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Just the 'Fax, man

Thirty miles of developments, drunks and dreams -- the ultimate road trip.

Amid the nourishing chaos of city life, we urban dwellers find ourselves brain-deep in startling juxtapositions. Mid-morning one Tuesday, a formation of squawking geese sweeps its shadow across a used-bookstore window, dimming the dog-eared covers of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. An instant later, at this busy Capitol Hill intersection, two cars screech and crash together in a horror of twisted steel, fumes and fire.

Two blocks away, the grand, neo-Gothic hulk of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where the pope once said Mass, stands neighbor to a storefront cafe called Mount Everest, where blissed-out diners high on the Dalai Lama dive into bowls of vegetable thukpa. Not sixty seconds' walk eastward, we find Kitty's Adult Video, a windowless shoebox where bared flesh is the sacrament -- insofar as that flesh can be made real by digital means. Thirty blocks east of that, the glad-handing surrogates of John Elway, the city's venerated football saint, peddle sporty Mustangs and huge Ford Explorers. Across the street and down the way, members of a Greek social club sip Metaxa behind closed doors and play their cards close to the vest.

As any Denverite would guess, these happy contrasts arise on Colfax Avenue, the thirty-mile ribbon of hopes, dreams and hustle stretching from the tumbleweed prairie east of Aurora to the foothills of Golden. Gold diggers fueled by visions of wealth once trekked west along Colfax's dusty trail en route to Central City, Idaho Springs and Leadville. Civic boosters have long chosen to call it the longest commercial street in America (who knows?), but however it measures up, there's no missing the bold, sometimes bawdy path bisecting the heart of a city that, like the ever-changing avenue itself, is still deciding what it is and what it means to be. For more than a century, Colfax has embodied most of the possibilities.

Two warring habits of mind still define what, in the bloodless argot of urban planning, is called "the Colfax corridor." Old-line bluenoses, battle-weary vice cops and occasional bus riders clutching their parcels to their bosoms see it as the ninth circle of hell -- a neon-flooded strip of honky-tonks, no-tell motels and franchise clutter with no redeeming virtue save that the traffic lights are timed for quick passage. Only last week, a new Denver law seeking to restrict the movement of street prostitutes specified Colfax -- East and West -- as its main focus.

At the opposite pole, gentrifiers, redevelopers and the proprietors of candlelit restaurants offering thirty-dollar slivers of foie gras and $200 bottles of Chateau-Figeac tell us everything has changed since -- well, when? Since pint-sized strip-joint magnate Sid King shut the Crazy Horse Bar on East Colfax two decades ago? Since the bent-nosed prizefighters and contentedly boozy linebackers who frequented Eddie Bohn's Pig n' Whistle on West Colfax vanished into the record books, along with the Pig itself? Since Colorado lawmakers under the Capitol's gold-leaf dome foreswore four-drink lunches across the street at the Quorum, also long gone?

Excited by Colfax's unmistakable new vitality -- here a sparkling block of flats, there a daring vista of glass and steel, now a sleek new boîte catering to the Armani set -- one community newspaper recently proclaimed The Street "Denver's Champs Elysees" in the making, a notion that might prove equally startling to the average Parisian and the proprietor of Smiley's, "World's Largest Discount Laundromat."

Plucky visionaries dream of reviving a streetcar line on Colfax (estimated economic impact: $1 billion); the Regional Transportation District says it hasn't got the cash to build it. But those looking for culinary, cultural and social variety will still find it at every turn. How about a plate of exotic begue-alicha -- lamb with turmeric sauce -- at the Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant a block east of Colorado Boulevard? Or try some vapor therapy at the venerable Lake Steam Bath, just west of Federal, which has been breathing life back into its patrons since 1927. Maybe you'd like an afternoon loll in Civic Center Park, beneath the Denver City and County Building's graceful spire, or a beer and a burger at the low-down, teeming Roslyn Grill on Capitol Hill. Take your choice. Choose your company. Bask in the unpredictable bombardments of city life.

What would Schuyler Colfax do? Born in New York City and raised in Indiana (he helped organize that state's Republican Party), the man for whom Denver's street of dreams is named became Ulysses S. Grant's vice president in 1868 and, legend has it, once implored a half-sister living in Denver to spend the outrageous sum of $2.50 on a dozen eggs so that his customary breakfast needs could be met in the egg-deprived Wild West. Stiff-collared, mutton-chopped old Schuyler and his boss, the notorious rye-swiller Ulysses S., no doubt would have enjoyed cutting a swath through the shot-and-a-beer joints of East Colfax, there to get sloshed on sheer promise, at every stop more vividly Imagining a Great City. -- Bill Gallo 6:50 a.m.: 21481 East Colfax

Sunrise is still a half-hour off, but above the great sweep of plains to the east, the sky is already tinted the color of Dreamsicles. At the point where I-70 starts Colfax Avenue on its way west, though, most dreams have been on hold for decades. This twenty-acre property at 21481 East Colfax, on the frontage road that will soon turn into Denver's equivalent of Main Street, has been on the market for over a year. It holds a handful of tumbledown buildings, including a burned-out motel and a falling-down house both dating from the '40s, when this area east of Aurora was the true Gateway to the Rockies, those mountains just now touched with the opalescent glow of a new day.

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