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Things to Do in Denver When It's Dead

The Mile High City starts the new year with a world-class whimper.

There may not have been fireworks on New Year's Eve, but all hell's been busting loose since we woke up Saturday morning and found ourselves living in Loserville.

Denver was so dull, so dead on Friday night that local TV anchors pleaded for something, anything, to put on the air. So while the networks treated their audiences to eye-popping images of pyrotechnics in Paris, we had Neil Diamond crackling glass. While millions celebrated the ball dropping in New York's Times Square, police dressed in riot gear swept the empty streets of LoDo, where just eleven months before, over-enthusiastic fans had celebrated Denver's status as a championship city.

The party's over: Welcome to Loserville.

Denver's slide from Super Bowl to pity pot began early last January. That's when the mayor's office was in hurried, hush-hush negotiations with the White House, which wanted Mayor Wellington and First Lady Wilma Webb to sit with then-cuckolded First Spouse, soon-to-be-Senate candidate Hillary Clinton at the State of the Union address. President Bill Clinton was going to tout his millennium project, and Denver had been singled out because the city's administration was so forward-thinking that this was surely one of the country's millennium communities.

Although Denver wasn't so forward-thinking as to actually have a millennium project of its own at the time, it quickly solved that by creating a committee, assigning it to a city agency and installing omnipresent historian Tom "Dr. Colorado" Noel as its titular head. And come January 19, 1999, there were Wilma and Wellington as Clinton invited "every town, every city, every community to become a nationally recognized 'millennium community' by launching projects that save our history, promote our arts and humanities, prepare our children for the 21st century." While Clinton failed to specifically name our city, at least Denver was represented in Washington, D.C.

Which is more than you can say now. Today the White House's Web site (www.whitehouse.gov, and type it carefully or you wind up at a cleverly positioned porn site) spills over with information about Clinton's Millennium Council. It sponsored the Millennium Celebration in D.C. last Friday, and upcoming trail and gardening and history projects that will run until the real start of the millennium, on January 1, 2001 (that's according to the U.S. Naval Academy, the country's official timekeeper). Already, the council has designated 350 towns and cities as millennium communities that "honor the past and imagine the future."

Four of those communities are in Colorado: Colorado Springs, Littleton, Arvada and...Aspen? That Denver isn't one of them surprises even the project's coordinator. "They keep saying they're sending their application," says Amy Hitchkox. "So far, we haven't seen it."

But if you click far enough into the White House's Web site, you'll strike Denver. The Millennium Communities page links to its Community Partners -- one of them the United States Conference of Mayors, which says it's encouraging "our members to start Millennium projects in their communities." Not only is Denver one of those 1,100 members, our mayor is the current president of the Conference of Mayors. Click on his name and you're at Denver's site (www.denvergov.org). Welcome to Loserville.

Although the city had high hopes for its millennium plans, "we just didn't get the organization up and running," says Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson. "Y2K problems took up a lot of our concern," he explains, pointing out that the city did survive Y2K. (But then, so did the rest of those millennium communities.) And just last week, it added Celebration 2000 to its site, where Noel spews historic facts and invites residents to submit memories of different Denver decades.

In the 1990-1999 category, 36-year-old Michelle offers this: "My most fondest memory is when the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl the first time and we all gathered downtown and celebrated. I thought that was the greatest of all!! Way to go Denver, we are truly a cool town!!"

LoDo was cool on December 31, all right. It was locked in the fun deep freeze. Just the day before, Webb had lauded downtown's transformation into a 24-hour destination -- apparently forgetting to mention that it would soon be a destination for more riot-squad members than revelers. The city's eagerness to avoid the bad press that follows any Super Bowl riot (even if, in true Denver style, it's limited to looters stripping athletic-wear shops) was only one of the culprits; the press itself can claim a share of the blame. Although Denver had decided to ban parking on LoDo streets, many people thought downtown streets were closed entirely. That wasn't true, of course -- at least, not in the beginning. Instead, the streets were simply made safe for the people who could afford $20 parking lots and $250-a-head steakhouse dinners. When Webb was asked by one TV reporter just what wasgoing on in Denver, he cited a private hotel party and the Neil Diamond show -- an aging pop star's concert with tickets ranging from $100 to $1,000 (before the Pepsi Center started papering the house).

But if concertgoers felt like continuing the party after Diamond's post-midnight finale, they couldn't do it in LoDo. By then the city knew that the world was not going to end, that Russia's nukes wouldn't wipe us off the map, that toilets would flush and lights would flash here at home, and that there weren't enough people in all of LoDo's bars to stage a halfway decent riot. (Vail put on a better show than we did.) Still, despite the city's promise that "unless public safety is at risk, all streets in and around downtown Denver will be open," after twelve you couldn't turn off Speer onto Lawrence, onto Market, onto Wazee, onto Delgany. Because a cop car blocked each street.

Early January 1, the Denver Police Department announced: "We were not expecting major problems such as a repeat of the incidents that followed the Super Bowl, but we were definitely prepared." And then some.

This embarrassing excess ignited the current fireworks. After initially trying the "next year is the real millennium" defense, the city has fired a few salvos of its own. In Tuesday's memo asking for new ways Denver could celebrate New Year's, Hudson whacked the media for failing to follow its own January 1, 1901, lead (as evidenced in contemporary headlines) that the new century always begins in '01. (Hudson's own December 27 announcement of the Celebrate 2000 site, however, noted that it had arrived "in time for the millennium.") And in response to those party-poopers from First Night Colorado, the twelve-year-old event that canceled all but the New Year's Eve fun run (1,500 runners and one policeman) because of what its officials called a lack of city support ("The Runaround," December 30), Webb offered this to a reporter: "Only people with weak egos are embarrassed. Denver is a world-class city. We're not going to be judged on whether we had a party on New Year's Eve."

Not by the world, maybe: Denver didn't even register on the global radar Friday night.

No, Denver isn't Paris, or Cairo. We're not a world-class city -- and we just keep proving it. Still, Denverites are good at making our own fun. But that wasn't an option in LoDo Friday night.

For over two decades, Westword's office was located in lower downtown -- before Coors Field turned the area into a mammoth sports bar, before anyone thought to slap it with the nickname "LoDo" -- even before anyone dreamed that locals would one day flock to Larimer Square. Since our recent move to the Golden Triangle, I'd spent much of December missing that old lower downtown, the one filled with dusty warehouses and history and endless opportunity. I didn't think I'd miss what LoDo had become: an outdoor funplex where people fight for parking spaces and places in line during Jägermeister shot nights.

After waking up in Loserville, though, I missed even that. Better luck next year. BYO fireworks.

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