Who Owns Denver?

Calling a little patch of dirt your own is practically a state right. But who really owns the Mile High’s skyscrapers, Wash Park homes, and DIA? We dug through hundreds of property reports, talked to real estate experts, and logged countless miles to learn the truth. The results were surprising.

May 2011


Why I love the land my house sits on—even if I don’t technically own it.

My ancestors were Ellis Island-ledger folk. They came from Ireland, Poland, and Russia, clutching the railroad pamphlets that promised free land in the Dakotas. Thanks to the Homestead Act, they were promised 160 acres if they “proved up” on the land. They broke the prairie’s topsoil, turning over buffalo grass to make furrows for grain, and they cut sod into makeshift bricks to build homes to shelter them from winter’s wrath. They stayed to earn a simple piece of paper that said the land they’d toiled on was their own. But they already knew it. The land had turned into something more than a deed. They’d left the Old World with nothing, but with their own hands they’d built wealth; they were landowners. It was, in short, the American dream.

Growing up, I took Westerners’ infatuation with land for granted. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, so it didn’t seem odd that old-timers could name the section that my great-grandfather proved up. It was normal that parcels of land were named after long-dead homesteaders, like the Broomster Quarter, Dorothy’s Place, and the Krebs Farm. Land disputes became everyday occurrences and were fought with an intensity that, more often than not, tore families apart.

After leaving North Dakota for college, I rented too-small apartments for nearly a decade, but living on someone else’s land, in a home that was not my own, irked me. It was a capitalist urge, but I wanted to own something. Three years ago, I found that something in a 6,200-square-foot Denver lot with a cozy brick house. When I bought it, the home had been remodeled, but the yard was a tangle of thigh-high hemlock weeds and tree stumps. My parents—both avid gardeners—came to the rescue in an Extreme Makeover–style three-day planting extravaganza. (My dad dug up at least eight tree stumps.) The next year, a retaining wall with flower beds went in, then a back patio. I planted 200 tulip bulbs, and then 200 more. With each shovelful of dirt, I thought: This land is mine.

But I was wrong. I recently pulled out my husband’s law-school copy of Property Law. I made it two pages—there are 1,381—before nearly falling asleep. A key point did emerge: Owning land is impossible. The whole idea is a construct. Instead of owning the lot my house (which I do own) sits on, I simply own the “rights” to the land. It’s a pedantic legal point to be sure, but it bothered me. That is, until I realized it doesn’t matter if I actually own that plot of land. It doesn’t even matter that those homesteaders didn’t really own their land. Their lives and hopes were real, and the land was the foundation. That’s the American dream: a made-up concept of ownership that’s turned into tangible things like titles and deeds and property taxes. Now, as a “landowner,” I understand that my rights are temporary, almost ephemeral. But that lot of clay dirt is mine to borrow—for now. The soil in my flower beds occasionally churns up something from past owners (glass marbles or rusted bolts) to remind me that this patch has a history. I’m a part of that now, maybe forever. That’s a foundation, a dream, that I can build my life on, no matter what a law book says.