High Noon

When it's springtime in the Rockies . . .

All of Denver's panhandlers must be over at the State Capitol, lobbying to make marriage legal only when the two participants are not of the same sex, but of the same religion and, probably, on the same page of the hymnal.

This week they sure weren't hanging out along the 16th Street Mall, that alleged panhandlers' haven, that scourge of the West, that blight through the heart of downtown.

If the mall looked any brighter, the city would have to issue shades at the Aurora border.

David Rehor

True, the approach up California Street, the primary route conventioneers will take once the new, improved Colorado Convention Center is finished in December, lacks what those in the marketing biz would call street appeal. The liquor store just past 15th Street -- centerpiece of the derelict block that could, if rumors and dreams come true, hold a Target someday -- specializes in bombers, Sutter Home, lottery tickets and copies of The Buzz Magazine, a four-color local adult monthly whose March issue featured an interview with Sage of Bada Bing, which bills itself as "Denver's Premier Escort Agency." (This in a city that was all a-twitter last fall after employees of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau dared to accept an invitation to visit the nearby Diamond Cabaret, a bureau member, for an after-work event.)

And it's also true that, farther up California, the local sights included one stinky fellow sitting on a trash container, picking his bare, grimy feet while another rooted through the contents of that container. Welcome to Denver, the smell-high city!

But every step closer to 16th Street, the city just looked better and better. It smelled better, too.

I was heading toward the mall with the same city booster who'd challenged me six months before to walk the sixteen-block stretch at prime scary time -- not 2 a.m., when the bars let out, but sundown, when panhandlers and other urban animals were reportedly frightening away not just tourists, but locals. I'd accepted that challenge, and during my stroll had encountered nothing more fearsome than 1) a transsexual having trouble walking in his/her high heels and 2) a lobbyist, which is really just a panhandler in a business suit talking on a cell phone ("Mall in the Family," October 23, 2003). When I reported my findings, the booster said that I'd just gotten lucky that evening. Try lunchtime, he said.

Since then, the city has come up with a new proposal for handling panhandlers, one that would ban them from a four-block stretch of downtown. Meanwhile, "ambassadors" will walk the mall, keeping the peace and welcoming tourists. The $175,000 ambassador program starts next month; the city's homeless commission will discuss the panhandling containment plan on April 12.

It's high noon for the 16th Street Mall.

This town may not be big enough for the both of us -- at least, not for both of our perceptions -- I told the booster, inviting him to be an eyewitness this round. And so, at exactly twelve noon Tuesday, we set forth down the mall, courting danger -- and sunburn. The single scariest sight this time: the $75 carved-wood sculpture of a bear that doubles as a toilet-paper holder, standing in the window of one of the souvenir shops along the mall. If this was the best example of Colorado culture that a tourist could find, we were in a very, very bad way. But further investigation in other souvenir shops -- and there are more than a dozen along the mall -- revealed much better gifts for the folks back home. Giant alligator totems. Replica six-shooters. "Genuine" gilt aspen leaves. Rubber tomahawks. Buffalo Bill action figures (right next to Swabby the Pirate action figures). Refrigerator magnets featuring everything from a moose's butt to a confetti-strewn view of the mountains with downtown in the foreground, along with the words "Mile High City." Even magnet manufacturers have surrendered to the draw of "The Mile High City," Denver's once and future slogan.

Every seat at every outdoor cafe was packed. Every seat on the mall itself was filled -- some with tourists, some with office workers on their break, some with the employment-impaired enjoying the sun.

At Curtis Street, we spotted the first person asking for a donation -- in exchange for a song. "Is business good?" I asked, dropping a dollar in his saxophone case. "Very good," he replied. "But if you want to hear something great, there's a little girl playing in the next block." Even our buskers are generous.

Skyline Park, once ground zero for complaints about undesirables, was still fenced off, with signs promising that the renovation project would be finished in Spring 2004 -- a date the city's clearly going to break. The kids who used to congregate at Skyline have scattered to other parts of the mall, where they still draw complaints. We spotted a handful of them in front of McDonald's, bothering exactly no one. If the mall looked any better, Denver would have to beat tourists off with a stick.

Across the way, still another souvenir shop. "This could be the portal to hell," said my fellow traveler, pointing to the overpriced Conestoga wagons, the dusty University of Colorado mugs. (CU memorabilia is going slowly these days.)

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