Writing Denver: Then and Now

Write Denver is a collaborative writing project hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. It is an ongoing exploration of place that weaves together walking tours and writing prompts.

In October 2015, Write Denver partnered with the Denver VOICE for a walk exploring the theme of “Then and Now.” VOICE vendors joined other community members on a two and half mile walk that took us from Colfax Ave. to Cheesman Park to a community garden. 

On that fall day last year, the Write Denver group delved into different layers of this city. We imagined what Pete Contos of Pete’s Satire Lounge might have been like several decades ago. We wrote short stories about the era when Cheesman Park was Prospect Hill Cemetary. We reflected on the scores of people who have tended community garden plots near Congress Park.

While we walked and wrote, we thought of all the different people who make up a city, and of all the different versions of Denver that have existed since its founding. You’ll find a collection of those writings on the following pages. 

 

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Times Change By Cherie LeDoux

I’m at the Satire Lounge on East Colfax Ave. and Race St. Founded fifty years ago by Pete, a local restaurant tycoon, this establishment is a testament to hard work and dedication. 

On the side of the building is a mural depicting Pete when he started his business and Pete today. Pete of yesteryear looks about 22—young and eager to begin life. 

The other half of the mural shows Pete as he is today: heavier, older, but with the same sparkle in his eyes. I don’t know him, but I bet he has some stories to tell. I’ve heard Bob Dylan played here in the early 1960s. Can you imagine what that must have been like? I notice his shirt collar is loose in the painting of him as a young man, while older Pete is wearing a tie. Is he more respected now? Perhaps he has a duty to appear more formal? Or was his lack of a tie in his youth indicative of a desire to rebel a bit? I remember that desire to rebel. 

The painting reminds me of a recent visit to the Colorado School of Mines. One of the students gave my son and our family a tour of the campus. He’s already been accepted, so that made our visit even more special. Our student tour guide shared stories about the explosions that have occurred on campus, the importance of free food, and why certain professors are more popular than others. It brought me back to my youth, when I was idealistic and driven. Ready to change the world. 

Have I changed the world? I had children, and I see the many wonderful things they can accomplish. Is that my contribution? I hope I have more in me.

Life seems to follow a cycle. In my teens, I so wanted to fit in. I’ve never been the “cool” kid, but I sure did try. In my 20s, I wanted to light the world on fire, eschew my parents’ traditional thinking, convince my older friends to stop working on their houses and start seeing the world. I also wanted to be successful. I was looking for confirmation of my worth. 

My 30’s were all about babies. I couldn’t get enough of them and finally had two of my own. It was life changing for me. Those little creatures moved me away from selfishness. I would sacrifice anything for them. I also found the one thing I could do really well. Parenting filled me with such a sense of satisfaction and dedication.

My 40’s were more about seeking the truth. What am I doing here? Do I have a purpose? Suddenly I realized that there are so many others on this planet who need help, attention, and love. My mission changed from my family’s needs to the needs of others. 

My 50’s, only just begun, have been rocky. I’m having an identity crisis because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything of note. I was great in school, got all kinds of awards and accolades, but since then, life’s been pretty quiet. That’s who I am, a pretty quiet person. Now that 50 is not only looming, but here, I am painfully aware that there is more time behind me than in front. And when you reach that point, all of those things that you thought you’d do one day suddenly rush in. 

For me, one of those things is writing. I feel I must write, whether it’s a children’s book, a screenplay, articles, whatever. I don’t know that anybody wants to read what I write, but still I must do it. My hope, one day, is that someone will read what I wrote and say, “Ah, I get it too.”

 

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Hands By Brian Dibley

My hands being my guide

Once very useful

Hands careful, calm, and steady

Now riddled with pain

Barely able to write

My mind tells me one thing

My hands say another

 

Photo by Dan Manzanares, courtesy of Write Denver.

 

Pete’s Mural on the Corner of Colfax and Race By Karin Belz

Pete’s hair is black and slicked back, per the fashion of 1962. I can tell by the way he grooms his hair that he is a proud man. He wants to be sure that the girls notice him. And they do. His brown eyes and confident smile look forward. They say “Follow me!” into a future of laughter and love, lots of love.  

