Mall in the Family

If you build it, they will come.

 Hey, whined the city booster who'd just read my cheap shot at "Downtown Denver: A Great Place to Live, Work and Visit, or Dangerous Urban Jungle?," the downtown residents' forum held Tuesday night at -- where else? -- the Wynkoop Brewing Co., the restaurant founded by John Hickenlooper, now king of the jungle and himself a resident of downtown. Hey! It is so a jungle out there.

And the booster issued this challenge: I was to walk the Sixteenth Street Mall at prime scarey time. No, not at 2 a.m., when the bar crowds spill into the streets of LoDo, snarfing illegal breakfast burritos, talking shit, sometimes regurgitating their night's intake. (The bums who once had these streets to themselves were much tidier with their bodily functions.) No, I was to start my potential death march at 6 p.m. -- before sunset triggers the city's no-panhandling-after-dark ordinance -- right when downtown Denver is so an urban jungle, one so dangerous that tourists hole up in their hotel rooms and office workers flee to the 'burbs, with maybe a brief detour to Applebee's.

What horrors, I wondered, could drive otherwise reasonable people to such desperate measures?

And so last Thursday, at exactly the stroke of six (or what passes for it on the D&F Tower clock), I turned my back on RTD's Civic Center Station (with its "#1 Voted Best Transit" sign) and struck out across Broadway. I hadn't gone ten feet before my heart froze in terror: There, on the left, was 110 16th Street, where, during business hours, the Denver County Court parking-ticket referee on the seventh floor holds the power of life and death over my bank account. As I quickly crossed Cleveland, a runner breezed by, displaying an alarming amount of energy after a full day's work. He was followed by two pedestrians discussing Denver's recent ranking as "the #2 place in the country."

For what? Perhaps polite bums: Outside the corner McDonald's, rather than a Big Mac attack, I was treated to "Good evening" in three-part harmony from a trio of down-on-their luck fellows. My cold heart thawed.

And then immediately seized up again at Court, where my eyes fell on a sight so horrifying as to almost defy description: the gaggle of space-alien ballerinas that Fred Kummer gave Denver as a consolation prize after he destroyed I.M. Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid in order to expand the Adam's Mark hotel (with a $25 million assist from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority!). I pirouetted right out of there, past the first of a zillion souvenir shops, past my second jogger (carrying a briefcase), past my first Starbucks. And then spied four black-clad youths. Loitering. If they struck the dancers' pose, would they be art? Would the city subsidize them?

At Tremont, my first panhandler, playing buckets like bongos. He took my refusal to donate to his "alternative entrepreneurship" with a smile -- but perhaps that was because three cops were standing a few feet away, doing some very close surveillance on a couple of nubile teens.

At Glenarm, a run-in with the scariest creature in the jungle: a lobbyist! A grown-up panhandler whose professional duty is to never take no for an answer and who comes armed with a cell phone. I hurried on, past the cleanup crew sweeping every speck of ash off the mall, past the jammed patios of Marlowe's and the Paramount Cafe, where preening young animals were engaged in a mating ritual worthy of National Geographic.

At Welton, I found my first squatters, three unkempt types shouting incomprehensible things at each other -- and only at each other. They were standing in front of Only in Colorado, another souvenir store. Greetings from Denver!

Naturally, the cool kids were heading to California. Teens of color going into Taco Bell. Teens of another color going into Media Play. On a bench in the middle of the mall, one man was mumbling about bombs; four unperturbed tourists sat on the other side, watching the passing parade.

Outside Ross Dress for Less, my first dreadlocks sighting, on a group of youthful beggars sitting by a sign that read: "Help a homeless kid on the streets." One young woman was telling her dreadlocks-in-training toddler, "When you come downtown, it's a privilege. Behave." They all did.

Pedestrian traffic slowed at Stout, and men wearing convention badges kept bumping into light poles. At Champa, I discovered the source of their distraction: the tiniest skirt I've ever seen, above very shapely legs that ended in something like fuzzy platform slippers. As those slippers shuffled along, the legs attracted so much attention that the visiting pharmacists from Omaha never looked high enough to realize that Ms. Thigh's the Limit was in the middle of some gender-bending adventure and was almost certainly the proud possessor of a Y chromosome. And not much sense of direction, since s/he thought Blake was one block from Curtis. I set girlfriend straight, so to speak, and continued on my way.

The sun was getting low when I reached Skyline Park, once ground zero for street kids, their home-away-from-homeless. Now Skyline is fenced off and boarded up, its landmark design ripped out in favor of a few cheap fixes, its former congregants scattered up and down the mall -- and if they bother tourists there, the city can take the blame for evicting them without providing many options. Certainly these kids weren't going to frequent ESPN Zone, whose ballgame blare hung over Tommy Pough Corner, the intersection named for the mall's most famous musician ("that saxophone guy"). This evening, it was occupied by another dreadlocked bunch, just sitting on the benches, talking. An old man rolled up his grocery cart. "How're you doing, brother?" the leader of the pack asked. The old man sat down and told them.

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