult not only for our strong native Latino community but for many young, lower and middle class Boulderites from staying in our green valley. Including yours truly.
  4. Finally, I’d add that Boulder, while admittedly white as organic local Udi’s artisan bread, makes up for in tolerance and religious diversity what it lacks in racial diversity.
  5. And, finally-finally, I’d remind diversity-missing visitors from the Big Cities that there’s a reason we don’t have a strong indigenous African-American community—Colorado, unlike most of the Eastern United States, was never a slave state.

For a lively, informative, fair-minded discussion of Boulder’s (lack of) diversity, check out the following answers to this question:

Racial Diversity in Boulder?

My partner and I are looking at moving to Boulder, where a white friend originally from D.C. has invited us to move with rave reviews. We are in our late 30s, and expecting our first child. He is Black; I am Jewish and we are both craftspeople and musicians. We are ultra-liberal, Buddhist-leaning, strongly prefer a pedestrian/bikeable community with a clean environment. We are familiar with the “People’s Republic” phenomenon, as we have it here in Takoma Park. We are native to Washington, D.C. where a 1-bedroom condo costs $500,000, so Boulder seems really cheap by comparison.

My main concern is Will we fit in as an interracial couple with a black child, and will our child learn to value different kinds of people? Thanks…

by clicking here, or add your comment below.


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19 Responses to “Why is our Green City so White?”

  1. Xenu says:

    I have another question: are whites the only cultural group who agonize about diversity? Do people of color discuss bringing more whites into their communities to make them more diverse? If not, why not?

  2. sj* says:

    hey xenu, we've got a loOOnngg way to go before that question can be asked or can easily be answered. whites need to get an F'n clue that OWNING a human being was legal in our country less than two hundred years ago!! [in some parts of the world slavery is still under way.] this does NOT get erased over night, nor has the necessary healing been done by whites, african americans or any other group of opressors or oppressed inorder to move forward wholistically. we all need to quit kidding ourselves. slavery is alive and well today and we have a lot of work to do in order to even have healthy dialogue about this. maybe then these questions can start to be asked, discussed and full on healing can take place.

  3. Right, when I lived in Mission HIll, in Boston, the neighboring…uh…neighborhood of Roxbury was always, like, how can we get more whites to move in?

    Seriously, I think it's a good point—when whites move in an area it's derisively (thought understandably) called gentrification, a gray-area term with good/bad connotations.

    Still, I think SJ's point is great—only one or two generations ago, we finally took down those "white" and "colored" signs at train stations, etc…we've come a long way in a short time, as a nation (see: President Obama) but the wounds are still very, very fresh.

  4. Xenu says:

    I think we were talking about Boulder. Last I heard there was no slavery in Boulder. Perhaps someone of color should weigh in on why they don't want to live in almost-all-white Boulder? Do you think the answer will be a racist one?

  5. Xenu says:

    Don't you think it's presumptuous and racist for white people to speak for (on behalf of) people of color? Especially as to how "fresh" the wounds are?

  6. Xenu says:

    Pretty vague. Instead of generalizations can you provide some specific facts about Boulder?

  7. Mathew Gerson says:


    of course.

  8. docgee says:

    I moved to Boulder from L. A. and left after two years to return to the Brain Trust aka, the city of the angels — all for a number of reasons, not the least of which pertained to the glaring issue of "diversity" in Boulder and on the UC campus.

    My question to the folks considering the move: How important is an "open system" to you in raising your child? Small towns by their make up are typically more closed then open in population mix and Boulder is no exception. Liberal ideas are one thing, experience is another. And for all of the talk of Boulder diversity and open-mindedness, there's nothing to compare to a large megalopolis to raise the high bar of negotiating information flow between ethnic, racial, political and financially disparate groups. Demographically speaking, Boulder's diversity pales by comparison to D.C.

    That said, I found Boulder a lively music town with an art community more focused on craft and regional fine art than on the urban international art scene. (If you want diversity — head into Denver which will give you a better chance for "mixed tastes.")

    Good luck in making your choice.

  9. Sarah says:

    It's funny to hear you say that about the cold, Shanna–
    I am white from Alabama (where it is decidedly NOT cold and there is a vibrant black community) and I always thought that was a stereotype that blacks don't like cold,
    so thank you for sharing your perspective!

  10. howwabout overachieving? You're doing a ton, Mathew! Check his econsciousmarket.com, world's biggest online, philanthropic eco fair trade marketplace…"giving is the new getting"

  11. Bryan says:

    Wow! I have to say I am a little shocked by some of the comments. I am black and have lived here for about 6 years and I love it here. I was here visiting as a kid many times, on my way to the mountains with my family. I knew when I was here then that I would like to live here. Given Boulder is very vanilla and no one can deny that fact, but I do feel that it is a very accepting and progressive town. I believe those two aspects allow Boulder to be different than other small towns in the country. Also to address the earlier comment about attracting white people to different areas, that does happen a perfect example is the denver metro area, that is rebuilding its downtown area. I know that city planners were not designing specifically for them, I am almost positive that was there main demographic. Boulder is a great town, and I think having discussions like this shows how progressive this town is, and notices that something/s need to change regarding diversity here.

  12. Via Facebook:

    Michael at 11:03am June 16
    it's probably the other way around.

