A Love Letter to Denver, the City I Used to Know
I was born in Denver in 1980. These days, I wear my Colorado nativeness like some entitled badge of honor -- and I've noticed others do, too. I was at a public gathering last week and when a native took the mic to speak, they made sure to mention that they were from here and where they went to high school, as if to send a signal to the rest of us in this not-so-secret club.
Maybe we have always been proud of our roots; maybe everyone who is from somewhere is proud of their roots, too. But lately, as we watch our Queen City of the Plains explode with new people, new businesses and a new cultural identity we aren't familiar with, I feel a shared level of discomfort at the way our visual history is being erased.
In response, I've decided to write a letter to the city I love and the place she used to be. I know that growth and change are inevitable, but sometimes it is also okay to acknowledge that it is happening and to talk about how it feels. This is not a "top ten ways you know you're a Denver native" list; it is just a letter to say thank you and I miss you to the uncool cowtown we used to be.
Courtesy of Buckfifty.org.
I remember you. I remember when I could rent a really nice two-bedroom apartment in Cap Hill for $700, because it wasn't the most desirable spot in town. That apartment would come with a parking spot (sometimes there was a guy rolled up in a carpet sleeping in said parking spot, so I always made sure to check before I pulled in) and the landlord was a real person I might see at the Queen Soopers. (You never rented from Triton Properties or any other company -- the best Cap Hill landlords were and still are leather daddies and cool, weird old ladies.)
That apartment would be just down the street from Gabor's, the first place I drank in public, legally and regularly. A gin and tonic would do; it's what my first boyfriend drank, so I drank it, too (and didn't really know what grown-ups were supposed to drink, anyway). No more buying Sun Peak Peach Boone's Farm from Paul's Liquors with a fake ID. No, at Gabor's it was all class -- stiff drinks, cheap pool, sticky red booths, cheese sticks from a Golden Age of Hollywood-themed menu and Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream in full on the jukebox.
And speaking of Queen Soopers, how lucky we are that you are still here after all of these years? Whole Foods may have infiltrated and Trader Joe's is well on its way to creating a fancy traffic clusterfuck in the Governor's Park area, but you have stood strong. If you grew up here, you know where Queen Soopers is and respect that it is called Queen Soopers and know why it is called Queen Soopers -- because you could (and probably still can) shop alongside neighborhood royalty. Like all eventually "desirable" neighborhoods, Cap Hill and Cheesman Park were where the gays moved in first because they know what's up. Anyone living all high and bougie in these parts now, thank the gays. They made it comfortable for you.
Denver, I miss your strip of Colfax. I know, it's still there. But Smiley's Laundomat isn't. What good is doing your laundry in public if you can't do it while watching a most-likely illegal transaction go down in broad daylight in front of Smiley's soaring, dirty windows while getting hit on by a guy with Kentucky Gentleman breath?
I wish I could still sit in the hard wooden booths at Goodfriends and get a big salad and a cup of coffee from an extra-sassy waiter. I wish I could go to Mammoth Gardens for a show, when that concert hall was still shady and a little bit gross on the inside. But I should be thankful that Colfax hasn't been totally swallowed up and spit out as a one-named bar with 400 craft beers on tap; it means Colfax still has a chance at staying true to its sketchy heart.
I often dream of being able to go back in time to visit the places on Colfax I never knew -- stop by Sid King's Crazy Horse Bar for a Shirley Temple or see the Aladdin Theatre before it became a Walgreens.
Rest In Peace, Hooters/The White Spot.
Courtesy of The Denver Eye.
In high school in the '90s, if we weren't cruising Colfax from the viaduct to Peoria and back, we cruised Larimer Street with the convertible top down, scoping out places that we weren't old enough to get into yet, like the I-Beam. (A special shout-out to Federal Boulevard, because it is still and probably will be forever the greatest drag to cruise.) Back then, downtown Denver stopped at 17th or 18th street -- the rest was a little bit sketchy, but in a great way. Parking didn't cost a fortune and 24-hour meters didn't exist.
It was where the best warehouse shows and dance clubs (Monkey Mania, Arapahoe Warehouse, the Raven, I could go on) could be found. Way back when, El Chapultepec was an oasis and the term "Ballpark Neighborhood" didn't exist. Back then, Tracks Night Club was Tracks 2000, a seedy little joint where I watched my best friends sell drugs on sixteen-and-up night. Map points were given out at shops that don't exist anymore along 13th Avenue for raves that happened illegally in LoDo before it was LoDo.
When I became of age, The Cruise Room was one of the best kept semi-secret spots in downtown. This was before Yelp reviewers were able to publicly misunderstand an actual Prohibition-era bar and give it one star for being "out-of-date." I also remember having my last cigarette in a bar legally in the summer of 2006 -- while I was standing inside Old Curtis Street, a place where you used to be able to book your own shows. The 15th Street Tavern was also a place of many an indoor cigarette -- and some of my favorite shows of all time. (Navy Girls with Gogogo Airheart, if I had to pick one.)
Before I smoked and drank and hung out in warehouses, I spent childhood birthdays at Celebrity Sports Center -- which is now a parking lot for Home Depot. If you remember it, then you know how absolutely fucking magical this place was. Where else could you go bowling and hang out in an arcade AND ride an enclosed water slide that went outside of the building and back in to an Olympic-size pool? I'll never forget speed-walking up the humid and foggy stairwell in a wet bathing suit to the top of the slide, while snow sat on the ground outside of Celebrity.
