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Dispatches From the Road: A Tale of Two Cities, Part 2 – Denver, Colorado

July 6, 2018

In the second of a two-part series, Courthouse News' western bureau chief visits Denver, a city in the midst of an economic and housing boom after reporting from stable if staid Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of the tech boom and the green revolution. It was the age of uncertainty in the mineral extraction industry.

Denver shimmers in its newfound glory. Cheyenne persists.

Traffic was sparse around Cheyenne, the capital of Wyoming and featured in the first part of this two-part series, but increased steadily outside Fort Collins, Colorado, into downtown Denver.

Somehow the occasional vast fields stretching to the mountains in the distance made the congestion more frustrating.

The swaths of flat land in and around Denver continue to surprise this writer who, as a boy in hilly (relatively speaking) Maine had the mistaken impression that flat land didn't exist in the land of the Rockies.

But the open fields are vanishing, replaced by row after row of housing developments. As a friend from Montana sardonically lamented about smaller but also growing Bozeman, "we've got to fill in all those open spaces, after all."

My place of lodging for the night, the Maven Hotel, was not amidst the sprawl, but in the revitalized Dairy Block part of LoDo – Lower Downtown for those unhip readers who, like this writer, are clueless to Denver neighborhood designations, prefer to use whole words and don't think four syllables are two too many.

The modern city of Denver was founded in 1858, when General William Larimer placed cottonwood logs in the center of a plot that would become part of LoDo.

The motivation was gold, as in so many other places in the West, discovered here in the South Platte River. Though the transcontinental railroad bypassed Denver in favor of Cheyenne, a spur soon connected the cities, ending at what became Union Station. Over the years, as highways and airports were built and passenger rail travel dwindled, the area fell into a long economic slump.

After demolishing a significant number of historic buildings in the 1960s and 70s, the city created the Lower Downtown Historic District in 1988 to preserve what was left. The ordinance includes height restrictions and encourages mixed-use development.

In 1993, Major League Baseball awarded an expansion team to the Mile High City. The team built its new stadium, Coors Field, in LoDo.

Colorado voters passed an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012. The local technology sector began to grow around the same time.

New and newish businesses have proliferated near Coors Field, and while not overflowing, many of them were doing steady business when I visited in the early evening of a beautiful weekday when the Rockies were playing on the road.

The beer flowed at the Great Divide Brewing Company, where a bartender asked another, "Did (bleeping) everybody decide to drink beer today?"

Given Denver's deserved reputation as a beer town, I wondered: Just today?

After sampling a few quarter-pint tasters I headed out on foot. On the corner feet from revelers stood the telltale signs of a homeless person’s belongs – a shopping cart, food boxes, and a blanket covering a mound of other items – but no person. I looked up and across the street. A man who looked like he might be homeless walked slowly in front of an empty lot, muttering to himself, the clean and impressive skyline of downtown Denver reaching for the heavens behind him.


Heading down the street I spied the edges of what looked like an impressive piece of art painted onto a building wall in an alley. I was about to stop and take pictures when I noticed a group of disheveled people in the alley, some leaning against a wall, a couple standing still, blankets and laden shopping carts nearby. One young man, wearing sullied clothes two sizes too big walked quickly in circles, his hands moving rapidly as he talked to himself, possibly the result of methamphetamine, or mental illness, or both. I thought better of my photos and moved on.

At my next stop the bartender struggled to keep up with the busy patio scene and two smitten young women downing perhaps too many Jaegerbombs (Red Bull and Jaegermeister for the sane and/or uninitiated). I learned he was originally from outside Boston. He said another waiter was a New England native as well. A third was from California.

I overheard one patron ask yet another waiter where he was from.

"Here," he replied.

"No, I mean before you moved here."

"I was born in Denver."

By now I was watching them out of one eye. The patron didn't seem convinced.

After dinner and another libation I headed back to the Maven. Opened in 2017, the spotlessly clean hotel boasts a bar, a restaurant, a renovated Airstream trailer that is now a walk-up cafe, sculptures and other artwork, and the best coffee I've had in a hotel room in a long time.

