There’s a Lot to Love about Denver

Pianos placed on the 16th Street Mall attract passersby to play or listen. Photo: Julia Wasson

I fell in love last weekend. Oh, it was a rash thing to do, I know. But love at first sight isn’t particularly logical. It doesn’t require scrutiny and deep consideration. And love at first sight is exactly what I experienced as soon as I entered Denver.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite attached to my own hometown, Iowa City. It’s a lovely place, full of the culture and history of famous writers who’ve lived here and walked the same streets I walk. Iowa City has a lively pedestrian mall that hosts concerts and street fairs. It’s friendly. And it’s a great place to meet like-minded environmentalists. I love living here. Yet, I have to admit, I am tempted by the charms of another city.

Denver's Chalk Art Festival attracted a huge crowd. Photo: Lindsay Render

My daughter and her boyfriend moved to Denver last weekend. I was delighted to be part of the caravan that took them and their belongings to the city where they will start their post-college lives. As we approached Denver along I-76, snow-capped mountains rose up in the distance. Snow! Much as I dislike battling snow in the winter, it was a refreshing sight in the background on a hot summer day.

Driving along E. Speer Boulevard toward my daughter’s new apartment, I caught glimpses of a long park with a bike path/walking trail in what looked like it might be a riverbed. Later, I learned the trail runs along Denver’s Cherry Creek, which is below street level, giving it a sense of being removed from the city.

We didn’t get a chance to wander the trail — and I never actually caught a glimpse of the water — but the activity and the setting were inviting, even from the road above. This busy park in the middle of a city charmed me. It was all I could do to keep from saying, “Let’s move you in later. I want to do some exploring first.”

My daughter’s neighborhood was the next thing to capture my heart. Not quite inner city, but definitely not suburbs, the area was bustling with activity all weekend long. Bikers rode past. People walked leisurely by. And cars drove at a reasonable speed that allowed pedestrians to cross the street without fearing for their lives.

Though the sidewalks are in horrible disrepair, the area is beautiful — lush with flowers and greenery and old-growth trees. Quaint homes are interspersed with apartment buildings and senior living. It’s a multi-age neighborhood, where young and old and in-between cross paths daily. No gang signs painted on mailboxes. No broken windows or burned-out buildings. She’ll be as safe here as anywhere, I suspect.

The Denver metro area boast 100 urban gardens like this one, where community members can raise their own vegetables and get to know their neighbors. Photo: Julia Wasson

Only a short walk away, there’s a city garden plot where residents can grow their own seasonal vegetables. Turns out there are 100 urban gardens in “Denver, Lakewood, Aurora, Commerce City, Englewood, Westminster, Edgewater, Arvada, Golden, Thornton and Sheridan,” according to the Denver Urban Gardens website. There’s a small fee for reserving a plot — and “waiting lists are common” — but, as the DUG site says —

The rewards of participating in a community garden go beyond growing fresh, healthy produce. These benefits are priceless and worth the effort – improved health, a fuller life, a network of support which contributes to our individual and collective wellbeing [sic], and a fulfilling sense of security, belonging and meaning.

After moving boxes and furniture and more boxes — and cleaning, of course — we relaxed for the evening. The day had been hot and a bit on the humid side, but oh, the night was lovely! The air cooled down just enough to make sleeping with the windows open pure comfort. It reminded me of the years I spent growing up in California: hot days and cool, pleasant nights. So, the weather had me hooked, too.

The next day, after more cleaning and unpacking, we took an afternoon break. My daughter and her boyfriend escorted me downtown to the 16th Street Mall. I’ve always liked Iowa City’s pedestrian mall, but our six short blocks (two in each of three directions) pales in comparison to the Mall’s 1.25 miles! Even on a Sunday afternoon, the stores, restaurants, and streets were busy with shoppers, diners, and sightseers. The area bustled with activity like New York City, but at a more relaxed pace (can you bustle while being relaxed?) and without the heavy traffic.

MallRide buses provide free rides to pedestrians along the 16th Street Mall. Photo: Julia Wasson

In fact, I was impressed that the entire length of the Mall was free of vehicles except for cars on cross streets and the MallRide buses. These buses stop at each intersection, picking up and dropping off passengers for just a short hop or the full route — all for free. The buses themselves are hybrids; they move quietly and (as far as I could tell) without fumes.

