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Desperately Seeking Denver

Searching for the true beating heart of our tough-to-pin-down hometown.

By |

It’s a late-June morning, the sky is a spectacular color of blue, and I’m hurtling north on I-25 toward downtown Denver in search of something I’m not sure I’ll find because I don’t know what I’m looking for, or how I’ll know if—and when—I’ve found it.

What I’m looking for is Denver. Not literally, as in where the city is fixed on a map. I’ve lived here 20 years and can full well find my way around. No, what I want to find is the essence of Denver, the beating heart of this town, the special something that gives this city its vibe. After all, other Colorado towns loom large in the national consciousness: Prius-driving, trail-running vegetarians set the speed limit in Boulder. High-rolling hedonists host Aspen’s never-ending party scene. And right-wing Christians and Air Force cadets keep the corners tucked on Colorado Springs. But Denver? Who’s drawn here, and what’s this place about, anyway?

To find out, I decided to spend the summer pinballing through town to discover what—aside from its elevation—makes the Mile-High City unique. But as I exit onto Speer Boulevard, rocket past the Pepsi Center, and glide into the slow crawl of traffic between the brick buildings of Lower Downtown, it occurs to me that my search may be far more personal than that.

I grew up in the dim-sum, drag-queen paradise of San Francisco, and although I’ve lived in Denver since 1989, I’ve never felt this place quite measured up. I miss the wig-wearing, roller-blading characters of San Francisco, the misty fog around the streetlamps, the smell of warm sourdough, and the crazy mishmash of cultures that come together on that small hillside. I miss, in short, the home I grew up in. Yet whenever I’ve had the chance to consider moving back, I’ve always decided to stay here—for the lifestyle, the sunshine, my partner, my friends.

But still I yearn. And one of the things I yearn for most is that clear sense of personality I came to identify with the home I left behind. Comparing Denver to San Francisco may be like comparing apples to aliens, but somehow I believe that if I can find the special thing that makes Denver Denver, then I will have also found what I need to loosen nostalgia’s grip and proudly embrace my adopted hometown.

I park my car, walk up the 16th Street Mall, and settle in next to Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs cart at the corner of 16th and Arapahoe streets. With notebook in hand, I ask bankers and lawyers and other downtown workers with plastic security cards looped around their necks to tell me how they would define Denver’s personality.

“Hmmm, good question,” says a young man wearing dark sunglasses and fresh-pressed khakis.

“Never thought about it,” adds his companion.

“Umm…mellow?” asks a young woman, as if guessing the correct answer might win her a weekend getaway to Cancún. To help them out, I become more focused with my questioning. Is Denver youthful or mature? “Both.” Single or family-oriented? “Both.” Liberal or conservative? “Split right down the middle.”

I’ve been at this for exactly 10 minutes and I can already tell it’s going to be much harder than I’d thought.

Okay.
If I want to find places where Denver asserts its identity, I should start with things that make Denver a leader. But I’m not sure where that is because the city doesn’t sit on the cutting edge of anything—not art, not music, not architecture, not politics. We possess few corporate headquarters, we’re not a technology hub, and by the time fashion trends work their way here from the coasts, the same clothes are found languishing on the clearance racks in New York and Los Angeles. Because there’s no strategic way to do this, because there’s no natural place to start, I decide instead to follow my own eclectic sense of curiosity.

So, a few days after hanging out at Biker Jim’s, I end up sitting next to a man named Jerry Baack at the Café Sanora coffee shop on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Marion Street. Baack is 55 years old, has longish gray hair, and is missing one, perhaps two, top teeth. Despite this, he’s actually fairly attractive, in that charismatic, I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think-of-me way that neighborhood characters tend to exude. Having lived just off of Colfax for 35 years, Baack certainly qualifies as such.

Inside the shop, we sit on stools behind a long counter that fronts a plate-glass window facing Colfax. “This is the most colorful part of this street,” Baack tells me. “Here, you can see them all. Pimps. Prostitutes. Hustlers. Artists. Musicians. Crackheads. Heroin dealers. Runners. Skateboarders. Gay bashers. Gay activists. They’re all here. Up the street is an 81-year-old nun, a marathon runner from Holland. I can never get her to bring back hash for me. Across the street is where Mable the fur maker lived until she died two years ago. She always carried a gun in her pocket. Down the street is a Hungarian lady who escaped from the Nazis. Twice.”

