Named for Schuyler Colfax, the seventeenth vice president of the United States, Colfax Avenue may not really have been dubbed the “longest, wickedest street in America," a description long credited to Playboy's Hugh Hefner, but it's definitely the longest commercial street in the United States...and it's certainly long enough for William Horstmann-Craig, who also finds it wickedly picturesque.
Horstmann-Craig discovered Colfax this past spring, when he was at Metropolitan State University of Denver as part of a cultural exchange with his school in Germany, Fachhochschule Dortmund, where he just got his bachelor's in photography and is now working on his master's.
Born in Great Britain, Horstmann-Craig moved to Germany and was a soldier for fourteen years; he got married, had kids, worked as a volunteer firefighter, and retrained as a photographer. His coursework and facility with English made him a natural for the Metro course swap. Although he'd traveled around the world in the service, he'd only been in the United States once before — a dozen years ago for a stint in New Orleans — and was fascinated by what he found here.
One weekend, Horstmann-Craig went out to look around Denver, "found Colfax Avenue, and found it was really colorful," he recalls in the ultimate understatement. Back in Germany, he showed some of the photos he'd taken along the street to his professor, and decided that "I'm going to use it as my master's final work."
He started doing research on Colfax, discovering the role it played in beatnik culture and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He also studied The Americans, Robert Frank's groundbreaking photographic book from 1958. And then he returned to fully document Colfax in photographs.
"What I'm doing is also on the road," he notes. But he's walking it, going from one end of Colfax to the other, and taking photographs along the entire stretch. He started his travels two weeks ago, beginning in Strasburg, where Colfax peters out by a gas station on the plains, according to the best maps he could find. He happened into a church service, where everyone reminded him of Little House on the Prairie episodes he used to watch with his parents. "They were really nice and open," he recalls. He got a ride from a farmer, and they talked about crops.
By the middle of this week, he'd reached central Denver, where he stopped by the Denver City and County Building and photographed Mayor Michael Hancock in his office; they talked about both recently turning fifty. Along the way, he'd met with a bishop at the Ethiopian church out east on Colfax; he'd visited the cathedral where the Pope held forth 26 years ago. And he stopped by the building at Colfax and Broadway with the Denver Post sign to see if he could talk to someone on the paper's staff, but discovered that the Post's office is now actually in Adams County.
He'd also scouted where Colfax ends at the west end of Golden, right by a Harley-Davidson dealership and just past the Dirty Dogs Roadhouse, a biker hangout. "They were really, really nice," he says of the bikers.
Horstmann-Craig has been astounded by the friendliness of everyone he's encountered, "blown back by their helpfulness," he says. At first he thought he'd stay in some of the old motels along Colfax, but discovered that many of them only rent by the week. Then some firefighters in southeast Denver opened their home to him; every day, he's been catching the 6:30 a.m. bus to Colfax and Airport Boulevard, where he catches the number 15. He reverses course at the end of each day's exploration, often barely catching the last bus of the night. His description of RTD's service could serve as a public service announcement. "The bus is just amazing," he says. "RTD is really cool."
He's also been blown away by the good beer (he's a fan of Fiction) and the diner food "all slopped on a plate."
Unlike Frank, whose book was negative, "I'm making sure I represent the street as a whole, in a positive way," says Horstmann-Craig. But then, he's had nothing but positive experiences; even in some of the tougher stretches of Colfax in Aurora, he found everyone friendly once he explained his mission and looked them in the eye. He's had great conversations on the buses, too, swapping photo tips with one driver.
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"Colfax is always changing," he says. "I find the diversity really cool."
Horstmann-Craig will be heading back to Germany at the end of next week, when he'll start going through his photographs and designing the book that will be his master's project. But in the meantime, he's eager for suggestions of the Colfax highlights that he shouldn't miss. Casa Bonita. Lake Steam Baths. Tom's Diner. Davies Chuck Wagon Diner.
"I'm not just taking photos," he says. "It's also a life experience. An American experience."
Do you have suggestions for places Horstmann-Craig should experience? Post a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And watch for his photographs on Instagram.