The Mall is a green space, with trees spaced down the center, between the bus lanes. It’s a pleasant oasis in the hot sun and a place where street performers are said to be a common sight. We didn’t see any that day, but we only traveled a few blocks and may have missed them.

What I found most intriguing about the Mall was the variety of activities there. Every so often, we saw a brightly painted piano sitting by itself under the trees. These are placed in the Mall for anyone to use. Sometimes, passersby would stop to play a tune, either for their own enjoyment or for a small gathering.

A velocipede turns heads no matter where it's ridden. Photo: Julia Wasson

One man rode by on an old fashioned velocipede, causing heads to turn in his direction. In another spot, children and parents were playing in a fountain that gushed up from the pavement.

And art was everywhere! We saw several huge sculptures as we crossed from the Mall to Larimer Square, where the Denver Chalk Art Festival was in full swing. Dozens of talented artists were busily creating amazing pictures in the middle of the streets, which had been blocked off for the occasion. Thousands of people had gathered to look at the creations, yet the atmosphere was congenial and courteous. It felt like a small-town affair, though this was a sizable urban crowd. There’s something about this Western city that exudes relaxation and casual fun.

The Capitol Hill People's Fair provided free entertainment and plenty of shopping. Photo: Julia Wasson

When we’d seen most of the drawings and were ready to leave, we hopped on the MallRide once again and back to our car. But not two blocks from where we’d parked, there was yet another free festival taking place. The Capitol Hill People’s Fair was similarly crowded with strolling families, youth, and older folks.

We rocked out to the Ricky Earl Band just inside the gate, enjoying first-class blues by the master guitarist himself and the band’s featured vocalist, Cherise. As we walked along the grounds, we came to another stage with old-time rock and roll musicians. And there was yet a third stage that we never got to.

The event featured free samples of organic foods (Larabar — yum!) from local vendors. One booth, hosted by Xcel Energy, had a demonstration of the amount of pedal power it takes to light incandescent bulbs versus the same number of CFL bulbs. (I can’t remember how much more effort the Xcel representative said it takes to light the incandescents, but the difference was sizable.) We saw gorgeous art, from delicate jewelry to huge vases “handmade from standing dead aspen trees” to flowing skirts and hand-crafted purses.

A man proudly displays his custom-made, gold-plated bike. Photo: Julia Wasson

The crowd was fascinating, too. A man pushing a “$14,000” (he said) gold-plated, custom bike posed for a photo with his unique creation. Teenage cheerleaders encouraged visitors to enter a raffle for a motorbike to benefit East High School. A pedestrian walked along with a tiny dog in a pouch carried on his chest. And two 20-something men, shirtless and wearing sandwich boards that said, “Recycle Here” on one side, and “Official Green Vendor” on the other, pulled recyclable plastics from the trash cans.

As we left the People’s Fair, we passed a pickup truck hauling bikes. The truck was labeled “Denver Bike Sharing.” The “B-Cycle” bikes are available to rent through the downtown, Cherry Creek, and Denver University areas of the city. Membership cost is minimal, and you can check out a bike at one station, then return it at any other station in the city. Students and Seniors get a steep discount on annual memberships, and each bike has a basket for easy carrying of books, groceries, or even small pets. What a great service to make a people-friendly city even more attractive.

After a busy weekend, I departed Denver on Sunday evening from Union Station, which happens to be located at one end of the 16th Street Mall. It was an easy drive for my daughter and her boyfriend to take me to the station; this city is convenient in so many ways.

Daughter and Mom at the People's Fair. Photo: Dylan McDonald

The train station is a grand old building, with high-backed wooden benches that create a sense of time standing still. Ticketing and boarding were simple, and I felt good knowing that the carbon footprint of my return trip home would be smaller than if I had booked a trip by air. Train travel is leisurely, and I had plenty of time overnight to reflect on both leaving my daughter to start her new life and leaving a city I had come to love.

Tony Bennett famously sang, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” I’ve been to that lovely city, too, and I found it fascinating. But the city that has captured my heart is Denver. And I feel very lucky that it’s captured my daughter’s heart, too.

I won’t soon move away from my own dear Iowa City, but you can be sure I’ll slip off to visit my precious daughter and submit to the charms of her wonderful city at every opportunity. I’m thoroughly smitten with Denver. (And I miss you already, Lindsay.)

Julia Wasson

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