Baack goes on like this, extolling the live-and-let-live ethos that he loves about Denver, and most especially Colfax. As we talk, he introduces me to the people sitting nearby. They include Grant Bender, a clean-shaven, 27-year-old marketing consultant; Elizabeth Hauptman, a 39-year-old Colorado native who owns Hysteria, a sex toy boutique on Broadway; and a short, twenty-something skateboarder with unkempt hair and a dark beard who listens but declines to contribute. At 11:30 in the morning, he says, it’s too early talk.

The four of them—the skateboarder, the sex entrepreneur, the marketing consultant, and Baack—are obviously friends who share an easy camaraderie, despite widely different ages, interests, and temperaments. “How did you all meet each other?” I ask. “Right here on Colfax,” Baack says, as if he paved, named, and populated the street himself.

I’m impressed by the group’s comfortable companionship, and listening to them I feel a familiar stab of envy. I’m self-employed doing wo rk I love, but I also work at home, which means daily community and happy-but-meaningless chatter about movies or gossip about friends can be tough to come by. Perhaps what I’m seeking is not only a way to define this city, but also a clearer sense of how I fit into it.

Leaving the gritty street scene on Colfax, I opt for lunch at the other end of the Denver’s social spectrum: the Brown Palace Hotel. Although it’s another stunning gold-medal summer day in Colorado, the diners inside the Ship Tavern seem oblivious to it. Inside the wood-paneled pub, the dark blinds are closed to sunlight, and the only nod to the season comes from the blue-and-white checked tablecloths and the irresistible smell of burgers and fries. Each square table is full, surrounded by serious men and women engrossed in serious conversation.

Working the crowd is Don Stevens, who’s been a waiter at the Ship Tavern for 17 years—or 43 pounds, as he puts it. Stevens is 45 years old, has never been married, wears cool Euro-style eyeglasses, and jumps at the chance to talk about Denver when I tell him what I’m up to. And one of the first things he tells me is that he thinks Denver should be known as Menver.

“Seriously,” he says, looking around the restaurant. “There are so many dudes in this town. There are all these young, educated, good-looking guys who are into sports and nightlife and the outdoors.” While Stevens says this is certainly a good thing for women, it’s hard for single guys to find someone. “With so many guys out looking for honeys, you’ve definitely got to tighten up your game. If you don’t, you won’t get laid. That’s why there is so much tension in LoDo when the bars close. It’s because no one is getting any action, and when they don’t, they get pissed.”

Thankfully, this is a side of Denver I haven’t seen, and I tell Stevens this. He laughs. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s not pretty.”

Over the next couple of weeks, I think about what Stevens said about the male influence of Denver. It seems to me that Denver’s male “energy”—if we can be a bit metaphysical about it—is not just felt in its dating demographics. It comes from the unflagging frat-boy air of activity and ambition you can’t help but absorb when you live here for a while. And that activity and ambition seem to affect everybody, men and women, young and old.

One morning, I drink coffee on a covered patio in front of the tennis courts at the Denver Country Club with Bill Wilbur, who’s 86, a retired schoolteacher, and has been a member of the country club for 47 years. A lifelong athlete, he tells me he’s really been slowing down lately. “I only manage to golf one or two times a week.”

Another day, I meet a woman on the 16th Street Mall named Bernice. Bernice is 81 years old, wears oversized, black cataract glasses, and tells me she’s been thinking of getting into a new career. “I want to give counseling a try,” she says. “I think I’d be really good at it.”

Perhaps nowhere else is this insane liveliness better seen than in the city’s devotion to professional sports. To fit in in San Francisco, I learned how to fake my way through conversations about past lives and Ralph Nader and ginkgo biloba. In Denver, I’ve learned to appear wise—or at least charitably tolerant—whenever the conversation drifts, as it inevitably does, toward the Avalanche, Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies, and whomever else might be chasing a ball or manning a stick somewhere that week. And why not? Sports teams give people something to identify with, a way of shaping their identity and cementing their relationship to a city—and one another. Since so many adults in Denver have moved here from somewhere else, screaming “Red Wings suck!” may be just another way of saying “I belong!”

I’ve recognized this fanatical fandom for years, and yet I’m still surprised when I take Denver’s Gray Line bus tour—35 bucks for three hours of highlights—and the bus glides to its final stop at the parking lot of Invesco Field. There, we spend 20 minutes trapped inside the bus as our guide waxes grandiloquently about the Broncos. We learn about Mile High Stadium and John Elway, the Bronco’s Super Bowl victories and John Elway, and how the seven bronze horses charging up to the stadium were put there by team owner Pat Bowlen to celebrate jersey number 7 and…John Elway. In a sports-obsessed town, it’s not surprising that the closest thing we have to a true local celebrity is a retired, middle-aged quarterback.

