The subject is Denver. I was in town for a writer’s conference this past week, and a panel of authors from Colorado talked about creating stories and characters about this region. The topic kept drifting to the contrasts in Denver, to the clash of cultures and histories. Like many cities in America, it seems to be under vigorous construction at the moment, but perhaps Denver has always been remaking itself.
This is a city not quite in the center of either the Lower 48 or the entire U.S., but it’s near those locations, which maybe makes it the perfect site for the meeting of two sides. Rural/Urban. Conservative/Progressive. West/East. Mountains and … Fewer Mountains. Hot/Snow. Pure Air/Inversion Smog Layer. Simple/Sophisticated.
Is it the proximity to the Continental Divide? Or does the Continental Divide go through a diverse Colorado, and split these things in two? Whichever is the case, it heightens the contrasts.
The Bull at Your Afternoon Tea
For example, this is cowboy country. Cattle drives would have crossed through town in the early days. We are, after all, nestled between Wyoming and Texas. Yet there is a super swanky hotel downtown, the Brown Palace, famous for its afternoon teas and “boutique” hotel rooms. But it’s also famous for displaying the Champion Steer from the National Western Stock Show in the lobby. Strangely enough, this “famous” tradition started in 1945, part homage to Denver’s history and part advertising for the hotel.
Since the steers once paraded right through town, the Ringling Brothers Circus would also parade its animals down one of the central avenues. This photo is from the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show @ 1913. Note the Daniels & Fisher clock tower in the background, one of the tallest early skyscrapers.
The iconic D&F tower still stands, though today dwarfed by the glass and aluminum giant corporate monoliths.
If you can imagine that original D&F Tower, flanked by these parades of cows, camels, and elephants, then you would not be surprised by “Soundwalk.” At a certain spot near Curtis on the 16th Street Mall, there are grates which emit sounds of rushing water, tap dancing, elephants, and even the subway–despite there being no underground metro in the city. One of my friends who grew up here said that it’s also to point the way to the Performing Arts Center, only a few blocks away. But what could be a better contrast? Elephants walked the promenade, so now they promenade below you. Only it’s high concept art rather than a low concept circus.
Clash of Tribes, Clash of Values
I’ll refrain from a lengthy history lesson (This Time!), but, as you can imagine, this is land that didn’t start out configured as a rectangle. Multiple indigenous tribes flowed over the hills and through the forests: Apache, Comanche, Shoshone, and Ute for starters. They had tenuous truces established with each other when the Europeans started arriving: French from the southeast, Spanish conquistadors coming north from Mexico, and the polyglot of Brits and other immigrants who were seeking “empty land” as they moved away from the growing populations of the east. There was a long history of “Indian Wars” meaning people coming in to take land away from the people who were there. Then gold was discovered in Colorado, and that turned the flame up on the existing disputes. Coalfield War, Labor War–the more people, the more clashes.
I thought of these as our authors talked about the effects of 21st century migration. Coloradans distrust both Texans and Californians, for different reasons. Well, for the same reasons, as both sets of outsiders come from large states that try to bring their culture with them. The Texans want to make Colorado more like Texas (wilder, less regulated, less art, more cowboy); the Californians want to make it more like California (more progressive, more regulated, more expensive, less cowboy, more sushi and gourmet coffee). The natives would prefer it to stay Colorado; that’s why they’ve been here.
Another speaker, a veterinarian originally from California, was perturbed when a fellow walked into her practice, a gun on one hip and a Bible in the other hand. He thumped it on the table, placed his hand on the book, and said, “I swear on this Bible that I want you to do everything to save my dog.” As someone who distrusts guns and Bibles, she asked that he put both away and assured him that she would do her best for the dog without the coercion.
Thus, there is a cacophony of values here. Focus on the Family, a homophobic evangelical legislative group that has been lobbying against LGBTQIA+ rights, is based in Colorado Springs. So is the Air Force Academy. But the state also has the first openly gay governor, Jared Polis, who was recently re-elected with 59% of the vote. Maybe Continental Divide means the place where America has to find a place of compromise. After all, the vet didn’t turn away the gun-and-Bible-toting dog lover, and he did choose to leave his dog.
The Wild Parade of Art and Architecture
What was also noticeable, just in a ten-block circle near our city center hotel, was the art and the architecture. Every other parking lot had a mural.
The architecture is a mix of the glass and steel but also plenty of domes, including minarets. I spotted a half dozen churches and mosques on the walk.
Even the sewer grates were decorative.
Light rail crisscrosses the one-way street maze that blankets downtown. But a lot of the trash cans are also bear-proof.
The hotel we were in was hosting three conventions at once when our group of LGBTQ writers took over the bottom floor. There was a sales group, a high-tech group, and our banners of rainbow-colored balloons. A nearby Cosplay knock-off Comic Con also brought Sonic the Hedgehog and Sailor Moon waiting for a bus outside the Hilton; inside, a barrage of red-coated teenage Future Leaders of America were arriving as we were packing up and leaving. There was a constant ebb and flow of people.
Denver is neither complete cowtown nor cosmpolitan, but a little bit of both. It embraces the differences in a way that neither San Francisco, with its liberaler-than-thou politics, nor Florida, with its book banning and censorship, can appreciate.
Maybe it’s like an inverse Continental Divide. Everything flows into Denver. And Denver is making it all fit.