How Lower Downtown Denver Went From LoDo to BroDo
The dance floor at Lodo’s Bar and Grill is ready to pop. At 9 p.m. on a Friday night, the place feels like a party’s about to break out, and the DJ clearly senses it, raising his fist and yelling, “Yeahhhhh! Where my Bieber fans at?”
But not everyone is here to boogie; the scene is also being studied by a more detached observer, a local writer named Allison who is meticulously narrating the social phenomenon unfolding before us. “The wolves are starting to position themselves on the periphery,” she notes, pointing to a group of men who have just arrived and are toeing the edge of the dance floor. “And look! There’s a drunk deer entering the clearing. Watch what happens here!”
By “drunk deer,” Allison really means “drunk woman,” who at once begins swaying in an uncoordinated fashion while clutching a brightly colored cocktail.
Sure enough, the deer is alone on the dance floor for just three seconds before she is latched onto by a wolf with a man bun.
“Wow, look at this mating dance!” Allison exclaims. She then directs our attention to some of the men who are left mate-less on the sidelines. “Those two, who were waiting, have missed their chance,” she observes. “They’re probably from the suburbs, though, so they’re still excited to be here.”
What we are witnessing, she says, is textbook “bro” behavior.
While there is no formal definition for a “bro” (or “bruh”) in any authoritative text like the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has become colloquial, referring to young, usually white, men who are characterized as being party-loving, materialistic, egotistical, vain and most probably sexist.
Over the years, Allison has learned to identify bros through what she calls “unfortunate” personal experiences, and she’s written extensively about the typology of the male species for her blog, “Hilarious Dating Exploits of a Nice Girl in Menver.”
On a typical Friday night, she has invited Westword to follow her on an anthropological study of the bar scene in Denver’s lower downtown neighborhood, commonly known as LoDo — the 25-square block area geographically bounded by Speer Boulevard, 20th Street, Larimer Street and Wewatta Street. She’s going to explain the bar scene to us, break down the concept of a “bro,” and provide evidence of how today’s LoDo has changed significantly from years past, when the area was much different from what it is today — especially before bros began taking over every Friday and Saturday night.
On this particular Friday, Allison suggests that we pre-game at a bar on Blake Street called Hayter’s, which she assures us is an ideal location for studying bros in their natural habitat.
It’s not long before she makes contact with one, a bearded variety wearing a baseball cap who’s sitting on a corner bar stool.
“Who’s that?” the subject slurs, extending his index finger from a Bud Light bottle and pointing it at Allison’s face.
The two engage in a brief, bizarre conversation about Donald Trump (unprovoked, the bro announces that he’s a Trump supporter because “the world economy sucks”) before Allison retreats to report her findings.
“Apparently, I attract the washed-up bros now,” she sighs. “Because that bro was too old to be a prime-of-his-life bro. He might have a wife who’s letting him be here, and that’s why he’s so fucked up.”
Allison thinks her self-deprecating humor is one reason that people read her blog. She began “Nice Girl in Menver” three years ago at the insistence of her friends, who marveled not only at Allison’s frequent and disastrous dating experiences in the Mile High City, but also at her snarky ability to relate them. Since then, she has spared few details in her written entries, which is why she does not use her real name anywhere on the blog. (She asked Westword to refer to her by the pseudonym “Allison” because she doesn’t want the men she writes about to be able to search for her online and read the things she’s said about them.) “You don’t want to become a pariah,” she explains. The only person that she’s dated and told about the blog was her ex-boyfriend, and she didn’t write any entries during the nine months they were together.
As of late, though, she is single again, and so she’s back at it. Allison says that she still has an extensive backlog of dating misadventures that she has not yet shared from the past ten years since moving to Denver from Maryland at the age of 23. “When I first moved here, I remember there was a series of articles about the men-to-women ratio in Denver and how it made the city like ‘Menver,’” she says, explaining the inspiration for her blog’s title.
And within the greater metropolis of Menver, LoDo has always been one of the more captivating scenes to write about, though Allison says her understanding of the bar scene here mostly comes from her early days of going out, before she learned of neighborhood bars in different parts of the city. Regardless, she has always applied a writer’s eye when documenting the culture of bros, whom she finds endlessly fascinating.
After deconstructing her exchange with the Trump bro, she ruminates on where he fits within the larger bro kingdom and how he may have evolved as a specimen.
“I think of it like the stages of moral development proposed by Kohlberg,” Allison says. “There are various stage models — like, if you were going to have typical milestones for a fully formed adult bro, from nineteen to thirty years old would be their prime bro time.”
She lets that thought hang while taking a sip of a vodka and soda. “Of course, there are some bros who are a bit delayed in their development. And then there are guys who get divorced and want to have a second bro-hood. This is like a secondary browth — a re-browth, if you will.”