To find out where this zeal comes from, I attend a Rockies-Pirates game at Coors Field with Mary Leisring, who’s held season tickets to the Colorado Rockies since the team’s inception 15 years ago, and has decorated her north Denver home in a style best described as Early Larry Walker. Sitting on the upper deck, close to home along the third baseline, we calculate she has probably attended more than 1,000 home games. Leisring, who serves as director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, is also a woman with a deep, abiding faith, which may help to explain her unwavering devotion to the team. “This is my other church,” she tells me.

I ask her what it is about the city that creates fans like her. Is it the altitude? The middle-of-the-country isolation? A competitive Western spirit? “I dunno,” she says. “It’s just plain fun.”

She’s right, of course. Fun is what we do here. And we do it big. We ski, we fish, we climb fourteeners, we drag enormous backpacks filled with wine and tapenade and caprese salad to free concerts in the park, and, although there are no firm statistics on this, I have to believe that, per capita, Denver sports more fleece, Gore-Tex, Capilene, and sandals worn with socks, and shorts, in the winter, at the theater, than any other major metropolitan city.

We also have more than 850 miles of paved bike trails throughout the metro area, and a prime stop-over for cyclists on the South Platte River Trail is—what else?—REI’s 94,000-square-foot retail monument to outdoor recreation. I head to the store at 7 a.m. one day. The South Platte River sparkles in the early morning sun, and the edges of Denver’s new steel-and-glass high-rises appear razor-sharp against the bright blue sky. Dozens of cyclists in dark sunglasses, white helmets, and red and yellow and black Lycra have stopped here on their way to work for free juice and bagels in celebration of Bike to Work Day. They surround me, bike shoes clicking on the hard pavement.

I start chatting with one of the cyclists. Her name is Monique Elwell. She’s fit, outgoing, 37, and bikes to work at least 10 months a year. Elwell tells me she was living in New York when the events of September 11 prompted her to reevaluate her life. Drafting what she called her Business Plan for Life, Elwell listed the 15 characteristics she sought in a new home, including culture, good public transportation, and a healthy lifestyle. Austin, Texas, made the top of the list…that is, until she added a 16th criterion: no humidity. Elwell eventually found her way to Denver. How does she describe the city? “Oh my God! It’s Utopia!”

Taking off her sunglasses, Elwell thinks about the question a little more. “I think Denver is a woman in her late 30s or early 40s,” she says. “She’s friendly, casual, she can get dressed up when she wants but doesn’t feel compelled to, and she’s very active but not hard-core insane. She’s fit, probably a rock climber, into classical music, and definitely an intellectual.”

As she walks away, it strikes me Elwell may have just described herself.

When I moved to Denver in the late ’80s, viaducts crisscrossed downtown, Josephina’s was the only restaurant worth going to, and, although parking was easy, there was nothing downtown worth parking for. In my mind, Denver was a largish town, but certainly not a city. Cities start movements. Cities get national attention. Cities have accents and sidewalk traffic and Christmas window displays worth traveling to see. Denver, at the time, simply did not qualify.

But we’re getting there. Now we have skateboard parks, hookah lounges, bands that springboard onto the national scene, Tony Award-winning theater, a poet laureate, an explosion of locally owned bistros, nonstop flights to Europe, and almost every shop and storefront downtown seems to be owned by people who care.

Living here, I’d noticed this growth happening but hadn’t stopped to absorb it until I started this project. Over the past few months, I’ve begun to see—I mean really see—the city in a way you don’t when you’re always focused on getting where you need to go. And, damn—we’ve grown up! It’s like seeing a distant cousin—whom you last saw when he was a scabby six-year-old—graduate with honors.

A lot of people, of course, are responsible for the city’s transformation. Former Mayor Federico Peña, who championed DIA and countless other civic projects. Architect Daniel Libeskind, who pierced the boundaries of Denver design with the new wing of the Denver Art Museum. Chef Frank Bonanno and his trifecta of top-tier dining establishments. And developer Mickey Zeppelin, who has been at the forefront of multiple efforts to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods.

