Denver's streetcar routes are retraced by the Rail~Volutionaries

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To the stroller-pushing mommies and patio-side drinkers who lined West 32nd Avenue on Sunday afternoon, it probably looked like just another Cruiser ride, as thirty folks on bikes trekked up the Highland hills in Sunday's 100-degree heat.

Yet this sweaty mass, organized by the Denver New Rail~Volutionaries, was on a mission to retrace a living thread of Denver history: The Denver Tramway Company's Number 5 streetcar line.

That streetcar line cut from downtown to Lakeside and beyond from the late 1800s until 1950. Remnants of the streetcar route remain, everything from exposed tracks to faded murals and signs that mark the site of once-thriving markets and merchants. An easy (albeit uphill) ride or a long stroll, the route is a reminder of the role mass transit played in Denver's development and, some hope, an inspiration for the future of citywide transit.

Organized by the Denver New Rail~Volutionaries -- a cohort of urban planners, transit analysts, architects and other young professionals for whom the city's development is a hobby as well as a vocation -- the tour was a wheel-level exploration of the role Denver streetcars played in seeding some of the city's liveliest neighborhoods, including the areas now known as Lower Highland, Highland and Berkeley.

"So many people have no idea that streetcars were an essential part of the entire city," says New Rail president Steven Chester, who works in the city's planning office. "The neighborhoods along 32nd, South Gaylord, South Pearl; these are all on old streetcar lines. The memory has been so erased since the '50s, when driving took over."

Sunday's tour kicked off at the site of the old Denver Tramway Powerhouse, now a massive REI", and once the starting point for streetcar route 5, one of the major arteries that connected north Denver to downtown. Launched at a time when liquor licenses were priced at a prohibitive $5,000 each -- an attempt to protect the area from the corruption of dirty Denver below -- the route laid the foundation for the 80211, a zip code many Denverites know for its dizzying number of cafes, bars and boutiques that pop up in main-street-style clusters.

From downtown, the route moved up Tejon Street to 32nd, across Federal to Highland Square, over and up to the former site of Elitch Gardens,, where the outdoor carousel still stands (and the old amusement park is still home to one of the city's largest, most accessible walking labyrinths).

Then it was off to Berkeley Park -- once a resort location for upper-crust Denverites looking for a reprieve from the summer heat, now home to a library and a public pool filled with splashing kids. The route concludes at the grand entrance to Lakeside Amusement Park, former site of a major streetcar stop.

Along the way, planning experts shared history and pointed out things to look for, like the visible tracks in the asphalt on the corner of 33rd Avenue and Perry Street, and the wide intersection at 32nd and Tejon Street, which allowed streetcars to safely turn.

Since forming this spring, the Denver New Rail~Volutionaries have hosted happy hours and events designed to raise awareness and celebrate "the past, present and future" of transit as an engine of growth and sustainability. And while the young organization mostly attracts planner-types who "like riding around on the weekend, looking at good examples of last-built form," it's open to anyone with an interest in how human beings move around an urban core -- which pretty much means everyone.

"We're hoping to raise awareness and gain a critical mass of people who are interested in the question of what transit can do, as far as the growth of the region," Chester says. "People may not realize how easy it is to walk to a light rail station. We're here to help build momentum around the discussion of the role of transit in building a more livable city."

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