Birth of a Notion

Depending on how you measure these things, Westword was born late one night in a college newspaper office, when starting a weekly seemed like a much better idea than typing a resume and finding a real job, or at a rugby game in Washington Park, where the vigor of the participants (both on and off the field) was an intoxicating antidote to the dullness of Denver's dailies, or one afternoon in a fast-food joint on South Colorado Boulevard, when it was suddenly imperative to name the soon-to-be-more-than-hypothetical paper. Westword grew out of many places.

But its heart has always been in lower downtown, the true heart of Denver.
Westword's first office was at 1439 Market Street, a few hundred feet from where gold was first found in Cherry Creek 119 years before, on the second floor of a Victorian-era storefront that still showed the marks of the cribs where long-ago prostitutes had practiced their trade. (Even without taking inflation into account, they made more money than we did.) The walls were painted assorted colors--red, brown, yellow--that blended into a psychedelic blur after days without sleep. The wall-to-wall carpet, sneered at by a Rocky Mountain News reporter in a piece chronicling Westword's September 1, 1977, debut, was out of fashion even then. We outfitted the place with Smith-Corona typewriters still hot from typing those college papers and abandoned couches that emitted stuffing at inopportune times. Certainly the most inopportune was during our earliest bid at respectability: Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, then in just her sixth year in the House of Representatives, came calling. When she left, she unknowingly carried some of our couch away with her--unlike Ronald Reagan, whom she soon would dub the "Teflon" president, Schroeder got stuck with stuff.

We had less august visitors, too. One night we heard feet pounding up our long, narrow flight of stairs. Two bums burst in, carrying bags of carnations they'd given up trying to sell on the street. "We love you guys," they cried, covering that carpet with flowers. "We love you." At other times we'd find bums showering in the sink of the bathroom we shared with our long-suffering landlord.

It wasn't as though he had his pick of tenants. In late 1977, lower downtown was far from the action and years away from gaining a nickname. But if you loved Denver's history, if you loved old brick buildings that glowed rosy at dusk, this was the only place to be. Hippies rubbed elbows with blue-collar workers from the manufacturing operations in nearby warehouses. The neighborhood dives offered three happy hours a day--to coincide with railroad and post-office shifts.

But many of lower downtown's denizens didn't work at all. Every morning when we arrived at the office (assuming we'd actually gone home the night before rather than slept on one of those couches), we'd have to sweep a sleeping bum or two off our doorstep. (Like the neighborhood, they had yet to be tagged with a more politically correct appellation such as "homeless.") And the walk over to our typesetter, who'd found space in one of lower downtown's first rehabbed buildings, the Blake Street Bath and Tennis Club (people living downtown!), was always an adventure in bum-dodging.

Across the street, though, was Cafe Nepenthes, a coffeehouse that stayed open late and served what passed for bagels in the days when John Denver was still making hits. And just a street away was Larimer Square, a block of beautiful Victorian buildings that Dana Crawford had saved from the wrecking ball. While Denver's history was tumbling all around, destroyed by the Skyline urban-renewal project that was supposed to save the city, Larimer Square stood proud, a real tourist attraction.

We thought people who lived in Denver year-round ought to frequent Larimer Square, too. Not just for the annual Oktoberfest, but every week. While young Denverites (remember, this was before any handy labels like "yuppies," before any anysomethings) flocked to Glendale, the real hotspot, full of discos with names like "The Lift," only a handful of Auraria students patronized the bars around Larimer Square. That should change, we thought. So we came up with a plan (not surprisingly, it depended on advertising in Westword) and requested an audience with Dana Crawford. Kindly, she granted us one--but she didn't bite. Locals would never hang out in Larimer Square, she said. (She may remember this differently--but this isn't her anniversary.)

In 1978 the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. We watched at our landlord's house in Washington Park (which wasn't hip then, either), drinking "chabliss" and snickering at the Orange Crush a bit too much to qualify as good guests. Had the Broncos won, the celebration would have been at Stapleton Airport, maybe in Glendale. No one would have thought of going downtown. Hell, there wasn't even a mall there.

