Denver's done a fantastic job of making itself one of the most desirable places to live in the country--but that doesn't mean it's all bluebird skies, puppies playing in the park, and powder days. Scratch beneath the shiny, happy surface of the Mile High City, and you might be surprised what you find.
By Al Lewis
Why Denverites' longtime quest for dollar signs is completely human—and quintessentially American.
In the litany of greedy American cities, Denver would seem to fall way behind New York, L.A., Vegas, D.C.—even Miami or Houston. But, to be sure, we've had our share of swindlers. We’ve suffered oil-well scams, savings and loan debacles, and characters like Meyer Blinder, who rationalized his penny-stock frauds in the 1980s by insisting that he didn’t do anything that Merrill Lynch didn’t do. (The feds disagreed, and Blinder served time for racketeering, money laundering, and securities fraud.) More recently, former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio was jailed for insider trading after stuffing his pockets as Qwest collapsed while his shareholders blindly—greedily?—held on to their stock, even as analysts warned them to sell.
This is nothing new. Denver’s love affair with greed began with the “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush in the late 1850s, when soldiers who’d joined Colonel John Chivington in the Sand Creek Massacre paraded slain Native Americans’ body parts through downtown streets, while whites took their land. Yes, since our earliest days, we have come here and stayed here because we’re independent, ambitious, entrepreneurial, we don’t want the government eating our lunches (and, in Chivington’s case, maybe we can be a bit cruel). And when we succeed, we want trophies to prove it: Mountainside condos, ski resorts, casinos, and oversized houses that block neighbors’ views and run up foreclosure rates.
Consider Shawn Merriman. He also sought trophies—and ran a $20 million Ponzi scheme to get them. His pursuit of classic cars, motorcycles, motor homes, and Rembrandts got him sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison. He’s but one pustule in a rash of alleged Ponzis perpetrated here; notables such as AM radio’s Mike Rosen and gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo are among the locals who have lost millions to such schemes.
Perhaps they were greedy, but perhaps greed is simply human. Though it’s traditionally been deemed a deadly sin, greed is more of an emotion that lies opposite fear, an overcompensation for a perceived shortcoming, monetary or otherwise. So while Denver and greed have always had a complicated history, one with no end in sight, maybe that arrangement is an understandable, sometimes unjustifiable, byproduct of our uniquely Western—and uniquely American—sense of pioneering ambition.