Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Backstreets of Denver: Touring the Fabulous Alleys of Colorado's State Capitol

(If any magazine editors happen to stumble across this travelogue, please feel free to contact me about publishing it, though it might be difficult to acquire the rights to the pictures included herein, as most were stolen from various websites--oh, who am I kidding? All of them were stolen. Regardless, I've heard that travel writing is one of the best ways to get published, and it seems to be incredibly easy.* )

From the crowded steel boxes of Downtown to the barred windows of Curtis Park, Denver has a little something for everyone. One of the top complaints about living in Denver, however, is that everyone is on the roads--especially during rush hour in the winter, when snow can back traffic flow up by hours at a time. In fact, according to one study, Denver has the 13th-worst traffic in the nation. One method of combating this traffic, of course, is public transportation, be that the Light Rail or the RTD buses, but there is another, much more obvious way to avoid the traffic: alleys. Not only do alleys provide convenient alternatives to the crowded streets that comprise Denver's infrastructure, but they are also stimulating on an aesthetic and olfactory basis. Join me as we tour the fabulous alleys of Colorado's state capitol!
A Brief History of the Street Systems of Denver
Interestingly enough, the first white settlers who came to Denver in 1858 (which was called Auraria then) decided to lay the initial street grid, not in a North-South manner, as one might initially expect, but in a diagonal Northwest-Southeast direction, parallel to Cherry Creek. Unfortunately, the surrounding areas went with the common-sense North-South approach, and when these two systems met in the middle, at what is today Broadway, it created the cluster fuck that today's generations were left to inherit (see image at right). This is just one more example of how things that seem to be a really great idea at one point soon reveal themselves to be horrendously inconvenient, as anyone who has tried to navigate the resulting one-way streets of downtown can tell you.

Traveling by Alley
It is only natural, then, that the alleys of Denver might be a trifle difficult to maneuver, seeing as they are entirely dependent on the foundation laid by the streets. The great thing about traveling by alley, however, is this: if you are in a car, there are few enforceable laws governing the use of alleys, and there are also fewer kamikaze pedestrians to jay-walk in front of you. If, in fact, someone on foot does cut you off, it will probably take some time for his or her body to be found, and by then you'll have taken your car to the car wash and eliminated all traces of the unfortunate "accident."

Regardless, if you are new to the area, make sure you keep a map and a compass with you at all times so you can easily keep track of your location. While many Denverites would advise you to simply use the great Rocky Mountains as a point of reference (as they are always lying to the West), when you are traveling by alley, you are generally surrounded on all sides by six-foot security fences or the backsides of rather tall buildings. You might even feel as though you are traveling in an area not unlike the amazon, trapped by the underbrush and unable to escape the meandering path your alley might take. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the amazon may be friendlier than the inhabitants of the alleys of Denver, so, in addition to being prepared with a map and a compass, choose your alleys with care and always carry some sort of baseball bat or a shank, just in case.

There are three types of alley in Denver: the asphalt overlaid alleys, the black gold alleys, and the concrete alleys. Concrete alleys are the most prevalent, as there are nearly 2500 in the City and County of Denver, while the asphalt overlaid alleys come in second at 1400. The final type of alley, black gold (which is not nearly as exciting as it sounds, consisting of recycled asphalt sprinkled over unimproved paths), comes in last at 1000, but that number is slowly shrinking as the City and County rebuilds and grades them--at a rate of about 3 to 5 a year, so they should be done in roughly two to three centuries. Therefore, if you are planning to travel by alley, it is best to be prepared for all types of terrain. Tennis shoes or hiking boots are preferable if you are traveling by foot. Though some people--such as street walkers, strippers, and cross-dressers--can successfully maneuver alleys on heels and platform shoes, it is best to leave that kind of footwear to the professionals and stick to flats.

The Alleys of LoDo
Perhaps the most striking feature of Lower Downtown (or LoDo, as the locals call it) is Coors Field, which has a direct impact both on the surrounding streets and the surrounding alleys due in part to the preponderance of bars for the post-game crowd. If you are in LoDo on a game day, the alcoholic to non-alcoholic ratio will be incredibly high, with the result being that the alleys of LoDo exude the gentle odor of vomit and urine
The Alleys of Capitol Hill
The most noticeable trait of the residents of Capitol Hill is the fact that most--if not all--of them are college students, resulting in high rent prices and a leaning toward the entire neighborhood reeking of marijuana. As to how this relates to alleys, however, they are generally to be found behind houses, condos, and apartments (vs LoDo, which features alleys that provide rear-access to business (that's what she said)).
The high proportion of students also means that this is an excellent neighborhood in which to dumpster dive, as students move twice a year and generally prefer to rid of furniture rather than transporting it back to their parents' houses for the summer months. In fact, my house is currently filled with treasures gleaned from dumpsters in Capitol Hill--a frayed and animal-stained carpet that probably cost more to repair and clean than it cost new, several mismatched chairs with loose legs and seats that are threatening to give way, and a bookcase that must be leaned against a wall on two sides so it doesn't fall over completely. The possibilities are endless in the alleys of Capitol Hill!

The Alleys of Uptown
Uptown, just north of Capitol Hill, has a history of being a poor, predominantly-black neighborhood, but the City of Denver is solving that problem by building high-price condos in the place of lower-price homes. This is resulting in a gentrification that is, naturally, quite a relief to the yuppies who are moving in and who don't want to encounter poverty on a daily basis. Be that as it may, however, the alleys of Uptown are generally populated by the homeless who now have nowhere to live and are undoubtedly grateful that uptown is being "cleaned up."

They are generally harmless, however, and the alleys of Uptown are a great place to find dumpsters and... actually, that's about all you'll find in the alleys of Uptown, as the homeless swoop up everything but the dumpsters.
The Alleys of Curtis Park
Not so in the alleys of Curtis Park, however! Most locals upon hearing this will probably think, "Where the hell is Curtis Park?" This is because they know it only as Five Points, aka one of the places in Denver one avoids like the plague. It is also where the Denver projects reside, so your imagination is the limit when it comes to the alleys of Curtis Park!
Unfortunately, you'll also have to use your imagination to fill in the rest of this section; I've never actually been to the alleys of Curtis Park, as I generally avoid the neighborhood like the plague and have only been through there once, on foot and by accident in the middle of the night. It seemed like a very nice place, for being dark and scary.
The alleys of Denver can be strange and wonderful places, full of mystery and possibility. They provide privacy in a public sphere for all kinds of secret dealings--be they shy, secret kisses or cocaine sales. It is only be exploring these alleys yourself that you, too, can find the magic that lurks behind the houses and business of Colorado's State Capitol.
*I draw this conclusion from the publication of the book on which I am basing this travelogue, Getting to Know Denver: Five Fabulous Walking Tours, by Francis J. Pierson, which begins with this sentence: "Rounding the hill-crest sprinkled with gingerbread Victorians, one sees a startling vision of Xanadu: a forest of lofty Promethian towers pressing like giant Sequoias upon the bosom of heaven." Reading this book, I got the inspiration for a drinking game: take a shot every time Pierson uses two to three metaphors and/or similes in one sentence. You'd be shit-faced in under two pages. Interested in playing? Here you go:,M1

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