Slowly, slowly, things started looking up in lower downtown. Our landlord sold his building to someone who wanted to convert it to a "loft"--a word you rarely heard outside of New York. So the adult "accessories" store that had replaced the futon place downstairs was out, too, and Westword went looking for new space. We found it two blocks away, above the Wazee Supper Club at 15th and Wazee.

The Wazee space had certain amenities, not the least of which was the bar downstairs. The Wazee Supper Club was a real urban pioneer, predating our appearance in lower downtown by many years. It served (and still does serve) award-winning pizzas long into the night and had great beers and plenty of atmosphere on tap; the walls were covered with works by actual starving artists who lived in the neighborhood. Although our office was accessed by another long, dark stairway, there was also a secret exit right into the bar, which we occasionally--and illegally--used when the smell of pizza wafting up through the heating duct grew too seductive to ignore.

Then there was the view, which beat with the very heart of the city. The 15th Street Viaduct ran right outside the office windows, contributing a true urban grit to the place. Although there was no carpet to dirty (effluent from infamous office parties occasionally poured into the bar below), we had some new furniture, donated by followers of the Guru Maharaj Ji, the fifteen-year-old spiritual master who'd moved from Denver on to Florida and a new, blond wife. His old headquarters is now occupied by the Denver Partnership, downtown's preeminent booster group. Om.

And then, of course, there was our landlord, Angelo Karagas, who wouldn't scream when we were late on our rent and whose bartenders would console us with a free drink or two when we watched our cars being booted right outside his bar. The competition for parking was increasing: Other ventures were venturing into lower downtown. Now the streets held galleries, a wine bar or two--and restaurants were even braving the no-man's-land of Union Station.

In 1983 Westword was bought by New Times, a paper out of Phoenix that shared similar sensibilities and actually knew how to make a weekly work. This time Westword outgrew its space, rather than the other way around, and in 1984 we moved to 15th and Platte, to a refurbished building across the street from My Brother's Bar, owned by Angelo's brother, Jim. There wasn't much else on this edge of lower downtown, although the owners who'd renovated the old coffin factory that housed Westword had high hopes. A Chicago restaurateur had been heavily pitched by the city to open Maxfield & Friends, a sports bar, downstairs; a guard would escort customers through the mean streets to their cars. "I've put worse-looking women than you in body bags," he told me cheerfully.

But this up-and-coming area was about to be laid flat by the oil bust. And we weren't alone--all of Denver bottomed out. From our windows, we could gaze across the Platte River to skyscrapers built in the late Seventies and early Eighties, back when the construction crane was the unofficial state bird. Now much of that office space was empty. Downtown Denver had the most miserable vacancy rate in the nation; the only city that collected less rent per square foot was Kuala Lumpur.

In 1987 the Broncos again went to the Super Bowl, this time led by John Elway (he'd been our cover boy back in August 1983, thanks to a guerrilla raid on Bronco training camp conducted by a certain deposed Denver Post gossip columnist--but that's another story). The city prayed for a miracle and painted blue-and-orange stripes down the streets in anticipation of a grand victory celebration. But the Broncos' hopes faded faster than those stripes, a dismal reminder of Denver's desperate situation. When Westword celebrated its tenth anniversary, the issue featured essays by former staffers who'd left town. There were many to choose from.

With the next year came another Super Bowl loss.
It was enough to drive you to drink. Fortu-nately, lower downtown suddenly offered several new options. Dana Crawford had struck again, renovating the wonderful, century-old Oxford Hotel near Union Station; its Cruise Room bar, modeled after a lounge on the Queen Mary, once again glowed with neon. Next door, on snowy nights, McCormick's $1 Irish coffees inspired a warm, neighborly feel. A block away, a couple of unemployed geologists, a brewer and a former Westworder had opened Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, in an old warehouse. They were as surprised as anyone else when warm beer became a hit. Contributing to the 'Koop's success, of course, was a steady stream of Westword staffers, visiting from our digs across the street.