With this clarification, she decides that the Trump bro must be on his secondary browth. That explains why he’s still at Hayter’s in his mid-thirties.
But while Allison has her theories to explain bros and the nighttime culture in BroDo, she admits that she does not know much about the history of the lower downtown neighborhood, which she’s only experienced as a bro stamping ground.
LoDo was actually Denver’s first neighborhood, established by General William Larimer Jr. in 1858 after the discovery of gold at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Before that, the area had been inhabited by Native Americans, including the Arapaho tribe.
Within decades of the white settlers’ arrival, Denver developed into a regional trading hub, especially after the introduction of railroad lines linking the city to other parts of the country in the 1870s. By then, the area that comprises present-day LoDo had become a true cowtown, with rancorous saloons and brothels and classic buildings — some that still exist today, like the Denver City Railway Company Building at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop streets.
The reason that some of these buildings still exist is because in March 1988, after more than a century of economic booms and busts, Denver City Council enacted a zoning ordinance that gave the neighborhood historical-designation status, officially changing its name to the Lower Downtown Historic District and guaranteeing that the old warehouse buildings that lined the streets could not be demolished without city permission, unlike so many of the downtown buildings wiped away by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in the ’60s and ’70s. (Although Union Station was not included in the 23-block district, its recent renovation has made the area even more popular.)
But the area is rarely referred to as the Lower Downtown Historic District. That’s because around the same time, it acquired the catchy “LoDo” nickname, and Lodo District Inc. was established in 1989 to promote businesses and revitalization in the area.
The nickname was invented by Dick Kreck, then a columnist for the Denver Post, who used it in some of his articles.
Recalling that origin story, Kreck says that in 1983, his ex-wife, Vicky Gits, called him one day from New York, where she was attending Columbia University. “She called me and said, ‘You know, one of the cool things about New York is all the different neighborhood names,’” Kreck recalls.
Among the names she mentioned was “SoHo,” which New Yorkers use to mean “south of Houston Street.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we got something like that in Denver?” Gits asked. “How about ‘area below Wazee?’”
“I said, ‘No, that doesn’t work,’” Kreck remembers. “So then I got to thinking about lower downtown, and I shortened it to ‘LoDo’ and put it in a column in September of 1983. I didn’t think I was a great genius for thinking of it, but now I wish I had patented it,” he adds with a chuckle, pointing out that other neighborhood rebrandings like LoHi and RiNo would soon follow. And for years, he says, writers at the competing daily, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, were barred from using “LoDo,” to distance themselves from the Post.
But restaurants and other commercial ventures moving into the area weren’t shy about using the LoDo name. Among them was Colorado’s first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co., which not only helped revitalize the area after it opened in 1988, but gave one of its founders, John Hickenlooper, the public recognition to later become mayor of Denver and now governor of Colorado.
Kreck, whose license plate reads “Mr. Beer,” was a frequent visitor to the Wynkoop. “Those businesses down there were trying to give some identity to the place,” he says. “Because back in the ’70’s and ’80s, there wasn’t all that much there beyond places like Larimer Square and El Chapultepec.... North of Larimer Square was like skid row.”
Paul Italiano, who used to deejay at nightclubs in the area that no longer exist, says he misses the days when the area was considered “sketchy.”
“You had everybody on the wild side,” he recalls fondly. “It was artists, new-wavers, punk-rockers and a lot of the gay community.”
One of his favorite spots to deejay was Rock Island, which was underneath one of the old viaducts that used to span the Platte River and then extended as a network of elevated roadways over parts of lower downtown, including Rock Island’s location on 15th Street right by the Wazee Supper Club. “So there were all these bridges that came in from north Denver, and anything that was going on under them was cool and spooky and a bit dangerous,” says Italiano.
Rock Island, in particular, was an epicenter of cool, an edgy establishment that was unmarked, so “if you didn’t know where you were going, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” Italiano explains.
From the time Rock Island opened in 1986, “we just had way too much fun,” says co-founder David Clamage. “Over a twenty-year run, it was great. How you looked or dressed made zero difference to us. If you liked the music we liked, you were one of us. LoDo was also a more authentic neighborhood back then. It was an environment where people didn’t have to comb their hair and put on a coat and tie and act like somebody they weren’t — and the bums on the street mixed just as well as the people coming in to [Rock Island] to dance. Nobody judged anybody.”
But a lot would change beginning in the early 1990s.
“Once the viaducts came down and Coors Field went in, that was the end of all of it,” Italiano remembers.
In April 1995, the 50,398-capacity Coors Field opened on the edge of LoDo after more than $200 million had been invested in financing its construction.
