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Denver — a work in progress

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Denver, the capital and main city of the mountain state of Colorado, is a large and growing city stuck in the middle of nowhere with a fierce local pride and seemingly much to be proud about.

It’s also a city in transition and is grappling with the problems that come with growth and urban spread.

Denver City alone had a population of 704,621 in 2017, making it the 19th most populous city in the United States; it had grown by 17% since 2010. The population of the greater Denver metropolitan area is now estimated at 2.88 million.

That bible of upmarket travel, Condé Nast Traveller, has just labelled Denver as one of its most underrated American cities, and says, “Like Austin, Denver is fast becoming SF 2.0. The downside of all those programmers and coders moving in? Skyrocketing real estate.”

It adds: “The upside? An influx of cash for restaurants, bars, and shops. The population here is varied enough to support niche interests,” and it goes on to list some.

Blue bear outside the Colorado Convention Center
Blue bear outside the Colorado Convention Center

“You could eat and drink yourself silly in this town, but many locals are as fit as thanks to Denver’s proximity to the great outdoors.” Biking and hiking are common. An adventure in the Rockies is only 23km away.

It sounds like hype, but it’s mostly true. The place is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US. It is the scene of some exciting food action; the drinks scene now adds local wine to local spirits and there’s a thriving craft beer industry – which almost every US city now claims to have.

However, I still found it too spread out to be easy to get around (particularly without a car) and lacking a real “heart of the city’. It is a city in transition, and like building a house, you can see and sense the potential joy, but it’s not delivered yet.

One sign of the transition is the changing political complexion.

Politically, Colorado is a battleground state. It voted Republican in every Presidential election from 1964 until it went for Barack Obama in 2008. (Bill Clinton won the state, but not a majority of the votes in 1992 because there was a third party involved.)

The state voted for George W Bush in 2000 and 2004, Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of the state’s seven representatives in Congress, four are Republican and three Democrat. The two senators are one each way.

The Constitution Party, previously known as the US Taxpayers’ Party, but not to be confused with the Tea Party with whom it shares similar ideas, is a force here, with its blend of originalist interpretations of the Constitution, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Bible.

It has previously won representation in the state assembly. This is still a mountain state unpersuaded that the federal government is necessarily anyone’s friend.

Getting high – both ways

Denver likes the ambiguity of its status as Mile High City. Yes, it is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level, which is exactly a mile, and yes, marijuana is legally grown and smoked there, so there is substance to the moniker.

About 1300 years ago, native Utes tribes migrated to the Denver. Later, as Americans explored further west, beaver and buffalo drew hunters. In 1821 the Santa Fe trail opened the area to those migrating west.

The Mexican-American War of 1845/46 added a lot of territory in the South West and mountain states to the US, and in the Gold Rush of 1858 Denver was born.

In 1881, the railroad arrived. That and the discovery of silver generated more arrivals while the Dust Bowl of the 1930s emptied the state again.

The town had its own successes. In 1912 Oliver Fritchle designed and built an electric car in Denver. He made 500 vehicles between 1912 and 1920. Its top speed was 25mph.

The battery weighed between 180 and 270kg. In 1920 it cost $2,500. A Model T Ford was just $700. The Fritchle family donated a 1914 Coupe to the Denver Museum and it was driven there under its own power in 1990.

Whiskey tasting in Denver
Whiskey tasting

Denver makes much of its locally-produced spirits and the wine which is made from grapes grown in the country, matured and bottled in the city and sold in cans for hikers, who don’t want glass. The wine is a struggle to like, but the whiskey is impressive.

What was interesting was the absence of rules around host responsibility. Unlike New Zealand there is no requirement on owners of licensed premises to provide food of any kind, or to have non-alcoholic drinks available.

At one brewery I visited on a tour, the only food available was popcorn. And that seemed to be for the kids who were there with their parents imbibing on a warm afternoon.

The answer is food trucks. This lowers the overheads for the bar owner, I was told, and gives the customers more variety. It’s not unusual to see two or three different trucks outside a large bar, or for the trucks to roam from bar to bar during an afternoon or evening.

Josh Niernberg is one of a new generation of chefs in Denver who produced one of the nicest beef dishes I have tasted. It was apple, fennel and kombu braised wagyu short rib, served with preserved apricot butter, puffed barley and micro mustard. It simply melted in the mouth, and the combination of flavours was delicate and sweet.

Likewise Jen Jasinki, a pioneer whose success has inspired several restaurants. The taste of her poached egg with salmon on a potato galette lingered on the palette. Both have won national cuisine awards.

Up in RiNo and down in LoDo

Much is also made locally of the revival of the industrial and warehouse area adjacent to the central city.

Many cities have gone through this process with their waterfronts, railyards, or manufacturing and storage areas. Denver has begun the process but has a long way to go to make it attractive.

The River North area in Denver, now rebranded as RiNo, was derelict industrial space, much of it warehouses associated with the nearby railyards.

Residents in the lower downtown area – now rebranded as LoDo – were also moving north into the warehouse district of RiNo which was pushing up rents for the artists, students and itinerants who lived there.

Brady Welsh, a commercial real estate agent active in the RiNo area, told me about the problems and challenges.

He and other locals refer proudly to a building called The Source, one of the first makeovers of a warehouse now housing a bank, a brewery, two restaurants, and specialist shops. Interesting, but worth only a short stop.

Denver Central market, a bustling, thronging place for eating, drinking and recreating, was larger and better.

The food was well worth going for: a very good butcher (specialising in Italian cuts), a great pizza place, coffee, ice cream and gelato to die for (blueberry and basil anyone?), and a fishmonger, greengrocer, salumeria, rotisserie, bakery, creamery, chocolatier and coffee bar and a full bar. Our group spent a happy couple of hours here.

Interior view of the beaux arts Denver Railway Station
Interior view of the beaux arts Denver Railway Station

Mr Welsh said rental space was now $125 to $150 per square foot where $25 per square foot used to be the norm.

The lack of green space has also been criticised. Look out of the window of the office and apartment blocks and yes, the Rockies are visible, but there’s little green between you and them.

“Beautification will come when the concrete trucks pull out,” Brady Welsh assured me. “The RiNo transport station will have after-school programmes. The main avenue will be tree lined.”

Right now, it has the feeling of a new and raw suburb about it, plenty of promise and plenty of promises, but it’s not a completed project right now.

Cellular service in RiNo is also “a real pain”, Brady admits, because there aren’t enough towers.

Part of the problem is the desire to spread rather than to go up. One to three storey apartment buildings and shopping/living complexes are common, but the distances are large, and in the absence of public transport (hardly visible at all outside the inner city), it’s back to cars and bicycles.

The answer for the 20 and 30-year-olds buying into the apartments is Uber (and Lyft).

Taxis can be flagged down, but Uber is a much more reliable experience. Seemingly everyone has an Uber account, and with fares usually under $10 to get about the city, no one seems to sweat the cost.

There are buses and trains and, back in the city, one positive is the 16th Avenue Mall which is car free and has a free bus operating continuously from Union Station (Interstate and light rail to the airport) into town.

The mall is tree-lined and filled with shops and shoppers. Denver is starting to get the idea of what an inner city experience should be, but there is plenty of room for getting better.

John Bishop is a travel writer and business mentor.

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