Check the alarm clock, Denver: It’s 6 a.m., and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” is playing on the radio to wake you up from slumber…again. Time to face the day and all the not-so-comedic details of daily Denver life that just never seem to change. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, there are just some things we’ll keep suffering through until we learn our damn lesson and stop repeating them.
Here are just a few issues Denver keeps dozing through…hey, mayoral candidates, are you paying attention?
It’s a problem all the time, of course, but especially on cold-weather days like February 2 tends to be each year. You know how we white-knuckle down I-25 during rush hour when the snow is packing the roads and the plows aren’t doing their job and for some reason we’re surrounded by Californians who don’t know how to drive in the snow? "No one should be out in this weather," we think as we head for home. Now extend that consideration to the folks who don’t have a home to get to, who have to be out in this weather because they lack an inside to get into. The city has to get past its annoyance at tents on sidewalks and start getting annoyed at the policies that keep them there. It’s not about urban camping bans. It’s about taking care of our fellow human beings (and dogs, if that helps some people) and focusing on the right things.
Connected with the homelessness issue is the basic economy of the housing market in Denver and the cost of living in general. Denver has not historically been one of those cities in which people of modest income are priced out; as recently as a couple of decades ago, housing prices were generally still reasonable, if rising. That brought about a thriving creative community, the revivification of parts of town that had previously been considered blighted, the rising tide that lifts all boats. Now Denver has joined the ranks of other cities of its type — Chicago, NYC, most cities on the West Coast. Barring some special circumstances, there are fewer and fewer places for working families. Our recent story on one of the last holdout homes near RiNo offers a case in point: Denver is doing away with the artistic enclaves and up-and-coming family neighborhoods that breathed life into this old cowtown.
It’s the flipside of the affordability issue: the loss of our cultural heritage as prices go up and longtime residents are pushed out. This leads to both understandable unrest in local neighborhoods and the detriment of the sense of place — ostensibly the reason those homes are being bought, improved to the tune of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and flipped for a profit: because people want to live there. Just look at what’s happening — still! — to the historic Welton corridor in Five Points. What’s often been called the “Harlem of the West” can’t seem to catch a break in terms of stability: First the Welton Street Cafe moved and hasn’t yet fully reopened; Sherry’s was an ice-cream experiment that didn’t succeed; and then Coffee at the Point closed for a while, and then for good. That led to the new Melody Market announcing its closure as well, and now the force-for-good Above Ground salon is also shuttering (though its LoDo shop will remain). The point is: It’s not enough to make money off McMansions and high-rise apartment behemoths. We have to take care of the spirit of each place and its people at the same time.
That brown cloud over Denver might make for some pretty sunsets, but that’s a little like putting lipstick on a pig, isn’t it? (No offense to pigs, who often suffer in metaphor.) And it’s not just the air: It’s our water, it’s our infrastructure, it’s how clean our gutters are and how pristine our many parks. It’s all the issues that come with overpopulation and more focus on city revenue than ol’ Mayor Speer’s City Beautiful movement. But protecting the earth is a real thing; it’s not a “It would be nice” or a “Maybe when we accomplish these other things” situation. It’s more like “Do this or we all die.” Or if not us, our grandkids, or theirs. Tackle the things that will make this better, and start local. Solar energy. Mass transit. We know what it takes, but we blithely whistle past all our potential graveyards, and at some point, the bill for our ignorance will come due. Don’t we want to be remembered as the farmers who cared for the fields rather than the locusts who consumed them all in a frenzied cloud of consumerism and naked want?
The 16th Street Mall project is seemingly never-ending. Larimer Square, once the heart of downtown, is struggling. Same with Writer Square and the Tabor Center and the Denver Pavilions and the area as a whole. Some of that has to do with the pandemic, but a lot of it has to do with where Denver is putting its attention. Revitalizing our city center used to be something Denver was pretty good at, but now we’re very much like Russell Wilson looked in the 2022 season: past our prime, trying old plays that don’t work anymore, no longer as agile and inventive as we once were. Downtown Denver needs — deserves — a re-envisioning. And that has to be more than widening the sidewalks.
Denver has always been an underdog; that’s when this city did its best work. Proving that the Mile High City was more than the January Stock Show, more than the gateway to the slopes, more than the empty middle of the nation, more than flyover country. But the Denver of today is a snooze. We’re no longer hungry for the fight, or so it seems. We’re content to polish the items in our trophy case, humming along to a tune — maybe Sonny and Cher? — that fills the gaps between where we are and where we still want to be.
Wake up, Denver. Wake up and get up. There’s work to be done.