In Denver, What Does "Luxury" Really Mean?

One of the many times South Park got real.
One of the many times South Park got real.
southpark.cc.com

By the way the term is being used around this city these days, one would think Denver is the "luxury" capital of America. As new development bullies its way into our neighborhoods, "luxury" is the ubiquitous term used to sell it — "luxury apartments," "luxury high-rises" and "luxury living in the city" are offered around every corner. With luxury comes a high price tag, of course. I'm beginning to think that in Denver in 2015, "luxury" is just another word for "too expensive for most of us." 

This idea of "luxury" is a particularly jarring juxtaposition to the other side of Denver that is seen — but often not talked about — by many residents every day. While all of this neo-Denver luxury abounds, so does an affordable-housing crisis. The October issue of Denver Voice was devoted to "Denver's Hidden Homeless" — families with children, the largest group of people in the Denver metro area experiencing homelessness. How can we be a city filled with so much luxurious living when not everyone can afford the dignity of a place to call home?

A few weeks ago, I suggested some ways those of us with enough could give to those of us in need. When I wrote that piece, the first hard snaps of of winter hadn't yet hit. This past weekend, I was traveling by light rail with some friends when the reality of cold weather came down hard, and the idea of luxury felt like it had a new meaning: Being able to shield yourself from the elements is all too often a luxury in Denver.

I have an affordable place to call home because my roommate is my landlord and she offers me 1990s-era Denver rent prices — that, to me, is luxury. I also have the luxury of a car, and my daily transportation routine entails taking a few snowy steps from my back door to the garage and, at most, five minutes in a cold driver's seat while the engine warms. Standing on the light-rail platform or at a bus stop in freezing temperatures, making transfers, walking several blocks to make connections — these are not things I deal with every day. Because I have a car, I have the luxury of a choice to take or not take public transportation. To me, the amenities that many of us take for granted are what real luxury is, not a six-figure apartment in a newly renamed and now exclusive-feeling part of town.

I visited History Colorado last week for a presentation on the new "Close to Home" campaign, which aims to put a face on Denver's growing homeless population. City government groups and various nonprofit organizations have come together hoping to create a movement that can end homelessness within five years in the metro area. By showing that homelessness can and does happen to anyone and by giving people tools and resources to lend a hand, Close to Home seems to be putting the power in the people. It's definitely a step in the right direction for a city that I believe is full of good humans looking for ways to help. Seeing this presentation, I again reflected on the definition of luxury — in my everyday experience, luxury is to have enough that I can and will help others.

History Colorado also just opened its Searching for Home exhibit, which takes a look at the history of homelessness in Colorado. From showing Baby Doe Tabor's life path of late-1800s luxury into poverty all the way to Denver Homeless Out Loud's current activism, the exhibits made me think that this  current epidemic of luxury vs. reality is hardly a new concept for our cowtown. 

Last month, South Park nailed the "luxury" issue with its rollout of SoDoSoPa, in an episode titled "The City Part of Town." I don't watch the show, but since I talk about Denver's changing face a lot, many people sent me this clip, thinking I would enjoy the commentary. Frankly, it was so spot-on that it made me uncomfortable. "And for those very privileged few, the most private and exclusive ownership opportunity is here," the slick male voice proclaimed over a muted soundtrack of sushi-restaurant techno. It sounded just like the real-life marketing campaigns for RiNo and LoHi and SloHi and every other made-up Denver neighborhood that has been Columbused, reclaimed and sold to the highest bidder over the last decade. It was just too fucking real. 

"Luxury" doesn't have to be a bad word in Denver. But until we face the real issues going on in our city, it will continue to be a divisive term separating the haves from the have-nots. And if there's anything I miss about the idea of a long-dead "old Denver," it's that we used to feel like a place where everyone could afford to belong. As Florence Reece wrote, Pete Seeger repeatedly asked and B. Dolan reminded us, "Which side are you on?" We should not have to take sides when it comes to housing affordability. Luxury should be embodied by a city where everyone belongs and has a safe place to call home. 


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