As a person born and raised in Denver who is very vocal about her love for (and criticisms of) the Mile High City, I often get asked to recommend things to do and places to see when people are visiting Denver. I'm no tourist information center, but do I spend a lot of time just being in the city — I regularly walk neighborhoods across town, from the Northside to Sun Valley, South Pearl Street to Five Points, taking photos and taking note of what is happening to and around Denver.
Trips to Lakeside Amusement Park and Casa Bonita always get my endorsement; Colfax Avenue and Broadway are worth a wander for both the people-watching and the shopping. From the Gothic and the Oriental to the Ogden and the Bluebird, our old movie houses turned music venues are so cool inside that tourists should definitely take in a concert. Topping my list of Queen City of the Plains must-see-and-always-free attractions is our incredible network of public parks.
One place that never seemed to make it onto into my top-of -the-town list? The 16th Street Mall.
I went from being a teenager smoking cigarettes at the Paramount Cafe to being a twenty-something drunk who frequented all sorts of terrible clubs with one-word names that no longer exist on the mall to a thirty-something who got exhausted just thinking about dealing with Rockies game traffic, the annoying maze of one-way streets and the never-ending construction on 15th Street just to get to the mall.
When someone said 16th Street Mall, I thought "tourist trap." I thought of a place lined with weekday business-lunch-oriented fast-casual restaurants, tourists walking at a sloth-like pace in matching Colorado flag shirts, and chain stores I could find in any suburban enclave. Basically, you couldn't pay me to go to the 16th Street Mall for any reason other than to rescue someone else who somehow got stranded on mall. There as just nothing for me there. Or so I thought.
Over this summer, I've found myself on the 16th Street Mall quite a bit — and it turned out to be a happy accident. Since the Downtown Denver Partnership began shutting down the Mall Ride buses on the weekends and making the area pedestrians-only for its Meet in the Street programming, I've seen a new side of the mall. From interactive art installations to wrestling and comedy in the same ring to live music coming from a different stage on every block, those weekend street parties were the local arts-driven showcases I've dreamed of sharing with visitors to Denver.
Many of my close friends are Denver musicians, and catching them on a weekend afternoon playing an outdoor gig (and getting paid for it) is exactly the kind of thing I'd recommend to out-of-towners. (It should be noted that the musicians who regularly play the 16th Street Mall were still able to busk and seemed to fit in seamlessly with the Meet in the Street programming — and that's important to me, too.)
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As I walked the mall, I saw that one of my favorite Denver creative entities, the Black Actors Guild, had curated a whole summer's worth of entertainment as part of Meet in the Street. Slushies and snow cones were made to order as street artists created temporary works of art right before our eyes. Outside the Daniels & Fisher Tower, strangers played an oversized game of chess, picking up the bulky pieces with both hands to move them across the chessboard. Little ones took rides in chairs shaped like spinning tops as couples pulled up a bench and played one of the many painted pianos that have become a staple on the mall.
Meet in the Street also gave me a reason to check out the Denver Pavilions, something I hadn't done in a really long time. The I Heart Denver store has been selling actual Colorado-made merchandise and work from local artists (unlike other touristy 16th Street merchants of overpriced T-shirts and crappy, plastic gift-shop tchotchkes) for a long time there; now new lighting and subtle atmospheric decor changes have made the once-dim and cold-feeling multiple-story outdoor mall a place where I actually want to hang out.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the 16th Street Mall has seen some terrible situations go down lately that have garnered plenty of bad press (see our coverage about recent stabbings, a beating and a negative report on convention-related safety concerns). But I can't help but feel that in any major city — especially one experiencing growing pains like Denver is — there will always be concerns about safety. I rarely feel unsafe in my city; there aren't many sections of town (if any, other than LoDo at let-out on a Saturday night) that I would tell people to skip. Being on the 16th Street Mall over these last few weekends and seeing many different kinds of people interact in positive ways with art and artists from our local community has made me embrace a part of town I once avoided.
The six-weekend Meet in the Street program ended Sunday; what if this interactive, arts-oriented and bus-free experiment could become a year-round addition? To me, this kind of creativity-centric, inclusive programming makes downtown feel like a place we should all want to be. Besides, involving (and employing) the local arts community for regular city events is the best PR Denver could ask for.
Although Meet in the Street is over for 2016 and the buses are back, you can catch the Downtown Denver Prototyping Festival through Sunday, July 31, at 16th and Curtis streets. Nine local designers have unveiled prototypes designed to transform public spaces and showcase how participatory design, art and technology can create connections and greater ownership of public spaces; find out more here.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies