Birth of a Notion

Depending on how you measure these things, Westword was born late one night in a college newspaper office, when starting a weekly seemed like a much better idea than typing a resume and finding a real job, or at a rugby game in Washington Park, where the vigor of the participants (both on and off the field) was an intoxicating antidote to the dullness of Denver's dailies, or one afternoon in a fast-food joint on South Colorado Boulevard, when it was suddenly imperative to name the soon-to-be-more-than-hypothetical paper. Westword grew out of many places.

But its heart has always been in lower downtown, the true heart of Denver.
Westword's first office was at 1439 Market Street, a few hundred feet from where gold was first found in Cherry Creek 119 years before, on the second floor of a Victorian-era storefront that still showed the marks of the cribs where long-ago prostitutes had practiced their trade. (Even without taking inflation into account, they made more money than we did.) The walls were painted assorted colors--red, brown, yellow--that blended into a psychedelic blur after days without sleep. The wall-to-wall carpet, sneered at by a Rocky Mountain News reporter in a piece chronicling Westword's September 1, 1977, debut, was out of fashion even then. We outfitted the place with Smith-Corona typewriters still hot from typing those college papers and abandoned couches that emitted stuffing at inopportune times. Certainly the most inopportune was during our earliest bid at respectability: Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, then in just her sixth year in the House of Representatives, came calling. When she left, she unknowingly carried some of our couch away with her--unlike Ronald Reagan, whom she soon would dub the "Teflon" president, Schroeder got stuck with stuff.

We had less august visitors, too. One night we heard feet pounding up our long, narrow flight of stairs. Two bums burst in, carrying bags of carnations they'd given up trying to sell on the street. "We love you guys," they cried, covering that carpet with flowers. "We love you." At other times we'd find bums showering in the sink of the bathroom we shared with our long-suffering landlord.

It wasn't as though he had his pick of tenants. In late 1977, lower downtown was far from the action and years away from gaining a nickname. But if you loved Denver's history, if you loved old brick buildings that glowed rosy at dusk, this was the only place to be. Hippies rubbed elbows with blue-collar workers from the manufacturing operations in nearby warehouses. The neighborhood dives offered three happy hours a day--to coincide with railroad and post-office shifts.

But many of lower downtown's denizens didn't work at all. Every morning when we arrived at the office (assuming we'd actually gone home the night before rather than slept on one of those couches), we'd have to sweep a sleeping bum or two off our doorstep. (Like the neighborhood, they had yet to be tagged with a more politically correct appellation such as "homeless.") And the walk over to our typesetter, who'd found space in one of lower downtown's first rehabbed buildings, the Blake Street Bath and Tennis Club (people living downtown!), was always an adventure in bum-dodging.

Across the street, though, was Cafe Nepenthes, a coffeehouse that stayed open late and served what passed for bagels in the days when John Denver was still making hits. And just a street away was Larimer Square, a block of beautiful Victorian buildings that Dana Crawford had saved from the wrecking ball. While Denver's history was tumbling all around, destroyed by the Skyline urban-renewal project that was supposed to save the city, Larimer Square stood proud, a real tourist attraction.

We thought people who lived in Denver year-round ought to frequent Larimer Square, too. Not just for the annual Oktoberfest, but every week. While young Denverites (remember, this was before any handy labels like "yuppies," before any anysomethings) flocked to Glendale, the real hotspot, full of discos with names like "The Lift," only a handful of Auraria students patronized the bars around Larimer Square. That should change, we thought. So we came up with a plan (not surprisingly, it depended on advertising in Westword) and requested an audience with Dana Crawford. Kindly, she granted us one--but she didn't bite. Locals would never hang out in Larimer Square, she said. (She may remember this differently--but this isn't her anniversary.)

In 1978 the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. We watched at our landlord's house in Washington Park (which wasn't hip then, either), drinking "chabliss" and snickering at the Orange Crush a bit too much to qualify as good guests. Had the Broncos won, the celebration would have been at Stapleton Airport, maybe in Glendale. No one would have thought of going downtown. Hell, there wasn't even a mall there.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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