Zeppelin grew up in Denver, attended North High School, left to go to law school at U.C. Berkeley, returned home, and in the late ’70s began pioneering projects that have helped bring life, color, and people back to downtown. He started by renovating office buildings in LoDo, moved on to the Golden Triangle, where he built Cadillac Lofts, and is now focused on revitalizing the emerging River North district through a development called Taxi, which brings office, retail, and residential space together. If Zeppelin’s instincts hold up, the 20-acre project on the north edge of downtown—in what is now a neglected industrial area—will eventually explode into a riverfront hotspot for creative entrepreneurs.

On a blazingly hot afternoon, I meet Zeppelin inside his office at Taxi and am immediately struck by how low-key and groovy Zeppelin is. He wears tortoise shell glasses; his cluttered office is packed with contemporary art, including several nifty little yellow taxi sculptures; and, unlike other developers I’ve met, he doesn’t seem like he’s out to impress. In the space of just three minutes, I conclude Zeppelin is the coolest 71-year-old I’ve ever met. But as the afternoon wears on, I also learn he’s a bit crotchety. Where many of us see progress and a cause for celebration in Denver, he sees all that remains to be done.

“Denver is like a lanky teenager with a lot of pent-up energy,” he says. There is a lot of potential here, but, like an adolescent, the city is awkward and would rather rely on easy solutions instead of doing the hard work required to take this town from good to great.

We climb into Zeppelin’s gray Audi station wagon and spend the afternoon weaving in and out of neighborhoods. In LoDo, Zeppelin points to a boxy new condominium complex. “Look at that,” he says. “It’s not creative—very suburban. There’s no heart, no center, no soul.” In Golden Triangle, he disparages the fussy faux-European architecture. “We’re imitative, not innovative.” In Cherry Creek, we drive down a tree-lined street filled with appealing new townhomes and impeccably landscaped yards, places in which I could envision myself living. “I know,” he says, as if he senses what I’m thinking. “It’s lovely.” This may be the first time I’ve heard the word used as a pejorative. “The problem,” Zeppelin says, “is that Denver is just too comfortable. There’s nothing to overcome here, thus there is no desire for greatness. It’s easy to forget about difficulties and simply go to the mountains on the weekend.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask him what’s wrong with comfort. “Nothing,” he says, “but when people are comfortable they don’t take risks. They’re not daring. They don’t push the boundaries. It reminds me of a quote by the founder of the Denver Post: ‘There is no hope for the satisfied man.'”

In the community room of a high-rise townhome complex just off of Speer Boulevard, 15 members of the Junior League of Denver are meeting to work on Colorado Classique, the new Junior League cookbook, due out next summer. Tonight’s group is charged with evaluating appetizers and beverages, and around the room small tables are laden with dips and salsas and pitchers of alcoholic something-or-others. As the evening begins, the women walk quietly from table to table, taking little bites, staring into their foreheads, and then jotting their impressions on index cards. It’s as if they should be wearing white lab coats.

I like food, a lot, and I’m here because I want to know how these women will go about deciding which recipes best reflect a city whose only culinary trademark seems to be the Denver omelet.

I introduce myself to Kristen Busang, the recipe-testing co-chair. She’s short, blond, instantly likable, and somehow manages to fit countless nights of recipe-testing into a high-powered job as a corporate management consultant. I ask her how the group will choose from the thousand or so recipes submitted for consideration the ones that best reflect Denver.

“Fast, fresh, and simple. That’s what we’re looking for,” Busang says. “The fussy stuff will get weeded out. If a recipe requires too much chopping, it’s gone.” Although she says Denver cooks have an appreciation for fine food, there are too many other enticements in Colorado for people to spend all their time in the kitchen. It’s a philosophy that’s hard to argue with.

Busang invites me to test recipes along with the rest of the group. I try a Roquefort and pecan cheese ball, watermelon and pineapple salsa, Gruyère dip, a stuffed spinach tortilla thingy, bruschetta, ceviche, meatballs. Most are pleasant enough, but none gives me the wowzies. Even though it’s still early in the recipe-testing process, I can’t help but recall Zeppelin’s opinion about Denver being a place where people tend to play it safe. Plus, the recipes all seem, for lack of a better word, pretty darn white. When asked about this, Busang confirms that not a lot of ethnic recipes were submitted, adding, “We did get some Mexican and Italian dishes.”

