Going Back to Bisbee

Old mining towns are fascinating. The story of one in particular is riveting. Bisbee, Arizona. Recently I finished reading through Richard Shelton's book Going Back to Bisbee. By the time I was nearing the end there was a lump in my throat and my eyes ever so slightly began tearing up. Powerful story. Amazing writing. But even more than that, Shelton painted a picture of Bisbee that is both helpful and accurate. It has had a rough and desperate past punctuated by the hopeful and its future looks tenuous ... but hopeful.

A few weeks ago in my History of the American City class we looked at the history of housing from the Puritans onward. Interestingly, the Puritans' theology was what significantly influenced the kinds of buildings and homes they built as well as how towns were platted. I had just read through the section in Bisbee's history when the Phelps Dodge Corporation sought to "clean up" this Wild West frontier town that was full of brothels and gambling halls. The owners were staunch Calvinists and sought, like the Puritans, to impose onto town planning their theological convictions about order and even dignified architecture. While there was an obvious clash of values and worldview between the miners and the owners, what we find today in Bisbee are architectural gems left over from this city building initiative.

Why bring up history? You see, so much of the trajectory of a city's history reveals its current state as well as where it is going. In his book Shelton introduces the reader to Ida Power, a former school teacher, who spearheaded a new, and at the time contentious, way forward for the city with the mine closure in 1975. She knew that the future of the city couldn't be exclusively tied to the fate of the up-and-down cycles of mining. Her vision? Turn Bisbee into a community for artists.

Fast forward the storyline. When I moved to Arizona in 1998 all I ever heard related to Bisbee was that it was a funky little mountain town a stone's throw from Naco, Mexico. Not only that, but Bisbee was a haven for artists and seemed to collect old Airstream RV trailers.

On a whirlwind trip last summer I arrived in Bisbee as I was dodging the monsoons from Tucson, through Sierra Vista, across the San Pedro river, and down Tombstone Canyon in Bisbee. After I parked and slung my pack over my shoulders I headed out to explore on foot. After a couple of blocks I noticed the distinct and (to me) unforgettable smell of roasting coffee as it wound its way down alleys and up streets. Not knowing where exactly this precious and alluring smell came from, like a scene from cartoons of old, I simply followed my nose.

That's when I found Old Bisbee Roasters.

I peered through the windows looking for some sign that it was open or even open to off-the-street customers. That's when a gentleman with a big smile in a Crocodile Dundee kind of hat noticed me and waved me in. Come to find out that this was the owner Seth who invited me in. Not only did he give me a tour of the operations, but he invited me in back to sample several different espressos that he pulled for me. It was a great time as we sat and chatted for about an hour.

One of the questions that was burning in my mind was the local economy there in Bisbee. So I asked. Between Seth and another worker who was weighing and bagging coffee I learned that the city continues to struggle economically despite trying to capture tourism dollars. Even though it sits a mere 20 miles from one of Arizona's main tourist attractions (Tombstone), instead the City of Bisbee struggles to grow a strong and diversified economy. Not only that, but young people continue to leave as there is nothing to keep them there long term.

This is the plight of many of similar communities.

With the focus on all-things urban in ministry circles from denominations to church planting networks I wonder out loud about places like Bisbee. It is easy to forget the forgettable ... the Bisbees, the Globes, the Oakridges, or the Astorias of the world. One thing is certain in the history of American (and Canadian) cities is that the only constant is change. Even Bisbee in early 1900s was the largest city in between St. Louis and San Francisco with over 20,000 people (now down to 5,575). Cities and towns go through cycles. In other words, what we see today in any community is not the final chapter. Who would've ever thought in the heyday of Detroit that it would implode economically and lose hundreds of thousands of its population?

In that regard hope is around the corner for every community. For Intrepid, our desire is to be part of the new and changing storyline of these communities. To study, know, and appreciate their histories as well as their pain. At the same time pray and seek to be a blessing in the same tenor as Jeremiah 29:4-7. That includes not only planting churches, but launching new businesses and non-profits as well.

Where is your Bisbee?