Op-Ed: How to Make a City Beautiful

Civic Center Park was part of Mayor Robert Speer's City Beautiful movement.
Civic Center Park was part of Mayor Robert Speer's City Beautiful movement. Colorado Virtual Library
Sitting atop the summer of heat, bearing down on August in America praying for rain, I take stock of my country. It appears to me a rather rigid and unforgiving machine, picking up speed down a long, winding hill, driven by senile tyrant fathers, their faces stuck in old maps that are upside down and backward — a horrified crowd of passengers fighting for control.

Ideas for the creation of Civic Center Park emerged in 1904, after Robert Speer, a no-holds-barred frontier politician, stole a mayoral election that put him in charge of the city. He was a man built for Denver — gregarious and round, always with a cigar beneath his stiff upper lip. He oozed grit and dreams, and was a little loose around his moral waistband, which suited the city. After elbowing his way into leadership, he wasted no time writing into the city charter a strong mayoral influence, after which he dumped millions of dollars into civic infrastructure in an effort to make Denver a Paris on the Platte, a queen city of history, ready to compete with the world.

Denver was dragging itself out of the depression of 1893, caused by the collapse of the silver industry, which left the city filled with forlorn miners, gambling saloons, opium dens and what little infrastructure the town had failing. And as was true of anyone who survived in this harsh and often unwelcoming region, Speer needed to have vision, confidence and drive to bring about the transformation that would define the city landscape, ushering in a culture of pride in a place ripe with possibility for those willing to work. It took a dream to build a life here, out of the once desolate flatlands of the eastern plains, where all you had you brought with you. Denver was born out of a rumor, a whisper of fortune in the hills, which did not materialize for most who came here. So fortunes had to be made out of the thin air. It was only through the sheer will of the ambitious dreaming few that the railroad ran through Union Station, bringing the world to the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, along with Speer’s dream of a city, beautiful.

Today, more than a century after the park’s inception, I walk through the dead grass at the foot of the Capitol’s steps, which just days ago held the temporary homes of hundreds of Denver’s unhoused, a humanitarian crisis that has yet again been heartlessly swept under the rug by leaders who work in those beautiful buildings willed into existence by Speer.

I see the boarded-up windows of the Capitol, bunkering the state’s legislature behind wooden panels and broken glass, hiding from the noise in the streets, while across the park, Denver City Council still rubber-stamps our mayor’s plans for development. And I see the graffiti. Like rings on a tree, the paint marks the time since residents gathered in late June to demand an end to unwarranted state violence. The timeless call for justice before peace can still be heard, in whispers and shouts, almost nightly. As this machine hurtles toward November, the festering wounds threaten to burst. But what I notice now is how old everything suddenly looks. Masses of stone and marble monuments pockmarked and tattooed, solemn, as helicopters chitter overhead.

click to enlarge The figure on top of the Civil War Monument is now gone. - EVAN SEMÓN
The figure on top of the Civil War Monument is now gone.
Evan Semón
Walking up the steps to the Capitol, I see the empty mount where the memorial for Colorado soldiers who fought for the North in the Civil War once prominently stood. It was toppled by protesters who may have remembered that the list of battles included Sand Creek, a massacre led by Colonel John Chivington that's now widely accepted as a notorious slaughter of approximately 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne — men, woman and children — in 1864, less than a year before the end of the Civil War, by sons of this city who returned as heroes.

The thinkers might find themselves asking, when properly exhausted by the state of things, what, exactly, is to be done with the designs of the past? Do the tributes to our shared state achieve any stable ground on which to stand, any splendor? Is there anything made not drenched in blood?

The golden dome of our Capitol and the rolling manicure of the South Platte and Cherry Creek waterways were paid for with the same dirty money that allowed the Greco-Roman pillars of our civic monuments to shout into history — a gesture toward ancient, incomplete attempts to realize the ideals of democracy. Do these structures realize what Mayor Speer dreamed before lying and cheating and intimidating his way into office, where, against near total opposition, he built Civic Center Park and beautified its structures? Do they confirm what Speer said, that to love something easily it must be beautiful? He gave tree seeds to the children to scatter in Denver’s many parks, he dug the trash and waste out of Cherry Creek, converted the cemeteries of Congress Park into grassy parklands over the dead, encouraging the young people to lay on, make love, build a life in this forsaken city. I imagine Speer spouting off at his wife, with his potbelly and cigar, about what the pillars of Civic Center might inspire in citizens of this wayward prairie outpost, this boom-and-bust land of dirty dreamers. But is Denver beautiful yet, Mayor Speer?

