This essay, by Jacob from STEM School Highlands Ranch, is one of the top five finalists for our scholarship. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section below this post!
To people who have never visited Highlands Ranch, I tell them to imagine The Twilight Zone “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” except on steroids. Each yard is carefully mowed, each house meticulously painted, each road strategically planned. We might not have aliens, but we do have soccer moms with some ridiculous spray tans.
I understand the appeal of our city to new families: safe city streets, great education systems, giant recreation centers, and intricate trail systems. It’s William Levitt’s dream.
Still, with all these desirable traits, I have never found it appealing, and I think most of the people my age would agree with me. Because of the pure nature of this city, we have never had the chance to identify with and develop a true hometown community here. There’s a number of reasons why, but it is most exemplified with our commercial market.
In 2015, my family flew into Atlanta, rented a car, and drove down to a beach house in Panama City, Florida. Say what you will about the South, but even as the sticky feeling of humidity and foul stench of alligator roadkill surrounded us, my family and I all found joy in the small fruit stands and gas stations every few miles, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We found something new in each one – alligator jerky, fresh peaches, boiled peanuts. At one stop consisting purely of a white-tarp tent and a picket fence, there was an entire watermelon patch growing out of the dirt next to the highway. These stands were new for us but clearly part of the local culture.
So, what is it that travelers driving through Highlands Ranch find? What could we have to offer that is different than any other suburb in the world? Arguably, nothing.
Unlike other towns, we are filled almost exclusively with big box departments and corporate chain stores. Want coffee? Starbucks. Medicine? Walgreens. Groceries? Walmart. I could count the number of locally owned restaurants, stores, and locations on one half of my right hand. The reality is we have absolutely no semblance of local culture. I identify with this town no more than I identify with a cup of Starbucks coffee in Phoenix or a patch of carefully mowed grass in Portland. The staggering number of people my age looking at college out-of-state makes this clearer than ever. Obviously, this town does not appeal to young people. It definitely drives me crazy, but, that does not mean we can’t improve it.
That starts with developing a local culture.
We need local holidays, local celebrations, parades, festivals, and ways to build community. We need to realize that local business is important. Different coffee shops, for starters. Different options for pharmacies, or groceries and more family-run stores.
When I asked some of my friends for help getting started on this essay, they suggested the best way to improve Highlands Ranch was to incinerate it. Maybe that is a little dramatic, but it reflects the attitude of young people towards their hometown. I am young, and plans change, but right now, unless there is a major overhaul, I cannot imagine ever living in this city again. The development of small businesses and stores and the creation of a local identity and culture is, in my opinion, the only thing that might change that.
We have to make these goals a priority. We need to make this a town that gives people my age a sense of pride.