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.