Living the (Infill) Dream

Seth Ward

Ten years ago my family hit the Bozeman apartment jackpot. Some good friends were renting part of a house downtown, and put a word in for us when the other apartment came open. We jumped at the chance. Pets were welcome, parking was off-street, and utilities were included. We walk everywhere: to school, to work, to the store. It’s only half-joking when we “practice” visiting Heeb’s ONLY once a day to prepare for their six block move.

And did I mention the backyard? It stretches out forever. If the afterlife is anything like what’s promised, mine will involve many lifetimes of sitting out in that backyard through long July evenings with my family and friends. The whole thing will be potluck, and you’re invited too.

Back when we moved in, this was at the fringe of downtown; the blight. It took a paragraph to give directions to our place. In the time since, libraries and businesses have grown from polluted lots and empty warehouses. Extra homes and offices are filling up some of the backyards, and it’s all tied together with trails and parks and streams.

And suddenly, there’s a whole lot going on. The number of software start-ups, adventure travel companies, sushi restaurants, and street parties just out our door would give any like-sized big city neighborhood a run for its money. Now I give directions by referencing any number of hip establishments up the street, and everyone knows the neighborhood.

What a place for our daughter to grow up! To be in the middle of so much exciting change, all framed in by wild mountains which I can, most of the time, still see between the buildings. Your mileage may vary, but from our spot in the lawn chairs the whole thing has been a sort of dream.

But all dreams fade. You can’t tell a story like this and not expect the word to get out. Next year, capital-D Downtown will overtake our fringe. A couple houses and a small business will become a couple larger businesses and some condos. There may or may not be a rooftop patio involved. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This time around all the tickets for the jackpot are bought up. For us, this move means being farther out, more driving, and less variety in our routine. The rent will go up, the size of our garden will go down.

I should be on defense. Maybe start a Facebook page with a hyperbolic name and get a few people fired up about the injustice. Maybe start being a jerk to tourists to tarnish Bozeman’s reputation. Praying for just a hiccup from our friendly neighborhood super-volcano to get us off all those magazine top ten lists.

But the thing is, I support tasteful infill in Bozeman. I’m happy to live in a growing, vital town. It’s possible I may have carried on and on about it over the years. I know the developer and have cause to believe them when they say it’s a good fit for the location. And honestly, we expected this five years ago. You might hear sighs as we move on, but no complaints.

That’s not to say we’re going away quietly. No one affected by Bozeman’s growth can afford to be quiet now. Affordable housing, livable neighborhoods and functional transportation are complicated topics in a growing town. While we were dreaming, these issues continued to be very real, and we wake up to find our options are very different.

For years, it may have seemed like enough to complain about change in Bozeman. Enough to wish it away, or escape in the evenings down a quiet subdivision road. Enough to invoke your sainted first-generation great-great grandparents and what they would have thought of all of this.

We’re past all that now. Great-grandpa wants us to rise to the challenge ourselves. Bozeman will continue to grow, probably faster than we’re comfortable with. This means being honest that fighting infill for its own sake means even more open space lost in the valley. But at the same time, building a 4-story condo right outside someone’s bathroom window is a jerk move no matter the zoning. It means acknowledging that having all new development to mimic downtown makes exactly zero sense to anyone who ever actually leaves downtown. It means being honest that every sort-of-legal VRBO is just another space not occupied by the type of eccentric working class outdoors fanatic that helped make Bozeman cool in the first place.

The “most liveable place” is a worthwhile goal. Its success or failure depends on honest participation from all of us. Not just the developers, not just the mayor, not just the Californians. Your dream of Bozeman will only come to be if you help create it, and likewise with mine. There will be compromises and celebrations for all of us along the way. I’m looking forward to this new conversation. We’ve got a lot to talk about.   

This was made by

Seth Ward

Seth is a first-generation Montanan, navigating fatherhood, marriage, business and downtown life (on a budget) in the New West. He is a freelance photographer, web designer, and aspiring artist.

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