Oddly enough, this lack of ethnic diversity probably does accurately reflect the city. While a good portion of the population here is Hispanic, the overwhelming majority—68 percent—is white, making Denver one of the whitest major cities in America. (Chicago, by comparison, is 36.5 percent white; Atlanta, 37.2 percent.) Despite this, when I’ve asked people what they like most about Denver, a perplexing number claimed that a major selling point is the city’s diversity. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s because they’ve moved here from small Midwestern towns. Perhaps the diversity they see is not ethnic but is represented by different lifestyles and religions. Or perhaps the word “diversity” captures the surprise you experience when a group of people you assumed to be one-dimensional turns out to be far more variegated.

Which is exactly the type of surprise I’m experiencing right now. As I watch the Junior Leaguers make their way through the brandy slush, homemade eggnog, and espresso martini, the noise level escalates, the laboratory atmosphere is replaced by general merriment, and I begin to realize that Leaguers are not the prim, white-gloved housewives I assumed they would be. Most of these gals are career women, juggling jobs and families and volunteer work with a passion to help Denverites whip up a little something special in the kitchen. In other words, they’re far more diverse than I expected them to be. Not only that, it’s clear—as I join them in sucking down yet another brandy slush—that they are out to have a good time, and one suspects the recipes they eventually choose will somehow reflect that.

If I were to stop my quest right now, I’d think everyone in Denver was mostly slap-happy and satisfied and out for a good time. But I wondered: What about those people in Denver who aren’t satisfied? Whose fortunes haven’t risen with the influx of loft projects and fancy martini recipes? To find out, I head to Globeville, to a small residential neighborhood with I-70 running through it and a railroad switching yard to the south. The neighborhood is virtually surrounded by bleak industrial-plant aesthetics. Almost every child in Globe-ville participates in Denver Public Schools’ free lunch program, and housing values are among the lowest in the city.

On the corner of Pennsylvania Street and 45th Avenue sits Panaderia Emmanuel, a Mexican food market and bakery that has served local residents for the past 12 years. Inside, the aisles are spotless and the smell of warm doughnuts fills the air. Irma Valenzuela, a short, kind, motherly figure, owns the market with her husband. Wiping flour from her hands onto a blue apron, she sits down to talk.

Like the rest of Denver, she says, their business had been growing for years. She paid off all their loans within the first year and profits rose every year thereafter—that is, until January 2007, when Colorado’s new immigration laws went into effect and sales dropped a sickening 50 percent. This year, rising foreclosures in the neighborhood have caused sales to plummet even further.

“Today,” she says, “we are making no—how do you say it?—profit.” The bills are being paid but the money isn’t there. Does she think it will get better? Valenzuela shrugs and excuses herself to greet a customer.

While waiting for her to return, I begin chatting with a man at a nearby table. He’s wearing a gray shirt with an embroidered name badge that says “Danny.” “Danny Perez,” he says, extending a friendly hand across the table. Pointing to his name badge, he explains: “I drive a tow truck.”

What does he think of Denver? He cocks his head and makes a sour face. “In my neighborhood, Alameda and Federal, it’s all about stealing and gang-banging and racing in the streets.” Perez tells me his home was broken into two weeks ago and he lost everything of value—his computer, television, VCR, jewelry. “I don’t even lock my tow truck any more because they’ll just break the window and I’ll have to pay for that.” Like Valenzuela’s, his business also dropped by half following the change in immigration law.

I ask if he ever feels resentful of all the seeming prosperity in other parts of the city. “Yeah, but what’re you gonna do? I have good friends and customers here. And I love my job because I love traffic. I guess that’s the good part of Denver’s growth. Traffic. I love it!”

When Valenzuela returns she agrees it’s difficult to watch the city grow shiny while not feeling like she’s a part of it. But, like Perez, she’s working to keep a good attitude. “It’s hard right now,” she says. “But there’s really nothing I don’t like about Denver.”

Until this moment, I had no idea that Denver was a Scorpio with an ascendant in Sagittarius and a moon in Virgo.

I’m sitting with Julia Stonestreet Smith, an “intuitive consultant,” inside her small office above the Hornet restaurant on South Broadway. The room is dark—blinds drawn against the midafternoon sun—and a small deck of goddess cards sits on the table beside me. Swirling with hundreds of different impressions of Denver, I’ve come in a last-ditch effort to see if Denver’s essence can be divined from its astrological chart. Much like they do with flesh-and-blood clients, astrologists can take the birth or incorporation date of a city, see where the planets were aligned at the time, and create a profile designed to capture what the city is all about. I’ll confess upfront that I’m a skeptic. But I’m also desperate because I feel I’m no closer to defining Denver’s personality than I ever was.

