Feature

Reasons to Love Denver

December 2012

28 Because we have the longest, grittiest, most interesting—and perpetually evolving—main street in the country.

Since 1993, 57-year-old bus driver Hinton Roberson has taken his seat behind the wheel of an RTD bus; checked on the picture hanging from his lanyard of his wife, Carolyn, and their five kids; and piloted down Colfax Avenue. RTD Route 15—which runs along the majority of Colfax’s 26.5-mile length between the Heritage Square Music Hall in Golden and the town of Bennett on the Eastern Plains—is not popular among other drivers. But Roberson loves it. “It’s a route where you don’t relax,” he says. “The 15, man, it keeps you wide awake.”

Roberson drives along a street that has ridden the booms and busts of Denver’s past. For the original elite of the city in the 19th century, Colfax was a passageway between the mansions on Capitol Hill and the brick buildings of downtown. Later, Eastern European Jews suffering from tuberculosis clustered around the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society on West Colfax. In the ’50s, Jack Kerouac romanticized the avenue’s drinking holes and jazz clubs. In the ’70s, Playboy denigrated Colfax, calling it the “longest, wickedest street in America” for its by-the-hour motels and all-too-available streetwalkers. In the ’80s, ’90s, and even now, Colfax has had a reputation for being the seedier side of the city—a highway of broken dreams, aglow in neon signs, that houses Denver’s disenfranchised.

Roberson has only been around to witness the latest changes along this infamous stretch of pavement. Through the curved glass windshield of his bus, he has seen the area around the old Fitzsimons Army Hospital transform into one of the largest medical complexes in the world. He’s seen the Tattered Cover Book Store and the Denver Film Center take over the old Lowenstein Theater on East Colfax and watched as Mayor Michael Hancock broke ground on a new library along West Colfax. Those are the big, obvious changes. But Roberson also notices the little things that most of us don’t, like the new streetlights along East Colfax. Most of them are green, but between St. Paul and Clermont streets the lights have been painted blue, a visual hint at the Greek heritage of those particular blocks.

Colfax, of course, will keep evolving. Heavy policing and new zoning laws, especially in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, have allowed chic cupcake shops, independent restaurants, and trendy bars to open along an expanse of avenue that not so long ago seemed too sketchy to invest in. Still, the street has retained its rough-and-tumble spirit and resisted complete sterilization à la New York City’s Times Square.

And that’s fine with Roberson, who keeps driving for the people. “I’ve been on routes where generally people don’t speak to you,” he says. “On Colfax, at least they acknowledge you. It might be in a bad way, but they’ll acknowledge you.”

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29 Because there is at least one decent beer on tap at every bar.

Pick a Denver bar. Nearly any bar will do. We’ve chosen the Squire Lounge on Colfax, but, really, choose any watering hole you like. If you’re not familiar with the Squire, it’s a particularly dive-y dive bar; the kind of place you’d expect PBR and well whiskey to be flowing—and they are. But this shithole—and many other shitholes just like it—is also pouring New Belgium’s seasonal brew, 90 Shilling, and Dale’s Pale Ale. This lineup of stellar beverages with ABVs well north of 3.2 is a most wonderful byproduct of our state’s brewing prowess. Colorado boasts 161 breweries, which, if you’re counting, is one for every 31,781 residents—more than enough to ensure that no matter where you choose to imbibe in Denver, good craft beer is always an option. 

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30 Because RTD is expanding, even if it’s slowgoing.

Denver’s multibillion-dollar comprehensive transit program began way back in 1994 when RTD paved the way for what is now 35 miles of operational light rail. Approved in 2004, the FasTracks plan has already begun beefing up complementary parking and bus services and opened several pedestrian bridges. Ultimately, that plan will add 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail to the region and 18 miles of bus corridors along U.S. 36. FasTracks, proponents say, will help define Denver as a world-class city and combat the congestion that goes along with such a designation. (Denver was recently ranked by USA Today as having the eighth-worst traffic congestion in the country.) That is, whenever it’s finished.

Everything from increases in construction costs and dwindling sales-tax revenues (which were supposed to fund the project) to allegations of gross mismanagement by the board have slowed light rail’s progress since its introduction in 2004. Sluggish headway aside, Denver is smart to continue building the lines.

FasTracks projects that the West rail line from Denver to Golden will open on April 26, 2013; Union Station renovations will be completed in the spring of 2014; and 2016 will be a benchmark year for connectivity, when rail lines connecting DIA with downtown Denver and Aurora will be completed. Those sections in particular will be a boon for commuters and travelers, but the plan includes additional rail lines from south Westminster to Longmont, and the north metro area up to Thornton that won’t be completed until 2044—unless new funding can be secured. 

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31 Because our votes matter.

When you’ve been standing in line at your voting precinct for more than an hour on Election Day, it helps stem your rising impatience to know that casting that ballot actually carries some weight. Happily, in Denver, your opinion does count because we are currently a solid shade of political purple.