Is there any pride left in those pillars of the city? Can I be reminded what our hands can do, what we might make together, and that the vision of beauty — what might have been made beautiful here — still might be made beautiful, if and when we toil for it? Every time we fight in good faith with our friends and make love with our enemies — another day of beauty. Can I dream that civic dream while I remember who was forced to build those buildings, to make them beautiful and at what price, in America? Do I remember that dream before I remember who was and wasn’t allowed to lie on the grass, who was chased out of our parks of beauty? Can I remember that dream while I remember the redlines up Downing Street, the Klan who followed Speer into City Hall, the crimes left untold, the public schools left wanting, forgotten, in America? Even the trees and where they are planted can be seen through the blood that stains the wealth of this world.

My father, after a lifetime working in the justice system, turns to me after reading about chaos in Aurora, chaos all over the world, and the shattered windows of the courthouse. Not the courthouse. Not that secular church tasked with our last defense against tyranny, that place where the triumphs of an embattled truth might be emblazoned on time, where a great many victories reside and, yes, far too many losses sink and whisper out of the wood. Where do we find cause and space to celebrate in America, as Americans, and where must the light come in and obliterate?

When met with antagonism and disrespect by the servants of a court, where a court refuses to acknowledge their own acts of terror, and the government is moved to act over the breaking of glass and the spraying of paint before the loss of innocent life, when the mayor and city council sit silent and refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility to do better, to dream bigger for all of us, while expecting perfection from citizens in the face of tragedy — if they take the most vulnerable among us and cast them out without care, if they fail to acknowledge that the state crimes of the past have impact on our future, our diseases, our circumstance, or if they are cruel or dismissive of our pain — then those beautiful buildings in which our leadership work will remain false and insulting idols. They will be painful reminders of the decisions that have stolen sons and daughters in the night, left kids to care for each other, under the pretense of peace and justice. If that hypocrisy beds down inside those buildings, in those monuments, then those structures will have been made ugly regardless of what they presume to stand for, and they will never be beautiful no matter what they look like.

Lincoln Park was swept again at the end of July. - EVAN SEMÓN
Lincoln Park was swept again at the end of July.
Evan Semón
As August rolls on, the unhoused residents of our city now scattered throughout, a few sleep alone between the marble steps of the amphitheater, relegated to the slightly more private walls of Civic Center Park. Another visit to the Capitol reveals recently installed chain-link fences, protecting the building from further desecration, as construction workers tasked with cleaning the painful language from its perimeter begin work. But until our leaders have a dream of peace, until there is a vision as undeniable as Speer’s was, an impassioned desire by leadership to see the wrongs of yesterday corrected as badly as they have always wanted to see the city shine in steel, marble and glass, until the day the people are more important than the buildings that fail to represent them, pain will manifest as violent blemishes on those structures and will remind us all of the ugliness that they possess.

When Speer looked out on a dusty mining town reeling from collapse, he saw in it the potential for transformation. I wonder what our current leaders see when they look at our city. What visions for the future are you planning for? What will you tell your children you did during this pivotal moment in history? What will they see of what you’ve made? It is time our policy matched the creativity of our civic landscape. We no longer have time to waste. There must be bold and energizing leadership to realize the maturing dreams of a compassionate and conscious people, who no longer care more about how things look than how people are treated. For if we achieve beauty here, it won’t be the windows of the courthouse or the idols asleep in the park — it is going to be in how we care for our neighbors, the bravery and creativity our leaders display in telling our story, addressing the imminent and terrifying issues of our day, and what they inspire in our treatment of one another.

For that, our city has a lot of building to do.

Noah Kaplan is a creative nonfiction writer, educator and organizer based in Denver. He is also the co-founder and artistic director of Stain'd Arts. You can contact him at  [email protected] or on Instagram @kno_kaps.

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Noah Kaplan is a creative nonfiction writer and educator in Denver. He is also the co-founder and artistic director of Stain'd Arts. Find him at [email protected] or on Instagram @kno_kaps.
Contact: Noah Kaplan