Sitting behind her computer, wearing a red, sleeveless tunic over black jeans, Smith interprets the city’s elemental breakdown, modalities, and planetary positions while doing her best to put it all into lay terms.

“An ascendant in Sagittarius shows Denver is outgoing, friendly, athletic, and playful,” she says.

Fair enough, I think, but that seems pretty obvious.

“With the moon in Virgo squaring Venus in Sagittarius, it seems Denver is strong in terms of masculine energy. Here, women become androgynous. It’s a tough city for girly girls.”

Obvious again, I think, peeking down at my flip-flops.

The chart also reveals that Denver is progressive, well-rounded, sexually conservative, not strong on intellectual matters, good for entrepreneurs, tough on artists, hard on romance, eager to embrace good food, massage, and alternative healing, and that the city has a tremendous self-esteem problem.

“Really?” I ask.

“Yes,” Smith explains. “It’s as if the city is always comparing itself to other cities and coming up short.”

And this is where Smith gets me, for a persistent theme in my conversations all summer has been how inferior people in Denver feel to residents of other cities. Of course, I could be projecting my own this-will-never-be-home sense of inferiority onto Denver. But I don’t think so. As a 29-year-old freelance classical musician put it: “Chicago musicians embrace being a Chicagoan. But we never boast about being Denver musicians. It’s like we’re all embarrassed about it.”

Concerned about the future of my adopted hometown, I ask Smith if there is anything Denver can do about its inferiority complex. She looks at me sadly and shakes her head. “Not really,” she says. “It’s in the chart.”

After visiting Smith and thinking about this alleged inferiority complex, I begin to wonder: Isn’t this all selective perception anyway? Maybe we—and by “we” of course I mean “me”—have been yearning for that place left behind because we’ve been too focused on what Denver lacks as opposed to all that it offers.

Over the course of the summer, I talked to artists, fashion designers, physicians, psychologists, professors, business owners, restaurateurs, executives, retirees, lawyers, writers, and countless other strangers about this town they call home. Every one of these people welcomed me when I showed up, mostly unannounced. More than that, they answered my questions, bought me lunch, gave me homemade apricot jam, loaned me books, took me on tours, and insisted that I come to their gallery opening or football party or prime-rib night, or whatever it was they were most proud of and connected to. I’ve experienced neighborhoods I’d been overlooking, wandered into shops I’d never heard of, and met with people I never would have otherwise, all of which has made me newly aware and immensely proud of this friendly, welcoming city—and yes, it is a city now—that I’ve chosen as home. And this choice has put me in good company.

Although many of the people I’ve talked with grew up here, many more of them chose to come to Denver and they did so for all sorts of reasons. They came as adults because they vacationed here as kids. They came from small towns seeking the big-city ambience. They came because of the mountains, the relatively affordable housing, the omnipresent sunshine or, as one friend did, because the low humidity wouldn’t cause her hair to frizz.

This isn’t a town with an impregnable centuries-old culture like those you find in the East. This is a relatively new city to which people are drawn because they see something here they like. That, in turn, naturally puts them in the mind-set of finding what they need. And they do. On Colfax, Baack finds the characters he requires to feel at home. Leisring finds the Rockies willing to go to bat for her season after season. Perez focuses on the traffic because that’s where he thrives. It’s like Denver is one giant Rorschach inkblot test that projects back to people who they are, what they are hoping to find, and also, perhaps, what they fear the most. This may be why Zeppelin, a visionary who pushes the limits, gets dismayed when others don’t. And why I, a work-from-home writer, was feeling uncertain and disconnected.

After three months of searching, I’ve not only found a city screaming with activity and achievement, I’ve also found in myself a desperate yearning to be smack dab in the middle of it all. And so, in a surprising but fitting end to this quest, I recently rented a downtown office in a community of other self-employed people in a historical building, a stone’s throw from the Platte.

I’m still unable to come up with a single word to describe this city’s personality. But the lack of an available adjective seems appropriate, for this is a town that lets you decide who you’ll be and what you’ll find. Unlike a Boulder or an Aspen or even a San Francisco—cities that impose their worldview on residents, causing them to put up, shut up, or leave—Denver is close to attaining the magical impossibility of being all things to all people.

The trick, I’ve found, is to know exactly what it is you’re looking for.

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