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

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Review: I Like Myself, by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow

Speaking of children's literature and encouraging children to read, I recently came across this book while shopping for a birthday present for my cousin/niece (my cousin's daughter--would that make her my first-cousin-once-removed or my second cousin?) because I am absolutely determined to be that aunt/first-cousin-once-removed/second cousin who gives nothing but books and hugs. (Although I did end up also getting her a stuffed Curious George, but that's a character from a book, so I'm saying it counts.)

Regardless, I found this book and immediately fell in love with it. I Like Myself, by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow, is fabulous. I cannot emphasize how much I adore this book. I spent the better part of a half an hour looking for something that would appeal to a little girl while not being about fairy princesses or other stereotypically-useless characters, and I was so glad when I found this one. It's book that works to encourage self-esteem in kids, who are so prone to self-loathing and self-blame, and it gives them a way to express their emotions about themselves. What I like so much about it, though, is that it emphasizes that the "self" has little-to-nothing to do with physical appearance, but with who one is on the inside. (This is in direct contrast to the "fairy princess" books, all of which feature incredibly beautiful characters wearing incredibly beautiful dresses that made me feel like vomiting incredibly.)

The book is written in rhymed couplets, which, I believe, appeals to all children. (The book opens with, "I like myself! I'm glad I'm me. / There's no one else I'd rather be.") There is something about the combination of rhyme and rhythm that somehow ties straight into a child's central nervous system, which explains the everlasting-popularity of "Patty Cake." In addition, David Catrow's illustrations are adorable without being overly "cutesy," and they have a lot of interesting details that younger kids who aren't yet reading can focus on. Finally, I'm glad that the main character is African-American--there are enough books out there about white kids that it's a relief when I come across something slightly different.

I give this book an A++. If you have or know preschool-age children (the book is targeted for kids ages 3-7), get this book, whether you purchase it or borrow it from the library. Everyone deserves to like him or herself, and this will be one more thing we can do for our children. If you would like to order this book, here is the Amazon site for it:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Don't Take My Word For It...

"If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes."
--Mark Twain

There is always the tendency to look back on the "good old days" with fondness and longing, and in a world where Youtube offers convenient glimpses into the past, this tendency is especially strong, even in those of us who have relatively short lives on which to look back. And so it is that LeVar Burton is on my list of literary heroes, as I recently stumbled across a video from Reading Rainbow, the hit children's show that Burton produced and starred in from 1983 until 2006. For those of us born in the late-70s, 80s, and 90s, the show provided a way for our parents to let us watch TV while actually encouraging brain development. Reading Rainbow was an extremely successul program, winning over 26 Emmys as well as many other awards, but, more importantly, it stands out as one of my earliest influences to read and read voraciously.

Burton's introduction to literature came from his mother, who worked as an English teacher and always emphasized the importance of reading. Speaking at Wellesley College in February of 2008, Burton stated, "I got at a very early age that reading was a part of being human, as much a part of being human as breathing, and so it's been my pleasure to share my love of literature and the written word for twenty-five years." Though most people probably know Burton from the hit TV special Roots or from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it should be remembered that Burton worked on Reading Rainbow for a quarter of a century. That's an amazingly long period of time to work on one project, and it is my belief that if the funding for the program would have continued, the show would still be on TV today.

While there are many educational programs on PBS Kids today, what makes Reading Rainbow stand out in the crowd is that it focused explictly on books and children's relationships with them. While Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer may teach children their letters and basic words, only Reading Rainbow bridged the gap between learning how to read and actually reading, creatingwhat would seem to some an unusual dichotomy: while TV and reading are generally placed at odds with one another, Burton used the power of television to emphasize the importance of reading. Burton himself said in an Interview with Cable in the Classroom in 2007:
"[Television] is the most powerful tool in the history of civilization for addressing the opportunity as humans to inspire ourselves towards growth and change. There has never been a more powerful tool to spread consciousness in our history, and why is that? It's because television is everywhere; you cannot escape this all-pervasive medium, and so there is a responsibility, I believe, that goes along with that opportunity to have that kind of reach and impact, and that responsibility is to use that medium to its best advantage."
In order to take advantage of this impact, Burton would invite guest stars with recognizable voices (such as Whoopi Goldberg or Bill Cosby) to read books on the show, and he would encourage audience interaction by having children in the target age range give quick summaries of their favorite books. I remember always wanting to be one of the chosen few who got to present on the show, but there was never any try-outs in my hometown, so it will always be an unfulfilled dream of mine. (Perhaps this denial of my early literary ambitions is one of my reasons for having a literary blog? Hm...) In addition, Burton also worked to feature books that featured characters who were of color or girls to encourage those who are not white males to read, as well, an effort he acknowledges got significantly easier as time passed.

It is through the effort of Burton and others who encourage children to read that we give the younger generations opportunities to flourish. Reading has been consistently linked both to success in school as well as success in life-after-school, and we would do well to encourage both as much as possible. In Burton's words, "There is a purpose to your being, and it is my belief that it is not just important to your being, but essential to our being-ness, to make contact with that reason we are here. And if you can find that thing that you love to do, it will serve you so well in your life."

And do you know what I love to do? I love to listen to this song:

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