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
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
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)
Various mom and pop Mexican restaurants (go see Lechugas before it is gone!)
Twilight Golf Course
Old South Pearl - before the yuppie takeover
Denver Book Mall
The Red Slipper
Casa Del Soul
Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek
Twist & Shout on Alameda
Sunnie's Ice Cream & Laundromat
(The old) Paris on the Platte
The Drumstick Restaurant
Rainbow Music Hall
Mary and Lou's Cafe
Punk Rock Row (now condos on 13th and Corona)
"Off the Wall" dance night at Hi-Dive
Choosy Mothers Warehouse
The White Spot
Jake's Auto Parts
Jolly Time Arcade in Cinderella City
Time Warp Comics
Al's Hobby Shop
Cricket on the Hill
Fallen Skate Warehouse
The Monkey Bean
Sports Field Roxxx
Villa Villa Kula
The Aunt House
Taki's Golden Bowl
The movie theater at the Tivoli
The Squire (before the remodel)
Cheapo Disc's on 6th and Grant
Ned's Mile High Magic & More
Rodney's in Cherry Creek
Fish Dance night club
Dante Bichette's Sports Grill & Roadhouse
The Blue Plate Special at old Watercourse
Hipster Youth Halfway House
The bookstore inside Paris on the Platte
The jukebox at Streets of London
St. Mark's on Market Street
The Colfax trolly
The Tabor Center (when it was a real mall)
Shakespeare's Pool Hall
Jerry's Record Exchange
Mercury Cafe when it still had punk shows
Lost Lake Warehouse (not the bar)
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
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