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Photo courtesy of Karl Gehring/the Denver Post via Getty Images (roller coaster); Denver Public Library (historic Lakeside photograph); Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

A Colorado Native’s Ode to the Crumbling Lakeside Amusement Park

The 110-year-old park doesn't live up to its glory days—but its diminished existence is still comforting.

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On Sheridan Boulevard, about a mile from the high-end boutiques and artisan coffee roasters of Tennyson Street, sits a landmark that does not belong in the trendy Berkeley neighborhood. Lakeside Amusement Park, which opens this month for its 110th season, is still surrounded by its original white wooden fence, chipped though it might be. A faded banner bearing the phrase “It’s always fun time!” slumps over a massive hole in the pickets. The peeling walls around the park’s defunct racetrack barely contain waist-high weeds and what’s rumored to be a colony of feral cats. Every year, a few more bulbs go out on the once-dazzling Tower of Jewels, the iconic 150-foot-tall yellow building that stands watch over Denver’s western edges.

Although Lakeside continues to deteriorate, this ramshackle park was indeed the jewel of northwest Denver years ago. When the 57-acre complex opened in 1908, it was a pristine playground for Denver’s well-to-do—replete with a skating rink, a velvet coaster (for gentler thrills), and a terrace full of dining tables with a panorama of shimmering Lake Rhoda. That Lakeside is long gone, as is the more working-class-friendly version my 90-year-old grandmother remembers from the 1930s and ’40s. By the time I began experiencing the sugar- and adrenaline-fueled high of Lakeside in the ’90s, it was already well into its decline. There was no fun house, no rollicking speedway races, no trace of the elegant El Patio Ballroom where my grandma’s aunt once brought her to have Coca-Colas with musicians Perry Como and Ted Weems.

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But it was that humbleness bordering on seediness that was the appeal of Lakeside for me. Short lines allowed us to ride the rickety wooden Cyclone coaster scores of times each visit; the bring-your-own-food policy meant home-cooked picnics; and, best of all, my parents often let my two siblings and me roam the compact grounds unsupervised. Climbing back into the family’s eggplant-colored minivan at the end of the day, we’d compare bruises, flowering on our hipbones from the spinning Loop-O-Plane, and try to keep down the soft-serve ice cream and cheap popcorn that had spoiled our dinners. It was a child’s paradise.

Decades later, I’m somehow soothed by the fact that Lakeside still exists—even as it crumbles further each year. My job as an editor dictates that I cover shiny new restaurants in shiny new neighborhoods with recently invented names. Along the way, I sometimes find myself missing the old Denver—the city that didn’t have traffic jams on Sunday afternoons. The city my family called home more than a century before it landed on the New York Times’ 2018 list of top travel destinations. The city that not too long ago counted Lakeside as just one of its many quirky attractions, instead of one of the few remaining relics of a simpler time.

My grandmother can no longer ride the Cyclone, and at 28, even my joints can hardly handle its twists and jerks. Yet we still make an annual summer pilgrimage to the park. Instead of the vertigo-inducing Tilt-A-Whirl and rollicking roller coasters, we’ll take a calmer turn on the miniature railway, one of the few rides Grandma can still board. As the train circles Lake Rhoda, I know my grandmother will lament the decrepit state of the Tower of Jewels. I’m more sanguine: At least we’ll still be able to watch the sun set over the Rockies, our views unobstructed by the cranes that dot the rest of this changing city.

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