Denver’s Missed Opportunity
The Queen City of the West grows its body while neglecting its heart.
The essence of the American West is opportunity. Settlers took up their possessions in covered wagons and traveled thousands of miles in hopes of a new start and the chance to build a successful life. The West was always about reinvention. As the Queen City of the West, Denver could have (and should have) been a beacon of this ideal. And it was, for a few years at the beginning of the 20th Century. Then Mayor Robert Speer envisioned a Denver that was the Paris of the United States. He created Civic Center Park, lined the ditch-then-known-as-Cherry Creek with trees and walkways, and he brought the 1908 Democratic National Convention and political spotlight on our little city. Speer wanted a Denver that was European, beautiful, organized, walkable, and connected, with a proud sense of community. He died in office of influenza in 1912. Denver hasn’t rediscovered its way since.
Today, we’re somewhere near the peak of an incredible real estate boom in the Mile High City. Rents are soaring (just this year mine increased 15%) and the housing market is a shark tank in which first-time buyers are the chum. We applaud our city for its popularity, and its continued success while most of the country stagnates in slumping markets… but we shouldn’t. Denver is missing its last opportunity to become a world-class, 21st Century city. It’s choosing, instead, to be an average, 20th Century American city, and that means we all lose out on something special.
The insurgence of outside real estate investors and costly condo developments, and luxury apartments in the near-Downtown neighborhoods are killing Denver. This boom needs corresponding moderately priced and affordable housing companions, but neither can be found. The Near-Downtown neighborhoods, once gritty and creative, loaded with passion to make our city an artistic and musical mecca are choking out their young, in favor of high-priced developments and suburb-employed commuters. Vibrant, resurgent and diverse neighborhoods are getting facelifts, but the underlying substance is being swept away. On the balance sheet, this is progress, but it means Denver may become another failed commuter metropolis, packed with discontented and alienated citizens.
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Imagine the great cities of the world. New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam… What do these cities have in common? What makes them great? Public transportation. Density and diversity. A respect and passion for creativity and the arts. Walkable neighborhoods packed with characters, local stores and local venues. Personality. These cities have remained prominent and lively for centuries. During that time, Detroit, Atlanta, and many more have come and gone and only barely begun to come again. Those cities where built around cars. Around commuters and surges of investor capital.
Boomtowns come and go. They only thrive for as long as wealthy folks fund them, but make no mistake: they will take their money and run when the next boomtown comes along. Great cities are built on the love and community of their people. Great cities are built on lifelong residents, artists, local businesses and local culture. Great cities embrace the parts of them that aren’t polished, understanding that all that glitters is not gold. Denver still has a chance to be a great city, but time is running out, and new developments filled with legacy-free residents are overloading our city with fool’s gold.
If Denver wants to be a 21st Century city — if Denver wants to be the Queen City of the West and embrace its roots of reinvention — it will not succeed through attracting big businesses, building luxury apartments, and catering to johnnies-come-lately. Those businesses will shut their doors eventually, those luxury apartments will age, and those newcomers will take their investment capital somewhere else. No, to become a 21st Century city, Denver has to be bold enough to reinvent what American cities are like. And it means finding a middle ground between Europe’s best examples and innovative thinking about a future that isn’t here yet.
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We can build density through public transit and logical development. We can maintain the spirit and culture that has made the city great by refusing to bow to the idea that more money is enough to make a city better. We can plan for a future where cars will be obsolete, where people will walk and bike and share their rides. We can honor the brilliance of former mayor Speer, to create Denver as a beacon of culture in this vast continent. If we don’t, we will bow to the tech companies and office parks that slip in while costs are low and depart or disintegrate when the well goes dry.
It happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s with our oil boom and bust. It can happen again, leaving Denver empty as the newcomers run away, leaving Denver cultureless as an insulated population takes up stakes for Cheyenne or Santa Fe or wherever the money river flows next.
Demand foresight from your elected officials. Demand forward thinking public transportation that works smarter. Support non-luxury housing projects. Demand that we keep Denver Authentic. Remind businesses and local politicians that the weird guy with the limp, and the kids with the bad hair, and the lower-middle class folks are the ones who make Denver possible. Cry out that great communities are built on diverse strata of people, not just on the highest bidders. Demand that Denver, and its pioneering spirit, grow into a city that future cities wish to emulate. We can reinvent American cities here. We can be exemplary. But first, we have to choose it.
Cast your vote and tell us what you’d like to see change in Denver.
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Nate Ragolia is a Colorado native, 7-year Capitol Hill resident, nonprofiteer, freelance writer & editor, and the author of There You Feel Free. You’ll often see him walking in Uptown, Cap Hill, Cheesman, and Congress Park. He will ask to pet your dog.