Westword's new home was in the Atrium building, at 1621 18th Street, in a building renovated a decade earlier. It had housed the offices of a publisher who'd had to leave town quickly, under unfortunate circumstances; we invited the Mudmen, a performance group, to perform an exorcism. A few years before, people covered in mud were a not-uncommon sight in this part of town--after all, the area is hard by the river bottoms--but by now it had been dubbed LoDo, and our more upscale neighbors looked askance at such antics.

Whether the exorcism or some other magic--such as another Super Bowl sacrifice, this one in 1990--was responsible, Denver was back on track. Back on track, and moving full speed ahead in LoDo. The Wynkoop soon sported a second-floor pool hall, and the three floors above were converted into lofts. All around us, old buildings were turning into pricey living quarters, and when developers ran out of old buildings to spruce up, they started building new ones. (In the process, they redefined the notion of a "loft," but hey, this is Denver. No one moved here to be bound by tradition.) More galleries and retail spots and restaurants and bars opened. The new residents began complaining about the noise of the newer customers. Progress.

And then a site just north of LoDo--at Blake and 20th streets--was picked as the future home of Coors Field. To the east, neighborhood activists in an area dubbed "NoDough" fought, and fought hard, to make sure that upper Larimer, a modest commercial district that still boasted turn-of-the-century facades, was not bulldozed for parking lots. The six blocks separating this section of Larimer from Larimer Square might as well have been six million miles--but the neighborhood hung on. LoDo's buildings were protected by a historic designation granted in the late Eighties, but that couldn't save the businesses that occupied them. The furniture showrooms disappeared, as did many galleries; most artists had been priced out of LoDo long before. In their place appeared more bars and restaurants.

Still, when you walked over to catch a few innings at Coors Field and watched as the bricks behind the ballpark turned to rose and the sky became that inky Western blue, LoDo's transformation felt like at least a tie game.

By the time the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, there was only one place to party: Larimer Square. The onetime once-a-year attraction had become the town's favorite place to hang. Attorneys playing hooky would ride up on their Harleys, then head into the Market for lattes served by multiple-stud-wearing art students. On weekends, the block was so popular that restaurants started offering valet parking. And on nice winter days, it seemed as though all of Denver lined up just for a seat outside.

Since then, prosperity has continued to overflow into the blocks around Larimer. The Chamber of Commerce is housed in a several-story building next to Westword's original office. Across the street, a chic sushi joint packs them in like sardines; miraculously, there's still a coffeehouse next door, but now it's St. Mark's and the bagels are better.

Development stretches all the way to Platte Street and beyond. An Armadillo now occupies Maxfield & Friends, the local theater may have to make way for a bigger-bucks tenant, and much of the Platte Valley is being cleared for construction--for offices, for residences, for the Pepsi Center. But My Brother's is still there.

So is the Wazee, although the 15th Street Viaduct is gone, and so is Angelo. Last week John Hickenlooper, one of the Wynkoop's founders, bought the place from his widow. The Wynkoop, too, has sustained its losses: The original brewer, Russ Scherer (who created my major claim to immortality when he named a beer after me), passed away two years ago. LoDo whispers with the names of people lost to us over two decades.

Bricks last longer than paper.
But as fans crowd the streets to celebrate the Broncos' Super Bowl victory (fifth time's a charm), this is a place of celebration. So many people were drawn to LoDo Sunday night that 15th Street was closed--an unthinkable act twenty years ago. The 20th Street Viaduct was closed, too--but then, it didn't exist in 1978. Streets that once saw only a few bums at night were filled--filled with people thrilled that Denver had finally won, people thrilled that Denver was home to the world champions (even if the city that's tried for so long to shed its image as a cowtown only confirmed it with "riots" that consisted largely of throwing trash cans, stealing some athletic shoes and flipping over a car or two). People thrilled to be in Denver.

Before Tuesday's victory parade could wind its way to the City and County Building for the usual speechifying and backslapping, it had to pull itself together. The participants, and the crowds, gathered at 17th and Wynkoop in a crush of orange, a clutch of optimism. In LoDo, the heart of the city.

It's been quite a party.


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