With the new bars that accompanied the ballpark came a new crowd, and Italiano remembers a period when there was a real culture clash in LoDo. “It was weird,” he says. “On Friday night, the [Rockies] games would get out, and places like Rock Island would fill with purple jerseys. And you’re like, ‘This isn’t a sports bar, this is a punk bar.’”
Clamage also remembers tension between new residents in the area and those who were already denizens of LoDo. At one neighborhood meeting in the early 1990s, he remembers, a new resident who had moved into the recently renovated Edbrooke Lofts at 15th and Wynkoop streets — the first loft project downtown, which today has close to 20,000 residents — stood up and said, “You’re like the farmer, Dave. The town has grown around you. It’s time for you to move on.”
“And so we were made to feel unwelcome after a while,” Clamage says.
As sports fans packed new bars, some of the old dives closed, or went upscale. The popular gay bar Tracks moved further up Market Street, to what would be nicknamed RiNo a decade later.
Despite all the changes, Rock Island hung on until 2007 before shutting its doors. And until its last breath, Italiano swears, the place stayed true to its nature. “The bros were the enemy,” he says.
Now it seems that bros are the norm in LoDo — or, at the very least, a well-represented demographic. After Hayter’s, Allison leads us to the courtyard at ViewHouse, which technically lies just outside the boundary of LoDo, in the 2000 block of Market Street. Nonetheless, Allison says, it’s a common stop among bar-hopping BroDo bros.
She wants us to examine the groups playing cornhole, a game that involves tossing beanbags across an open space and trying to land them within circular cutouts in angled pieces of plywood.
“Unlike a college town, there aren’t too many frat bros here, so instead we get trust-fund bros and this real sports mentality in Denver,” Allison says as we watch beanbags flying back and forth across the courtyard. “On the East Coast, they have the sports thing, too, I suppose, but it’s mostly aggressive and involves people throwing shit out of windows. In Denver, it’s a friendly type of bro scene.”
Right as she says this, however, two young men stride to the middle of the courtyard from their respective cornhole boards and begin arguing. Standing on the AstroTurf, they look like generals from opposite sides of a battlefield negotiating the terms of war. There’s no mutual love or one-armed man-hugging going on between these bros, and Allison looks on, clearly fascinated by the spectacle.
“This is not a typical cornhole match!” she points out excitedly. “Usually it’s two teams of two, so there may be specialized rules for mano-a-mano cornhole going on here, which is why they’re disagreeing.”
Typically, she says, “cornhole is designed to impress the girl who’s not good at cornhole, or at least make her feel like she’s good and is just like one of the guys.” Indeed, aside from the two bros entangled in the cornhole war council, most of the other matches are coed.
It’s also obvious that there’s a variety to bros, a fact that Allison affirms as she educates us with a brief taxonomy.
“You’ve got the wingman bro,” she begins, pointing toward a guy returning from the bar with multiple Coors bottles. He hands one to a friend who reaches out and grabs the beer without diverting his attention from the woman he’s flirting with.
“Then there’s the ski bro,” she continues, nodding toward a tall, granola-looking guy with high socks and a thick bush of hair that sticks out from the back of his trucker hat.
“The all-American bro,” she says, signaling toward two men with Ralph Lauren polo shirts and slack-jawed expressions.
“And, whoa — I’ve never seen that! A pirate bro!” she exclaims as she spies a man wearing an eye patch. “I’ll bet that it’s pinkeye.”
It’s important to acknowledge that bro culture is largely fueled by the pursuit of women, Allison reminds us. There are even female bro equivalents you can call “bro hoes” or “basic bitches,” she notes, depending on your preference. But both are essentially the same thing — “the female counterparts that go hand-in-hand with bros.”
They are not completely equal in all aspects, though; when it comes to age, Allison says, there’s a double standard for women. “You don’t see older women creeping on younger guys in LoDo. That’s only in Cherry Creek, and even then you can’t just be an older lady,” she explains. “You have to be a rich older lady.”
This despite the fact that, even though a woman in LoDo would likely be labeled a “cougar” if she’s deemed too old, there are plenty of creepy older men who refuse to give up the hard-partying bro tendencies of their youth.
Allison says this becomes particularly apparent on BroDo dance floors, where older men sometimes try their hand at attracting younger women.
According to Frank Schultz, who owns the popular Tavern chain — including the Tavern Downtown, at 1439 Market Street — dancing is an expected part of the Friday and Saturday night experience in LoDo.
“We have to convert to dance at night,” he says. “ViewHouse converts to dance. Lodo’s converts to dance. That’s the only way we can keep the people in.”
While he originally opened his Market Street location in 1997 as a live-music venue called the Soiled Dove, he rebranded it as the Tavern (and moved the Dove to Lowry) in 2006 to adapt to LoDo’s younger and sports-crazed crowds. By then, new bars were all over the area, which had become a national landmark when the Real World came to Denver in 2003. “As more bars came in, people said, ‘Let’s park and go from bar to bar to bar to bar,’” Schultz says.
Of course, this development hasn’t been without its problems.
“On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s definitely a shitshow outside,” says Angela Guerrero, who runs the area’s oldest bar, El Chapultepec.
The legendary jazz bar at the corner of 20th and Market streets — which opened in 1933 and has hosted innumerable music greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra — is a stubborn holdout from a bygone era. In order to adapt to the times, Guerrero says, she and her father Jerry Krantz, who passed away in 2012, had to diversify their music from live jazz seven nights a week, as well as implement a new policy: “I close fifteen minutes before the other bars, like Lodo’s and the Tavern,” she says. “One of the reasons I do that is so we can get to our cars safely.”
Part of the reason she’s worried about her customers getting to their cars is because they have to travel much farther than they did thirty years ago, when they could park in front of the bar; LoDo’s popularity has made finding parking a challenge. But it also comes from a concern about violence during let-out, when the patrons of the bars crammed into LoDo sometimes get into fights as they all exit onto the streets at closing time.
The issue came to a head in 2010, following a number of shootings in the 1800 block of Market Street at let-out. There have occasionally been shootings since then, including an incident in September 2015, when three women and a man were injured during a shootout at 19th and Blake streets. And last month, there was a shooting near the 1400 block of Market.
Statistics from the Denver Police Department show that when it comes to violent crimes — homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults — occurring in LoDo between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m., the numbers for the first five months of 2016 are consistent with those of the past: From January through May of this year, 34 violent crimes occurred around let-out time, as compared to the average of 29 that occurred during the first five months of each of the previous four years.
According to Commander Antonio Lopez of District 6, which includes the LoDo area, “We haven’t had anything really too out of hand, so I think we’re in a good position right now. I think private business owners and bars are being very responsible. They’re working closely with us, and they’re hiring extra security personnel to better manage their spaces, so we’re grateful for that.”
Schultz insists that things have improved during the last three years. “We’ve had a lot less problems,” he says. “We have a lot of meetings with District 6 police and plan ahead for events.”
For context, he compares the environment in LoDo to bar scenes in other parts of the country, like the area outside of Wrigley Field in Chicago. “Whenever you have more people, there’s potential for more problems,” he points out.
At the same time, more people means more profit. And clearly, the packed bars in LoDo are making a killing on weekend nights, where a twelve-ounce light beer runs $5 at many establishments.
Allison would agree that today’s LoDo has become a destination.
“I think there’s a high proportion of people who hang out in LoDo who don’t live inside Denver city limits,” she says, citing partiers who come in from surrounding communities like Broomfield, Littleton and Westminster. “So it’s like a special experience for them.”
But after frequenting LoDo’s bars for a couple of years, she realized that for her, “this is kind of terrible,” she says. “When you’re young, or you first come here from out of state and don’t know any better, you think that’s what you’re supposed to do — go to LoDo. But Denver has great neighborhoods and neighborhood bars, and that’s what I later figured out.”
She also figured out that she and her girlfriends were apt to drink more and be reckless when they were younger. Allison claims that during her first year in Denver, a friend was roofied after she was left alone with a guy on a rooftop bar in LoDo. Even though Allison helped get the friend home and she ended up being okay, “that kind of sketched all of us out about this area,” she says.
Now that she’s in her early thirties, Allison says, she usually comes to LoDo just for one-off events like St. Patrick’s Day, the occasional bachelorette party, or to experience celebrations like the Broncos’ recent Super Bowl win.
By now it’s 10 p.m., and the dance floor at Lodo’s is no longer just a series of isolated mating dances between individual deer and wolves; things are quickly getting to the point where one must either commit to seeing the night all the way through or cut out while there’s still some chance at sobriety.
Then a sobering moment occurs, when a younger co-worker of Allison’s recognizes her and says hello.
They’re both surprised to find each other here, and Allison is a little embarrassed, seeing that, by her own standards, she’s getting to be on the older side for BroDo’s clubs.
She decides to wrap up our study, which means we won’t make it to let-out tonight. But a survey of the crowd suggests that quite a few bros will, and they’re having a great time.
And why shouldn’t they?
Even some people who lament the disappearance of the old LoDo, like David Clamage of Rock Island, acknowledge that a vibrant city needs a centralized entertainment district. He recognizes that LoDo fulfills a demand. “Now it reflects what a lot of people in Denver want; they want to go to the ballpark, or a nightclub, or a restaurant that they feel reflects their taste,” he says.
“I’m just waiting to see if we’ll ever have another LoDo,” he says. “I mean, LoDo as it used to be.”
For now, at least, bros rule over Denver’s lower downtown.
Watch a glimpse of LoDo after dark below.
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