With a reborn LoDo at its heart, this city is renewing its zest for the good life, Western style.
Denver mayor John Hickenlooper likes to joke that he makes his position seem so miserable that no one wants to run against him. But on a recent afternoon the mayor looked chipper, and not just because he lacks serious rivals for his job.
His upbeat mood had more to do with the thrum of activity around his city. Within blocks of his office, visitors throng toward the Denver Art Museum, which recently christened a strikingly geometric new building. Nearby, tourists swarm into the capitol for guided walks up to the building's newly reopened golden dome.
Around lower downtown, the once forlorn warehouse district known as LoDo, the scene is no less lively. Anchored by Coors Field, the high-altitude home of baseball's Colorado Rockies, the resurgent neighborhood bustles with bars, galleries, and bistros. Downtown has the feel of the Old West updated: It has kept a touch of rodeo toughness, but the beers poured are trendy microbrews, and chic boutiques easily outnumber shops specializing in cowboy boots.
Reclining at his desk, the mayor spoke of the city's crossover appeal. MTV, he pointed out, had been using LoDo as the latest backdrop for its long-running reality show The Real World. And then there was this news from Washington: The city had been chosen as the site of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Denver, it turns out, is beloved by politicians, cowpokes, and postcollegiate party hounds alike. The mayor grinned like a man unable to conceal his good fortune. What he savored most was sitting at the helm of a city in ascendance, a city whose rise, it so happened, had mirrored the upward swing of his own career.
"Denver's a big city, but it's still a symbol of the frontier," Hickenlooper said. "It's a place where people have a sense of possibility. They come here with the feeling that the future is theirs to make."
It wasn't long ago that Denver was reeling in recession and the future mayor was himself among the unemployed. A mid-'80s downturn in the energy market had undercut the local economy, and Hickenlooper had been laid off from his job as a geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum.
Turning his attention to a different type of fuel, Hickenlooper opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company in a revamped LoDo warehouse, offering up-scale pub grub and microbrews. LoDo was a ghostly district, its buildings largely abandoned and in disrepair. But the Wynkoop's success was a harbinger of transformation. In 1995, Coors Field opened on LoDo's edge and a number of new businesses began to bloom around it.
Now the district is a vibrant 26-block grid of restaurants, retail shops, and brewpubs. In tony Larimer Square, a small commercial quadrant within LoDo, browsers can drop by the Cry Baby Ranch (a hot spot for cowboy boots and retrochic clothing) or drop off their pets at the Dog Savvy Boutique and Spa for "pawdicures" and blueberry facials.
Typical of the area's high-end restaurants are the pair that acclaimed chef Jennifer Jasinski operates on Larimer Street: Rioja, which focuses on handmade pastas and seasonal Mediterranean cooking, and Bistro Vendôme, which serves steak frites along with other French classics.
Recent years have brought more infusions of investment. Condominium complexes rise along LoDo's edges, and free buses run on 16th Street, its mile-long, pedestrian-friendly spine.
Wandering the streets here, one easily gets the sense of a frontier town that has been primped and polished. In the lobby bar of the Jet Hotel, a trendy LoDo outpost, guests can sip gin gimlets while listening to live jazz, which plays every Wednesday at happy hour. And just down the street, at the Western clothing shop Rockmount Ranch Wear, they can chat with a man who was born before the Jazz Age began.
At 106, Rockmount CEO Jack Weil is the oldest living corporate honcho in the country, and he still comes to work every weekday. Born in Indiana in 1901, Weil settled in Denver in the late 1920s, when, he says, "There was pretty much nothing here. Just a bunch of cowboys and their horses." In the 1940s he invented the snap-button Western shirt that's been worn by everyone from Elvis Presley to Ronald Reagan. David Bowie and Eric Clapton shop at Rockmount, as do any number of rodeo stars. Weil, an exuberant raconteur, will happily tell browsers why he and his shirts have lasted so long: "The shirts are practical clothing, not costume Western clothing," he says.
Weil hasn't been around quite as long as Denver, which took root in the 1850s when gold was discovered in the nearby foothills. Among the earliest arrivals were both pioneers and prospectors of African descent, whose stories are told at the Black American West Museum in the city's Five Points district.
Housed in the former home of Dr. Justina Ford, Colorado's first female African American physician, the museum sheds light on the contributions of blacks to frontier life. Its exhibits include tributes to black gold miners and "buffalo soldiers," who were members of all-black army regiments.
Long after the gold was gone and the West was won, Denver preserved a shimmering appeal. For example, when Jack Kerouac went on the road for a journey that inspired his most famous book, he paused in Denver to visit his pal Neal Cassady, the poetic wild man who grew up in Denver and was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
Cassady's own writing stands on display today in a Denver watering hole called My Brother's Bar, where you'll find a framed letter from him asking a buddy to pay off his bar bill.
Kerouac and Cassady weren't the only Beat writers to chase the dawn in Denver: Allen Ginsberg penned verse enshrining the City and County Building lawn, where you'll find the capitol. When it was built in the 1890s, so much rose onyx was used on the interior that this one building exhausted the world's known supply. Visitors learn this as they take the tour that includes a stroll around the walkway at the base of the gold-leafed dome and, from this soaring perspective, a Cinema- scope panorama of the Rockies.
Nearby stands a more recent construction, the Denver Art Museum's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, lead architect of the World Trade Center project, the angular, avant-garde museum addition provides sleek exhibit space for American, Asian, European, and African works. Fans of opera, other forms of live music, theater, and dance can get their fill at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which features the largest seating capacity of any such venue in the country after Lincoln Center in New York.
For all the trendiness of its newest attractions, to many people Denver still means two things: beer and Bronco football. In nearby Golden, the Coors Brewery, the world's largest brewery on a single site, is open for public tours. And although quarterback John Elway has retired from the gridiron, the so-called Church of John Elway still convenes on football Sundays, when the streets of Denver lie remarkably silent and still.
Even so, Denver isn't a place for couch potatoes. It maintains thousands of acres of recreational land, including City Park, a huge expanse of greenery that is home to both the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. And all around, the outdoors beckons, with skiing and snowboarding in winter and hiking and biking in temperate weather along a beautiful network of city trails, miles of it along the South Platte River.
When Denver residents do sit still, it is often for a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, about 20 minutes from downtown. Among the world's most dramatic venues, the amphitheater is ringed by red sandstone walls that turn a deeper and deeper shade as the afternoon sun sinks behind the stage.
Back when he was still in the brewpub business, John Hickenlooper frequently attended concerts at Red Rocks, soaking up a setting that still feels very much like the old frontier. Now, sitting in his office and reflecting on a path that has taken him through territory he had never dreamed of, Denver's mayor muses aloud: "Geology. Brewpubs. Politics," he says. "I've probably got a few more careers left in me."
He is speaking for himself, though he might have been speaking for the city when he adds, "Looking to the future, who knows what's next?"
Photography by McCory James
This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.