By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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William Newton Byers gave Denver a newspaper and a street, and one of them is in no danger of disappearing. The same year he founded the Rocky Mountain News, in 1859, Byers bought 680 acres of land on the banks of the South Platte River. He named the northern border of that parcel Alameda — Spanish for "tree-lined avenue." There aren't many trees left on that part of Alameda today, but as the street stretches out to Lakewood's western edge and the eastern outskirts of Aurora, you'll find lush parkways and mature landscapes.
In between, a forest of ethnic, cultural and religious hubs call Alameda home, from the Buddhist Cultural Center, the Jewish Community Center and the neighboring Greek Orthodox church to St. Cajetan Cathedral and the Salvation Army's Denver Citadel. You'll also find restaurants and small businesses — alongside the chains — of every variety.
Alameda doesn't cut through the three cities as much as it flows — thinning out here and opening up again there. And while its history may not go as far back in Lakewood and Aurora, Alameda does offer a glimpse of the future. Both suburbs have used the avenue to help with large-scale renewal projects. To the west is Belmar; the former home of Villa Italia is now a massive upscale retail/residential development. To the east, the renovated Town Center at Aurora has livened up the once-downtrodden Aurora Mall. Other major landmarks on the way include the Denver Federal Center, a massive government office complex, and the former Lowry Air Force Base, now home to thousands of new homes and a shopping center.
Byers may have been looking only at the trees when he named Alameda 149 years ago, but the avenue has truly sprouted in ways he could never have foreseen.
Buckley Air Force Base
18500 East Alameda Parkway, Aurora
At the farthest edge of Alameda Parkway, just before the street turns south and becomes Tower Road, the early-morning sun glints off six giant white balls — the most striking, and mysterious, landmarks in this part of town.
Make that the most striking, and mysterious, landmarks in any part of town. At the other end of Alameda, dinosaurs left their mark. But these marvels are man-made. They sprang up seemingly overnight in the early '70s, when Buckley Air National Guard Base took on the mission of monitoring the globe and issuing early warnings of any ballistic missile launches. Not that the folks at Buckley were that forthcoming when the giant balls appeared on the horizon three decades ago. Their silence gave rise to all kinds of rumors — that the balls contained missiles themselves or housed aliens; conspiracy websites refer to Buckley as "the largest consolidated electronic intelligence base in the Western Hemisphere." John Spann, a public-affairs officer at Buckley, has a more succinct explanation for the mysterious spheres. "We call them the golf balls," he says. "It's the driving range of the Jolly Green Giant."
Spann has done a lot of driving himself during the 25 years he's worked at Buckley, heading east on Alameda daily from his home in Lakewood. But even as a kid, he was familiar with the street; his family moved to the farthest western subdivision when I-25 gobbled up their home in northwest Denver, and he can remember watching the traffic when the Beatles played Red Rocks in '64 and crowds followed their limo along Alameda.
Alameda has gotten considerably more crowded in the intervening years — and so has Buckley. The facility got its start in 1941, when the City of Denver purchased more than 5,000 acres that it gave to the Department of the Army for a flight training facility that would be an adjunct to Lowry. During World War II, more than 50,000 airmen got their basic training here. After the war, ownership was transferred to the National Guard, which used Buckley primarily as a fighter base. But then the Air Force built those huge balls, giant plastic spheres that house enormous radar dishes on moveable platforms. "They haven't changed since the '70s," Spann says of the devices, technically known as "radomes."
But Buckley has. "We are the fastest-growing Air Force base in the United States right now," Spann notes. The Air Force took Buckley back in 2000 — just in time for all the national security concerns coming out of 9/11 — and it's been building ever since, with three big projects a year, including a leadership center and the first chapel constructed by the Air Force in twenty years. Today, more than 13,000 people work at Buckley, and the facility pours over a billion dollars a year into Aurora's economy. Which Aurora can definitely use, judging from the number of For Sale signs on houses and businesses along the stretch of Alameda leading up to the base.
"For me, the most interesting thing has been the changes over the years," Spann says. "The people are absolutely amazing. Every service is represented, and the younger folks just surprise me every day. We are in good hands with the next generation."
Buckley has even built more balls, although what's inside them isn't public record — giving rise to more rumors of devices that can listen into radio signals and cell phone conversations. "We have a constellation of satellites," Spann says. "We are tied in to the Missile Defense Agency. That's really all I can give you."