Neon signs and Colfax Avenue: The beauty and danger of nostalgia

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I drove by Smiley's Laundromat last night and felt one of those annoying sighs cross my chest -- a chest pain caused by the sight of possible improvement to a place that I used to enjoy for its utter sketchiness. Smiley's is closed right now for "remodeling," its windows papered over. Could we be losing another landmark? Always a person with multiple jobs since I began my working-class existence in 1994, I used to wash the towels from the hair salon I worked at for extra money. At Smiley's, I could get the best bang for my buck because the machines were cheap, and I could make more of a return on towels if I spent less of my own change. When you wash hair-dye towels, find yourself slanging T-shirts and makeup at the mall and write part-time for no money, every quarter not spent at the laundromat counts.

The Smiley's memory is a reminder of how much I have loved Colfax Avenue for the two decades or so that I've been able to appreciate it. It is also an expression of my diluted sense of reality, one that obsesses over nostalgia as if stepping back in time were a reasonable solution. A solution for the heartache I have when development crushes buildings -- or the signs, in the case of Saturday's Save the Signs on Colfax benefit -- and I can't seem to see the positive in progress.

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Suffering from nostalgia seems to be a common modern problem, with degrees of affliction ranging from the simple pleasure of watching '80s commercials on YouTube to spending time, energy and money on Civil War reenactments. The Internet has made it increasingly easy to live in the past, filling our eyes with images we never knew we remembered existing. We can now pretty much create our own alternate reality through blogs about how much we love the past, pinning together hundreds of images of Noguchi coffee tables and covers from pre-1950s LIFE magazines.

My own obsessive emotional attachment to retro-ness comes in the form of mostly mid-century modern architecture and, of course, neon signs; I have an affinity for almost anything created before 1970. The majority of architecture in Denver constructed in my lifetime feels harsh; there are some buildings I don't even like to walk by because they are visually intrusive.

I don't live in Highland, but I spend a lot of time there while working at my dog-walking job. And I see and feel the neighborhood's pain when a beautiful bungalow is knocked down and replaced with a bland compound that looks like a Macaroni Grill. I can't imagine a design process occurring where an architect would actually say, "You know what? Let's put some corrugated steel on the outside of a building meant for living in."

When I interviewed the owner of the decades-old Northside Jeans & Gold about leaving a building that was about to be modernized, he told me: "Life is progress -- we have to go forward all the time." If a guy can lose his business to neighborhood progress and see it as a positive thing, then who am I to stand in the way of the future?

The problem with Colfax Avenue's redevelopment is a little more complicated than what's happening in Highland, I think. There is the idea that "cleaning up" every inch of the notoriously seedy main drag is a good idea for the health of the city. But to me, the idea of sanitizing a street that I have always enjoyed walking, driving and biking down kills what makes it so great: its total weirdness.

We all have different ideas of what makes "culture"; to me, Colfax's culture is a little bit sketchy, a little bit drunk and a lot of fun under the neon lighting of Pete's Kitchen, Capitol Liquors, the Bluebird Theater and Bastien's Restaurant & Steak House. Yes, we need some method to the madness, and that can be in the form of improvement. But to respect the history of Colfax is to keep it real -- and as this city continues to experience serious growth spurts, we have to hold on to a little of what makes Denver, well, Denver. And sometimes, all that might be is just enough people rallying behind a neon sign to save it.

If you're like me and suffer the pangs of grief associated with Colfax's potential cultural disembowelment, support the Save the Signs Spectacular this Saturday, April 6, at 5 p.m. at Park House, 1515 Madison Street. A $5 donation is requested at the door. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page.

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