I was raised in the shadow of the Savery Savory Mushroom tower at 110th and Federal. My cutest back-to-school outfits were purchased at the Westminster Plaza JC Penney store at 72nd and Federal. My favorite Denver landmark is the giant cowboy who guards the Rustic Ranch Trailer Park at 5565 Federal. The first and only job I was ever fired from (caught drawing cartoons while on the clock) was at the Herald-Dispatch newspaper at 314 Federal. So imagine my sadness at learning that the strip that's given me so much life is a certified death trap!
And I'm not speculating about the mortal dangers of visiting the numerous liquor stores, tattoo parlors and porn shops that line my favorite street. I'm talking about just trying to get to them. In the nine-block stretch of Federal between Alameda and Sixth Avenue, commuters and pedestrians alike are 3.6 times more likely to suffer a fatal collision than on any other street in Denver. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation's Federal Boulevard Environmental Assessment Study (www.federalblvd.com), people using this corridor are also 3.7 times more likely to experience property damage and 3.4 times more likely to be injured. With those kinds of statistics, I surmise that if I park my ass at one of the picnic tables outside of Grandpa's Burger Haven at 23 South Federal, I will be 3.6 times more likely to witness some exciting rear-ending and/or sideswiping action.
I decide to check out this theory. Since the evening rush hour is on, I figure my safest transportation alternative is the bus.
Dangerous stretch of Federal
At West 29th Avenue, I board the #31 heading down Federal. The driver has a witty comeback for all of my route-related questions, and her fan base, clustered in seats up front, chuckles at her wisecracks. My seatmate is a young male with a sketchbook. He's working on a pencil drawing that includes an elaborate heart at the top of the page, followed by graffiti-styled script that reads, "I Love..." I can't make out the name, since he keeps blocking the page with his arm, but I have to admire his passion. It brings back with embarrassing clarity all of my own elaborate crush drawings, as well as their astounding rate of failure at making love connections.
Before I can warn him of his folly, the driver announces that the next stop will be the Federal Exchange, and Loverboy starts to pack up. A good third of the passengers get off at the oversized bus stop located in the southwest corner of the Invesco Field parking lot. While I wait for the #30 to continue south on Federal and other riders scramble to exchange tokens for cigarettes, I enjoy the lovely view of downtown Denver. RTD does a nice job with connections at the Federal Exchange; the wait is so short that most of the smokers have to knock the cherry off of their cigarettes and carry their stinky butts on board.
I sit in the back with a group of would-be rappers, who pull out their notebooks and engage in a heated debate about spelling. But I don't hear the end, because the bus has just crossed Sixth Avenue into the danger zone, and I must get off in order to catch the action up close and personal.
That's easy on this stretch of Federal, RTD's third most-used corridor, which I'm now calling the Federal Death Trap. The area is characterized by three lanes going south, two lanes going north, and a center turn lane. Each of the lanes is between eight and ten feet wide rather than the preferred twelve. Each business has its own driveway. The cross streets are offset, forcing pedestrians to either enter or exit the street mid-block. The entire boulevard slopes eastward, and through the course of time, heat and gravity have forced the asphalt to bunch up against the concrete curbs.
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The City of Denver and the Colorado Department of Transportation have been trying to fix the Federal Death Trap since 1995, but residents have been resistant. The 2002 Blueprint Denver labels the street an "area of change," and basically calls for the condemnation, scraping and complete rebuilding of the neighborhood. Last October, the state transportation department presented the neighbors with three variations on a raised median, trees and decorative streetlights theme. All three were rejected because businesses want easy customer access and tree-free viewing of their signage. Although talks are ongoing, I'm guessing a compromise will soon be reached that calls for a raised median that allows U-turns, and light poles with festive banners instead of trees. After all, only pedestrians need shade -- and only an idiot would walk along this part of Federal. Especially the sidewalk on the east side, which is right next to the roadway. I can practically smell the breath of the passengers who shout "Fuck you" and "Faggot!" as they speed past. But I don't let this prevent me from enjoying the many handpainted signs that grace this stretch. My favorites include the Yee Ha-Ha shoot-out scene on the face of El Ballezana Western Wear at 45 Federal, and the glorious wall mural devoted to Hispanic beauty and achievement that's painted on the south side of Roos Only, a poorly named Subaru automotive shop that also claims to repair Toyotas and Hondas.
I manage to arrive safely at Grandpa's Burger Haven, and thank my lucky stars that I'm able to hold a strawberry shake. On average, the Denver Police Department responds to an accident in the Federal Death Trap once every 36 hours, but during my rush-hour visit, I haven't heard so much as a siren.
I board the northbound #30 at Second Avenue -- and find myself sitting right behind Loverboy. He doesn't look at me. He's listening to a middle-aged man with crutches, who's relating a back-in-the-day story about how cruisers used to gridlock Federal on summer nights. Even with millions of dollars in street improvements, that's exactly what the Federal Boulevard Environmental Assessment Study predicts for 2030.
If we live that long.