Mitt Romney, Barack Obama—or one of their official surrogates—showed up in Colorado 28 times, including a nationally televised debate held at the University of Denver, over the course of the general election season. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, said that it would be “nearly impossible for Romney to win without Colorado.” Romney agreed. When polls in Ohio and Florida started tilting toward Obama in September, Romney’s campaign started pouring even more resources into Colorado. 

During the 2012 election, Romney, Obama, and outside groups supporting each candidate spent a total of $72 million campaigning in Colorado (as of Oct. 23, 2012). That put our state fourth in the ranking of states drawing the most campaign money, but first on the list of campaign dollars spent per capita. Your vote for president here was worth $14.85; if you had been registered across the border in New Mexico, your vote would’ve been worth about 2 cents.

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32 Because we’re a magnet for tech startups.

In the bright, shiny world of tech startups, the Denver-Boulder area has what’s called an ecosystem. Don’t mistake this for a simple community of like-minded nerds. Rather, it’s an infrastructure: venture capitalists, seasoned mentors, and an influx of entrepreneurs brought together by a throb of ideas and ambition. When you hear the Front Range startup scene talked about in the same breath as New York, Austin, Chicago, and San Francisco, that’s the result of our superdynamic tech ecosystem. 

Boulder may get all the love (it is home, after all, to TechStars, an illustrious program that nurtures startups), but Denver isn’t just riding our sister town’s coattails. Check out BrightNest’s DIY home website, Printfection’s merchandising swag, and Wayin’s social media app—all of which are based in Denver. Of course, established companies ReadyTalk and MapQuest have HQs downtown, too.

In October, local entrepreneur Jim Deters opened Galvanize in the Golden Triangle. With work suites designed for tiny startups and companies of up to 30 employees, Galvanize encourages a new generation of techies to put their most creative feet forward in a social workspace that’s the antithesis of a gray cubical. Though not an accelerator, per se, it’s a container meant to shape the ecosystem, Deters says.

But ecosystems evolve, and like any business venture, tech startups follow one of four paths: they max out funding and disappear, stay small and scrappy, get bought for a ludicrous sum and relocate, or grow and support investment in their own communities. 

What will transform Denver from a hobbyist startup town into a talent-catching tech nucleus? “Right now we are at a really important friction point in which we’re recognized as one of the five cities where you go to incubate a company,” says Luke Beatty, whose Denver-based startup, Associated Content, remained here after being acquired by Silicon Valley–based Yahoo! in 2010. “We need some of these companies to really establish themselves, bring jobs in, and impact Denver’s economy. We need all of these kindergartners to advance and go to college.” 

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33 Because we live and let live.

When my husband and I moved from Denver into our new apartment in Boston last year, I set up my marimba against the sunny windows of our dining room. We live on the bottom floor of a New England triple-decker, meaning we have two floors of folks stacked on top of us. After my first few practice sessions, our upstairs neighbor asked about the xylophone-like instrument. Not because he minded the music, but, he admitted, because he was peering into our windows one day and couldn’t figure out what it was. 

When people live so close together, this degree of intrusiveness is normal. Expected even. In Denver, which was my home for almost a decade, if my neighbors heard my music, they didn’t let on. They also didn’t comment when my then-boyfriend and I moved in together, spilling our extra furniture onto the shared lawn for a yard sale. No one stopped by when we lugged our wine-making gear into the backyard to purple the grass with Pinot Noir. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. Or that they weren’t friendly. Instead, I like to think it was because they were embodying a widely abided-by Denver motto—live and let live.

In the Mile High City, people seem to have (or maybe adopt) traces of the just-off-the-covered-wagon mentality. Those of us who migrated west see Colorado for the first time—wide-open spaces abutting rugged mountains, all bathed in eternal sunshine—and feel like we’ve discovered something special. A place where we can breathe, a place with an open mind, a place with a shorter history with which to contend. This modern-day urban-frontiersman vibe was perfect for me when I decided I wanted to create a new type of classical-music concert, staging performances in breweries, art galleries, and cafes. I wanted to mix the music with original essays and live painting. People everywhere said classical music was dead. I wanted to revive it—in Denver. 

Crazy as the idea may have sounded, the Mile High City gave me the room to do it. For five years, “Telling Stories” was a tremendous success. I learned that if you have a voice, confidence, and a strong work ethic, this town will give you a fair shake. No one is going to tell you that you can or can’t do anything. It’s an incredibly freeing reality.

Until I moved to the East Coast, though, I didn’t fully understand why Denver had been such a perfect incubator for my artistic pursuits. Denver didn’t have an entrenched way of doing classical music. When I started something new, people saw it as an exciting prospect, not a threat. Denver is a comparatively young city and it doesn’t feel as if its story has already been written. When I added a chapter, the city didn’t mind. In Boston, and other cities with a similarly provincial culture, I would have had to start in the back of the line, learn the traditions, and nod politely when people told me how things were supposed to be or how I should or shouldn’t do something. Instead of reveling in a live-and-let-live culture, I would have had people looking in my windows, wondering why I was playing around with such silly dreams. —Jennie Dorris

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