    Victoria at 11:17am June 16
    that's funny Michael…certainly more fun would be had with more colours to play with

    Jessica at 11:23am June 16
    I often have these same thoughts about my city….Fort Collins. I grew up in a big city with lots of diversity and I really miss that. Hmmmmm……

    Michael at 11:32am June 16
    I think greening has become, or at least become perceived as, a luxury. Luxuries are most often accorded those with material "privilege." Generally those happen to be "white" in our society. It reminds me of being a "black" city kid and sharing the assumption that camping and other outdoor activities were "white." Greening and camping, I believe are beneficial to all who are able to experience them.

    Sacha at 11:58am June 16
    I think commercial green is a luxury, but actual green behavior like reduced consumption, high-density living and public transportation is the providence of the city and especially the poor. Boulder talks green, but we're still rampant consumers: http://www.observer.com/2008/average-new-yorkers-

    Michael at 12:23pm June 16
    in order to have reduced consumption you have to have consumed highly. the "poor" don't, i think, usually "choose" consumption reduction. in many cases, they are, in fact, often "consumed" with the notion of conspicuous consumption; as we are all bombarded with wall street images of success…as marx put it, "the creation of needs."

    Victoria at 1:19pm June 16
    sorry M, I thought you were being humorous. I do agree that "green" is sort of a "luxury" way of thinking for many; but also think it is a more necessary suggestion for those in higher income brackets because they are excessive consumers (and I don't think that is the exception these days). Growing up…I don't remember having a roll of paper towels to use to clean the windows for example…we used cloth rags because that was the cheaper route. The "poor" or lower income has less "luxury" and therefore less "greening" effort to consider, for the most part, we all can, of course, recycle more. Green is still often the more expensive, costlier route or "choice" when it comes to food and housing options…

    Diana at 1:51pm June 16
    There is some circular logic going on here. Boulder was white before it was "green". Boulderites are "green," or at least more aware of the concept, because they are largely educated and affluent. I don't think it's a matter of race, but socioeconomic status. If someone doesn't have their basic needs of food, shelter and safety met, they are not even going to be thinking about being "green."

    Victoria at 6:32pm June 16
    I find myself remaining in agreement with Waylon's initial response that Boulder is primarily caucasian due to land management and CO not having a slave history. Race does primarily correlate with SES. That said, my mother, white, only graduated from grade school, my father, also white, was educated only through 6th grade and my parents practiced "green" i.e. by recycling aluminum because the Alcoa plant paid for aluminum by the lb and my mother stitched extra cloth in the form of ribbon to the bottom of my jeans so I could wear them another year. My parents were "green" before it was an earth issue, but we didn't call it that; I believe it was "stretching the dollar" or "making do"…We were recycling and reusing and all I knew was that my jeans were "GROOVY"…So perhaps the real question to ask is: Is the term "Green" used by the affluent to make them feel they are undoing some of the doing they've been doing?

    Victoria at 6:34pm June 16
    The "poor" carpool because they have one car in an extended family and use mass transit out of necessity. …they are not the affluent, yet they live "green".

    Kyna at 7:27pm June 16
    weird question

    Michael at 10:47pm June 16
    V, I was coming back to this to add what I thought of as a caveat of sorts. However, it appears you've covered it. Namely, that on some important level(s) race and SES are inextricable. Your last comment leads me to believe that you have, as "they" say, been "doing your work." Sincerely, kudos. It seems to me that when we don't there are often "blindspots" that lead to ill-, mis-, or uninformed discourse. Greening as a socio-economic-political concept might also be a way of many amongst the more affluent taking responsibility for their relationship to the whole.

  13. nat turner says:

    thank you. no, really, i needed a reason to believe in people today. now i can put the AK down and keep on reading.

  14. Carole says:

    I visited Boulder in the spring of 2008 from a major city in Ohio. As a school administrator I was eager to learn about the school system so I visited one of the Boulder high schools where a friend was teaching. I was amazed to see the "sea of white" in the school and in the city, itself. I felt an absence of the diversity which I have experienced most of my career in education and as a resident of a major city. I was also surprised at how the lack of African-Americans was somehow uncomfortable. Having taught in a school district which was primarily white when I started teaching there to now with a 100% black student body I couldn't imagine life without friends and/or co-workers who are African-American. And further, I am not a left-leaning liberal. In fact, I am a conservative Republican. It seems to me that Boulder does not represent the good-side of being liberal. It's not inclusive as much as it is exclusive. With my reitrement income I would even be excluded—bachelors, masters, and specialist degree and all,.

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  16. Jay Winston says:

    “Colorado, unlike most of the Eastern United States, was never a slave state.”

    Ummmm…really lame argument. While northeastern states had slaves early on, the vast majority of their African-American populations, like those of California and Illinois, arrived during the “great migration” of the Jim Crow era.

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  19. a non-boulderite says:

    i see that this is an old thread, but i still wanted to weigh in. i grew up in boulder and moved to the dc metro area when i was a young teen. i know all the boulderites really want to be accepting of diversity, and they are if you count buddhism and herbal medicine as diversity, but other than that there's not a lot of tolerance. as a mixed race person who has been all over the world, i can truly say that i've had some of the most racist experiences in my life in boulder. now that i live in an area with true ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity, i can't even understand why my mother moved us there in the first place. i feel bad for that takoma park couple's baby. hopefully they still have family in the dc area, and they will get to bring their child back to a place that will truly accept him/her.