Birth of a Notion

The Wazee space had certain amenities, not the least of which was the bar downstairs. The Wazee Supper Club was a real urban pioneer, predating our appearance in lower downtown by many years. It served (and still does serve) award-winning pizzas long into the night and had great beers and plenty of atmosphere on tap; the walls were covered with works by actual starving artists who lived in the neighborhood. Although our office was accessed by another long, dark stairway, there was also a secret exit right into the bar, which we occasionally--and illegally--used when the smell of pizza wafting up through the heating duct grew too seductive to ignore.

Then there was the view, which beat with the very heart of the city. The 15th Street Viaduct ran right outside the office windows, contributing a true urban grit to the place. Although there was no carpet to dirty (effluent from infamous office parties occasionally poured into the bar below), we had some new furniture, donated by followers of the Guru Maharaj Ji, the fifteen-year-old spiritual master who'd moved from Denver on to Florida and a new, blond wife. His old headquarters is now occupied by the Denver Partnership, downtown's preeminent booster group. Om.

And then, of course, there was our landlord, Angelo Karagas, who wouldn't scream when we were late on our rent and whose bartenders would console us with a free drink or two when we watched our cars being booted right outside his bar. The competition for parking was increasing: Other ventures were venturing into lower downtown. Now the streets held galleries, a wine bar or two--and restaurants were even braving the no-man's-land of Union Station.

In 1983 Westword was bought by New Times, a paper out of Phoenix that shared similar sensibilities and actually knew how to make a weekly work. This time Westword outgrew its space, rather than the other way around, and in 1984 we moved to 15th and Platte, to a refurbished building across the street from My Brother's Bar, owned by Angelo's brother, Jim. There wasn't much else on this edge of lower downtown, although the owners who'd renovated the old coffin factory that housed Westword had high hopes. A Chicago restaurateur had been heavily pitched by the city to open Maxfield & Friends, a sports bar, downstairs; a guard would escort customers through the mean streets to their cars. "I've put worse-looking women than you in body bags," he told me cheerfully.

But this up-and-coming area was about to be laid flat by the oil bust. And we weren't alone--all of Denver bottomed out. From our windows, we could gaze across the Platte River to skyscrapers built in the late Seventies and early Eighties, back when the construction crane was the unofficial state bird. Now much of that office space was empty. Downtown Denver had the most miserable vacancy rate in the nation; the only city that collected less rent per square foot was Kuala Lumpur.

In 1987 the Broncos again went to the Super Bowl, this time led by John Elway (he'd been our cover boy back in August 1983, thanks to a guerrilla raid on Bronco training camp conducted by a certain deposed Denver Post gossip columnist--but that's another story). The city prayed for a miracle and painted blue-and-orange stripes down the streets in anticipation of a grand victory celebration. But the Broncos' hopes faded faster than those stripes, a dismal reminder of Denver's desperate situation. When Westword celebrated its tenth anniversary, the issue featured essays by former staffers who'd left town. There were many to choose from.

With the next year came another Super Bowl loss.
It was enough to drive you to drink. Fortu-nately, lower downtown suddenly offered several new options. Dana Crawford had struck again, renovating the wonderful, century-old Oxford Hotel near Union Station; its Cruise Room bar, modeled after a lounge on the Queen Mary, once again glowed with neon. Next door, on snowy nights, McCormick's $1 Irish coffees inspired a warm, neighborly feel. A block away, a couple of unemployed geologists, a brewer and a former Westworder had opened Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, in an old warehouse. They were as surprised as anyone else when warm beer became a hit. Contributing to the 'Koop's success, of course, was a steady stream of Westword staffers, visiting from our digs across the street.

Westword's new home was in the Atrium building, at 1621 18th Street, in a building renovated a decade earlier. It had housed the offices of a publisher who'd had to leave town quickly, under unfortunate circumstances; we invited the Mudmen, a performance group, to perform an exorcism. A few years before, people covered in mud were a not-uncommon sight in this part of town--after all, the area is hard by the river bottoms--but by now it had been dubbed LoDo, and our more upscale neighbors looked askance at such antics.

Whether the exorcism or some other magic--such as another Super Bowl sacrifice, this one in 1990--was responsible, Denver was back on track. Back on track, and moving full speed ahead in LoDo. The Wynkoop soon sported a second-floor pool hall, and the three floors above were converted into lofts. All around us, old buildings were turning into pricey living quarters, and when developers ran out of old buildings to spruce up, they started building new ones. (In the process, they redefined the notion of a "loft," but hey, this is Denver. No one moved here to be bound by tradition.) More galleries and retail spots and restaurants and bars opened. The new residents began complaining about the noise of the newer customers. Progress.

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