Federal Boulevard stretches almost thirty miles down the spine of the metro area, from Bowles Boulevard in Littleton, where the Southglenn Luncheon Optimist Club keeps the last mile litter-free, to north of 120th in Westminster, where the Belger family handles clean-up duties as the road loses its U.S. Highway 287 designation and turns into Federal Parkway and then disappears altogether into Zuni Street.

Between these quiet suburban ends, though, lie a half-dozen different towns, three counties, a few farms and a riot of pawnshops and payday loans, RV rentals and auto dealerships, fireworks stands and hair salons, liquor stores and churches. Lots of liquor stores and lots of churches, including Saint Catherine of Siena, the Miracle Center Church, the First Denver Friends Church and the Pearl, formerly known as the West Side Christian Church, which today has this sign out front: "If Barbie is so popular, why do we have to buy her friends?" The churches commemorate many of the different immigrant groups that have settled along this strip -- first the Scottish and German, then the Italians, then the Mexicans, then the Asians, then more Mexicans. Today there are only two Italian restaurants along the entire stretch, while strip mall after strip mall is filled with taquerías or pho joints. Or both.

At one point, there was a movement to dub this street Mother Cabrini Boulevard, a nod to northwest Denver's Italian influence. In the beginning, though, when this avenue looked down on young, raucous Denver, Federal was known as Highland Boulevard and was flanked by the stately Victorians of the town of Highland. When Denver adopted a grid system in 1897, it became Boulevard F, then finally Federal Boulevard in 1912. Today the story of Denver unfolds along its rolling length, from the upscale new developments up north, with names like Ranch Reserve, to the Richard T. Castro Denver Human Services Center at the center, to older apartment complexes with optimistic names like Nob Hill near modest ranch houses in the older suburbs, to the renewal Federal is experiencing to the south. There are institutions of higher learning -- the stately sandstone campus of Teikyo University, formerly Loretto Heights College; the statelier campus of Regis University; the thoroughly modern DeVry Institute -- and you can get even higher at Heads of State. And from the high point of 84th Avenue, the Front Range spreads to the west and far south, providing a backdrop for downtown -- with the brown cloud hovering on the horizon and the smell of roasting chiles slipping inside your car every few blocks.

Other metro strips are more colorful, more camera-friendly. But Federal Boulevard cements Denver's past -- and points to its future.

2609 Federal
5:05 a.m.

"Have a good day, my friend."

Across Federal and down the bluffs, the sky is just beginning to lighten over downtown. But at this 7-Eleven, Thursday has already begun. For the last hour, regulars have been stopping in for their morning coffee, their morning papers, their morning doughnuts and morning taquitos. And cigarettes -- always cigarettes.

Adeel Tariq has been here all night. He'll stay until at least 6 a.m., when his father, Tariq Tariq, who bought this 7-Eleven franchise seven months ago, comes in.

Tariq was a district manager with 7-Eleven for five years and had run the store at Colfax and Ogden -- where he saw everything it's possible to see -- for three, when he decided to buy a franchise. "Federal, oh, my God," people said when they heard he'd chosen this store at the corner of 26th Avenue. But the location has been good -- Tariq and his wife, Jean Anjum, won 7-Eleven's "top grill" award for Denver in July -- and they're thinking of buying another franchise once they've passed the two-year mark and are eligible.

In the meantime, Adeel works the night shift, accepting the delivery of fresh baked goods and bananas that come from the 7-Eleven warehouse every night at 11:45 p.m., handling the drunks who stumble in at 2 a.m. and try to shoplift eyedrops and fight over the cost of cigarettes, then greeting the new day and welcoming back his repeat customers. More coffee, doughnuts, Skol -- one can only, "that means I don't have a habit" -- and nachos. Peanuts, coffee, Winston soft pack and a Lotto ticket. So far, Adeel's brother, who's in school and works weekends at the 7-Eleven, is the big winner: A ticket he bought here paid $77. Adeel makes fresh coffee at 5:25, squirts some Glade air freshener by the counter. "They all want fresh coffee and fresh bakery," he says. "And the Mexicans like the Red Bull."

The Tariq family is Pakistani -- a new addition to the ethnic melting pot that is Federal. But so far, they've had no trouble fitting in.