What the hotel designers must have thought were pithy quotes abound, including on "Do Not Disturb" magnets and coasters left in the hotel room.

One read: "That which does not kill us makes us mavens."

I guess I can see where they coming from on that one.

According to another: "All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Maven."

While working hard on one's craft might also make one an expert, I prefer the line from the original proverb through James Joyce and Jack Kerouac to Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation of Stephen King's “The Shining.”

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

It's a perfect line. No need to mess with it.

As I was heading to the airport the next day from my ritzy and – for this cynic – too cute hotel, Coors Field in front of me, a young woman slowly walked across the street, a dazed look in her eyes, her fiery red hair knotted and pointing in many directions, clothes dirty, a small backpack slung over one shoulder. Cars weaved around her. She eventually made her way to the corner.

Around the next bend yet another new building was rising from an empty lot. Despite the frenzied rate of construction, rent continues to skyrocket and stories are plenty about working people having to share small apartments with other working people and of long-time tenants pushed out into the suburbs as the city center becomes too expensive.

The comparisons to the ever-growing San Francisco Bay Area I call home were not lost on this bureau chief.

At least one part of old Denver remains. A few miles after entering the freeway I smelled the Purina Dog Food plant before I saw it, and the scent of kibble, both strangely appetizing and repulsive at the same time, lingered long after the plant was out of view.

When some Colorado residents complained in a lawsuit about the offensive smell from large marijuana grows near their property, a reader of the local independent news publication Westworld replied that "we should burn down the Purina Plant & arrest every cattle rancher in the state" if the goal was to get rid of noxious odors.


Now that's a culture clash.

Like Cheyenne, Denver is at a crossroads. While the leaders of Cheyenne seem to be cautiously making fits and starts to diversify their economy, those in Denver continue to plunge into an uncertain future, though rumblings of discontent have emerged, including the governor saying there would be a "sense of relief" if Amazon didn't choose Denver for its second headquarters.

One wonders if Denver will hold on to what brought people in recent years: open spaces, the love of the outdoors, relatively affordable housing, decent jobs. OK, and marijuana. But now that more states have followed suit in legalizing pot, the question is whether the green revolution will continue to attract people and whether that would be desirable. Also in doubt is how the tech industry will react to increased rents, possible pushback from the public and the inevitable next recession.

Only time will tell the tale of these two cities.


About our coverage of Colorado

Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of Denver County District Court and USDC Colorado for more than a decade. Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of all Colorado state district courts for more than five years.


Denver County, Colorado Facts

County Seat: Denver (also the state capitol)

Population: 680,000

Named After: Kansas Territory Governor James Denver

Denver is the most populous city of the Front Range Urban Corridor, which encompasses 18 counties and stretches from Wyoming’s Laramie County in the north to Pueblo County, Colorado, in the south.

In 2016, U.S. News & World Report called Denver the best place to live in the United States.

Denver is the most populous city within a 500-mile radius.

The Colorado Rockies store baseballs in a humidor, a humidity-controlled environment known in the past mostly for storing cigars. The more humid balls have contributed to fewer home runs leaving the confines of the thin-aired park, though Coors Field is still considered the most hitter-friendly park in Major League Baseball. The Arizona Diamondbacks began using a humidor in 2018 for the same reasons.

Adolph Coors III, heir to the Coors Brewing Company fortune, was killed during a failed kidnapping near Morrison, Colorado, in 1960. The killer, Joseph Corbett Jr., was eventually apprehended in Vancouver, British Columbia, and returned to Colorado, where he was tried and sentenced to life in prison. The case was featured in an episode of the television show “Forensic Files.”

Read more coverage of Colorado News

Laid-Off Reporters & Editors to Take on Denver Post

Challenge to Denver Homeless Sweeps Advances

Movie-Massacre Victims Bristle at Court Bill

Challenge to Denver Homeless Sweeps Advances

Free the Nipple Faces Off Against Fort Collins at 10th Circuit

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Categories: Op-Ed Regional

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