Denver, remember when you still had mining-themed restaurants and bars? Holler at me if you miss Baby Doe's and remember when we were less renowned for our art scene and more celebrated for our prospector history. I remember when out-of-towners assumed we either loved to ski, loved the Broncos, or loved both. I remember when neighborhoods were known only by directionals -- I went to George Washington High School in south Denver, but I had friends from the northside and the westside. We didn't know what Highland was.
I remember riding all the way down Speer and up to West 38th Avenue past Lehrer's Flowers (seeing "The One Who Cares Calls Lehrer's" sign meant we were almost there) to the original Elitch Gardens when it was a summer destination. And though the Original Chubby's is still busy and bumping any time of the day, you know the restaurant's family-feud history well if you are from here.
I miss many a mall in the area -- Cinderella City defined an era of indoor shopping decadence and was home to Joslins, where I got my first proper haircut when I was seven. It was also home to Funtastic Nathan's, another Mile High City spot where the best birthdays took place if you were born between 1975 and 1985. Buckingham Square was another favorite place to shop (and smoke cigarettes inside.) Tiffany Plaza and Tamarac Square provided a ping-pong of hangouts that straddled Hampden and also great places to be a teenager with cigarettes.
There are so many places and things that I am forgetting now -- perhaps one day I will take the time to remember it all and write a book about how Denver used to look to me. Maybe your version of Denver looks different; for each pocket of a neighborhood where we spent our time -- I'm proud to be from a little 'hood called Virginia Village -- there are strip malls, mom-and-pop shops, beauty parlors and 7-Elevens that mean something to you and deserve to be celebrated.
As I was writing my first draft of this letter last week, I asked my Facebook friends -- who are luckily from many different age groups and neighborhoods in the Denver metro area -- to share their favorite places and things about old Denver. Here is a list of their responses, from one-of-a-kind spots to celebrate to national chains and not-legit venues, in no particular order:
Cheap rent (this one was echoed many, many times) Dive bars downtown Warehouse shows Cinderella Drive In Video One (when it was on Colfax) Airplane Park (when you could still climb on the plane) The Snake Pit AMC Colorado Plaza 6 The Tiffin Inn Brentwood Plaza Dance-O-Tron (monthly dance party held at various locations in Denver) Villa Italia Mall The Cooper Theater The Continental (when it was a one-screen) Lancer Lounge Tower Records The Shoppe Various mom and pop Mexican restaurants (go see Lechugas before it is gone!) Hysteria Rock Bar Double Entendre (Original) WaterCourse Twilight Golf Course Old South Pearl - before the yuppie takeover Denver Book Mall The Red Slipper Casa Del Soul Big Lots Benders Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek Twisted Sol American Aces Twist & Shout on Alameda Sunnie's Ice Cream & Laundromat Ichabods Books MacFrugal's Amsterdam The Foxhole Cafe Euphrates Dragon Lowriders Muddy's Breakdown Books (The old) Paris on the Platte The Drumstick Restaurant Montgomery Ward Rainbow Music Hall Mary and Lou's Cafe Punk Rock Row (now condos on 13th and Corona) 60 South "Off the Wall" dance night at Hi-Dive Climax Lounge Flavors Choosy Mothers Warehouse Soulciety Red Room Shamrock Bar The White Spot Jake's Auto Parts Fistell's Jolly Time Arcade in Cinderella City Time Warp Comics Al's Hobby Shop Sunshine Records Crystal's Pizza Carbones Cricket on the Hill Rock Island Fallen Skate Warehouse Pancho's Villa The Monkey Bean Sports Field Roxxx Panther Country Villa Villa Kula The Aunt House Megahouse Taki's Golden Bowl Pagliacci's Wolfe's BBQ The movie theater at the Tivoli Galaxy Electronics Arabian Bar The Squire (before the remodel) Hill-Top Tavern Music Bar Clandestino's Revoluciones The Construct Rebis Gallery Cheapo Disc's on 6th and Grant Ned's Mile High Magic & More Polyester's Pegasus Lounge McNichols Arena Rodney's in Cherry Creek Fish Dance night club Dante Bichette's Sports Grill & Roadhouse 23 Parrish Strings The Blue Plate Special at old Watercourse Wheelbarrow (pre-Rhinoceropolis) Hipster Youth Halfway House Garageland Shoshone House The bookstore inside Paris on the Platte Imi Jimi The jukebox at Streets of London Deadbeat Club The Garage Club Onyx St. Mark's on Market Street Fashion Disaster The Colfax trolly The Tabor Center (when it was a real mall) Synergy Mars Las Margaritas The Flick Duffy's Recycle Records Shakespeare's Pool Hall Downtown Hobbies Jerry's Record Exchange Fun Plex Cafe Netherworld City Spirit Kontents Hottie Groovalistic Together World Koochi Koochi Roofless parties Smiley's Organ Grinder Dolly Madison Ground Zero Mercury Cafe when it still had punk shows Lost Lake Warehouse (not the bar) The Peppermill Funtastic Nathan's The Riviera Papas Grocery
What are your favorite memories of long-gone places of the Mile High City? You should write them down -- and take pictures of the spots that are still standing -- before you forget and they're gone. Before you know it, everything you love will have become a bourgie clothing store or artisan cheese shop, a condo you can't afford or a gastropub with an ampersand in its name and the visual signal of the end of something really, truly Denver.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.