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Illustration by Ryan Johnson

How a Denver Street Connected a Community During the Pandemic

The West 46th Avenue Parkway was built to foster fellowship. It's once again living up to its promise.

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This was supposed to be an essay about a tree. Specifically, it was supposed to be about the honey locust in front of my house, one of dozens of trees lining the historic West 46th Avenue Parkway, which turns 100 this year. This was supposed to be an essay celebrating that centennial—a lighthearted look at how my one tree fits into the greater landscape of Denver’s parks and parkways. This isn’t that kind of essay anymore.

As I write this, in mid-March, Colorado has 216 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four people are dead—and those numbers are climbing fast. So I’m focusing on other numbers. Like the runners (11), dog walkers (six), stroller pushers (four), and cyclists (15ish; they move fast) I’ve seen go by my window in the past hour. On a weekend, this is nothing special. But it’s a Wednesday at 11 a.m.

Laid out in 1920, the West 46th Avenue Parkway is made up of the 13 arborous blocks between Grove and Stuart streets. It was one of the final seams in the Denver Park and Parkway System, an initiative inspired by the City Beautiful movement that took hold of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its disciples believed parks and parkways could bind a city together and bolster a sense of community. In northwest Denver, friendships were forged on the banks of Berkeley Lake, where a bathhouse encouraged family outings; romances bloomed on strolls around the shoreline of Rocky Mountain Lake. West 46th Avenue connected them both.

In our modern, pre-COVID-19 era, though, West 46th and its bookending parks came to serve somewhat more individualistic purposes. Runners pounded the sidewalks with earbuds in, volume maxed. Walkers of the leash- and stroller-wielding sort barely noticed each other on the lake loops, both thumbs-deep in smartphone screens. The parks and parkway were simply means to an end—exercise, transit, canine relief—not the end itself. That changed in March.

Now the stroller brigades say hello to the dog walkers. Instead of nodding to the beat, runners nod to one another. Neighbors sit on front lawns, greeting once-strangers from a safe distance. I recently heard someone playing guitar from their front porch; I might haul mine out and start a block band soon. I bet George would like that.

George is my 96-year-old neighbor. He and his wife raised several children in their little Tudor and spent evenings on the front porch. Then, a few years ago, she died, and George stopped sitting on his porch at night. Last week, he got sick and we all got scared. He’s better now, and for the past few days, George has shuffled to a lawn chair next to his house and sits with a blanket up to his chin, bathed in a pocket of sunshine. When he’s awake, he waves at passersby.

In Britain during the Blitz, citizens found reprieve from the horrors of the day in dance halls. Today, in Italy, they sing from balconies. We don’t have many balconies in Denver, but we do have front porches and parks and parkways. These places remind us that although we’re scared, isolated, and uncertain, we are not alone. I hope that after science and society triumph over this virus, we hold on to that legacy.

This is no longer an essay honoring how our parkway came to be. It’s about what it has become and what, for now, it will be: a touchstone where we can share the shock, sadness, and small joys that come with living, loving, and—for some—dying in the time of the novel coronavirus.

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