The Bright Stuff

We'll have a blue, not-so-blue Christmas.

At midnight, looking over the city from the confluence of the rivers where Denver was born, all is calm, all is bright.

But not quite as bright as it all once was. Understandably, the lights of the D&F Tower, the Adam's Mark logo, even the classic neon "Travel by Train" sign above Union Station pale in the reflected glory of the gaudy, color-blind display that is the Denver City and County Building during the holiday season. But where once a star blazed in the east all year 'round, there's now only a muted glow.

Qwest has turned down the lights.

The glowing logos of our homegrown telecommunications company haven't disappeared altogether, but this former scourge of the skyline has changed from the garish blue that once matched the garish reign of peacock Joe Nacchio -- disturbing not just the dignity of the downtown business community, but the sleep of anyone within a mile of the signs -- to a more refined, dignified blue.

What gives?

"Less is more," says Bob Toevs, spokesman for Qwest. "Congratulations. You're the first person to ask. We even had scaffolding hanging from the sign, and no one's called."

The holiday gift may have gone unacknowledged, but it's undeniable. The blue beacons encircling the top of Qwest headquarters, at 1801 California Street, first appeared in the summer of 2000, when Phil Anschutz's upstart company took over US West and replaced the Baby Bell's white signs with piercing neon. Curtis Park neighbors quickly started singing the blues, complaining so loudly that Denver officials took a look at their sign code and realized that nothing within those aged guidelines -- which allow signs to take up 3 percent of a building's exterior but say nothing about how bright those signs can be -- gave the city the right to tell Qwest to tone it down. And so people from dozens of miles away -- from Golden, from Georgetown, hell, probably even from Grand Junction, if the Rocky Mountains hadn't gotten in the way -- continued to grouse that they were guided by a very unwelcome light.

Although Qwest has met with neighbors' groups over the years, their plaintive plea for respite wasn't the motivation for the change. Neither was the lawsuit filed in Seattle in September, when members of the Save Our Skyline group protested the large, non-glowing Qwest logos added to the former Seahawks Stadium, renamed Qwest Field this summer in a $75 million, fifteen-year deal. (That suit was thrown out last week.) Nor was the dimmer light intended as a reflection of Qwest's prospects for the future in the increasingly consolidating telecommunications industry.

Instead, the real-estate group that oversees the building suggested that changing the lighting system to LEDs could save energy as well as maintenance. "We replaced the neon tubing, which does burn out," says Toevs, whose department stores its records on the 54th floor, where the signs' innards reside, so he knows how complicated the old system was. "Now if the gizmos burn out, the whole sign won't burn out." But enough with the technological jargon, since Toevs also offers this explanation that anyone opening bills this season can understand:

"It will save something like 70 percent in ongoing electricity cost."

And a lot more in aggravation. "The first time I saw it, I was coming home from shopping," says Toevs. "It seems a clearer light. I was delighted to see it."

The switch, completed December 12, was visible immediately -- if you knew what not to look for.

The problem with Qwest's signage wasn't just the wattage, but how that brightness emphasized the blue neon behind the translucent panels (with a white-neon outline adding insult to injury). "Any blue light will appear very bright to us in our nighttime vision," explains lighting engineer Nancy Clanton. "It goes back to when we were cavemen and we relied on the moon, which sheds a blue light."

So when that blue light illuminated the caves of Curtis Park, startling residents out of their slumber, it was only natural that they started hunting down the culprit. Now they can rest easier.

Clanton worked with Boulder County to help develop lighting ordinances last year; Denver is considering adopting a lighting ordinance, too, which would expand on the old sign codes. Douglas County, though, is the real Colorado trendsetter; it recently adopted a maximum brightness level of 1,000 candela per meter squared (or NITs) guideline. Anchorage, another leader in the let-there-be-less-light movement, has decreed that 600 NITs is tops. "It's beginning to enter into sign ordinances," Clanton says of lighting-level guidelines. "Communities really need to look at it."

But in the meantime, the communities around Denver will have to look a little harder to see that Qwest sign. Here where the Mount Lindo cross, the largest electrically lighted sign in the country, still stands guard over the city (its creator, Donald Frees, died earlier this month); where outdoor Christmas lights were invented a century ago for the amusement of a young invalid; where the mere suggestion that an illuminated "Merry Christmas" sign be replaced with a more-inclusive "Happy Holidays" ignites a very contemporary controversy -- Qwest has finally seen the light.

All is calm, all is not quite so bright.


A Drop in the Bucket

The Scrooge-like image rated coverage around the country: four grocery-store employees tackling a Salvation Army bell-ringer.

A ringer in every sense of the word.

The gong show got under way last Thursday when David Duncan, who was stationed at the Salvation Army outpost at the Safeway at Sixth and Corona, started spewing a little too much holiday cheer. "When I walked up, there was a Safeway employee with the bucket, with this little guy trailing behind him," remembers shopper Tana Wedum, who stopped in around two that afternoon. "About thirty seconds later, you heard the sound of the bucket hitting the floor and a guy yelling to the service desk, 'Call 911.'"

Wedum was standing by the service desk, where the clerk seemed frozen. "I took a couple of steps around," she reports, "saw the scuffle and told the clerk, 'No, really, call 911. Tell them two guys are fighting at the front door.'"

While the clerk was on the phone with 911, Wedum provided an eyewitness description of the fracas: "two African-American males, one in a white shirt, red tie, one dressed like a bum." The well-dressed male was the store manager, and the other? "I thought maybe he was trying to steal the bucket," Wedum says.

By the time the cops arrived, four store employees were subduing the bum, who turned out to be the Salvation Army's assigned bell-ringer. "He was a little guy, and it took four men to hold him down," Wedum marvels. "I thought he had to be on meth or crack or something."

It wasn't until she caught news reports the next day that Wedum realized that Duncan, who was on his second year as a bell-ringer and his eleventh outstanding warrant (nine for public consumption of alcohol, two for trespassing), was simply drunk as a skunk. "If drinking gives you this kind of superhuman strength," she says, "I may start drinking a bottle of Jack every night and just leave my doors unlocked."

With thousands of bell-ringers nationwide -- about 200 of them in the Denver area -- the Duncan dilemma represents just a drop in the bucket. The nonprofit faces bigger challenges this season. For example, Target, which has a longstanding no-solicitation policy, recently closed a loophole that had previously exempted the Salvation Army's ringers; Wal-Mart is taking full advantage of its competitor's move by matching donations through Christmas at over 3,600 stores.

And the Salvation Army will take all the help it can get, because so many people out there need help. "We're seeing a lot more working families," says the Army's Becky O'Guin. "They need a little extra help to get them through the first of the year." That's in addition to all of those who can't find work -- even as a bell-ringer, a job that usually involves a more careful vetting process than Duncan went through. With just a few days to go, the Denver battalion is still shy of this year's goal of $950,000; last year, bell-ringers raised $747,000 in the metro area.

But the season's over at the Sixth Avenue Safeway. When Wedum stopped by the store again Monday, there was no bucket or bell-ringer in sight. "I think they've had enough ho-ho-ho for this year," she concludes.

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