And so time passes. 

Now Pete’s dark hair is a snow-capped mountaintop. His sleek cheekbones are round and filled out from a life well lived, all the waxings and wanings, the highs and lows, the pinnacles and valleys. 

The eyes tell it all—they never change. In this blink of an eye that we call life, from the dawn to the dusk of it, Pete’s eyes remain the same. They look forward to his next great adventure, toward more laughter and love, toward that great unknown as life continues to scuttle along the corner of Colfax and Race.

 

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The Garden By Brian Dibley

Collective masses merging

On a common goal:

To feed all people.

A freethinking group

Using Mother Nature

And all the tools

Set before by generations

Of our ancestry.

On a corner plot of land,

Giving the community 

A fresh sense

Of caring

For the land

And for our friends, neighbors,

And the world all around us.

A garden bearing fruit

For all to share,

Giving hope new

Meaning in many lives…

 

Photo by Dan Manzanares, courtesy of Write Denver.

 

Community Garden By Gary Davis, VOICE vendor

One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth. What a great place to meditate on the power and love of God!

We are His creation, like all of these beautiful plants and flowers.

Take me back to the original Garden of Eden unblemished by sin and decay.

He walks with me and He talks to me when I hear the melody of the birds flying over the garden. I can sense His presence when I behold the beauty around me: the leaves on the trees changing to different shades of color, the fruit of the vine, pretty flowers and grasses and trees and lilies.

 

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Garden By Jordan Prochnow

I never considered myself to be a flower. I was always plain, a weed in everyone else’s flowerpots; a weakling, a sprout that never quite received enough sun to grow. People would tell me I was wrong, to see myself how everyone else did, but nothing changed. I was a barren countryside, a meadow that had been scorched after a wildfire, though everyone around me was vibrant. 

Then, out of the blue, I began to notice the details, which had seemed to be mundane. I started to see the colors in myself, and the sunlight began to stream through my blood. I never considered myself to be a flower—but now I think I do.

 

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Do some digging By Ndiya Ogba

When I made the move to Denver a few years ago, I expected to be drawn in by the mountains, the promise of adventure and the sheer majesty of them. Instead, I was immediately struck by the parks: their beauty, their availability, and their distinct personalities. 

There is something at once refreshing and calming about a park, something in the smell and feel of the grass. There’s also a certain freedom that parks invite. You could be standing on your head, lost in thought for hours or simply taking a walk and all those things would be acceptable. On this sunny October day, Cheesman Park is the picture of idyll, people biking, walking, families and friends hanging out. It’s hard to imagine that this place was once a cemetery. 

I’m trying to imagine the mood in 1907 when the park with all its name changes was founded, 49 years after Denver was established. I wonder what prompted city officials to declare the cemetery run down and an eyesore. Perhaps you’re wondering, too. The real story of Cheesman Park’s evolution and the route to its physical reclamation is likely full of intrigue, money changing hands, and bodies being moved—or not. 

But since we’ll never know exactly what city officials from the last century were thinking, I’m going to take some liberties with a brief history:

 Denver, 1907: Quentin Farcyde, Denver’s newly elected mayor, knew he would have to do something to solidify votes for the next election term. People were beginning to grow restless about the number of men, women, and children who were constantly coughing from working the mines. The pay for mining might have made for a halfway decent livelihood, but the miners’ lives were short. The bodies had to go somewhere, but Prospect Hill was inconveniently close to Tobias “the honorable” Pritchard’s home, and Farcyde had gotten an earful more than once from Pritchard on the nuisance of having the cemetery right by his house. It frightened the servants and spooked the guests enough to affect attendance at his annual gala. 

Farcyde proposed the cemetery be turned into a park, a proper city park. He hoped this would put him in good standing with Pritchard and boost his reputation with the community. Of course, not everyone was happy. It took years for bodies to be respectfully removed to a different site (overcrowded cemeteries elsewhere were not Farcyde’s concern). The move worked! Mayor Farcyde was elected for four consecutive terms. 

Looking at the park today, considering it’s partly dark beginnings, I have to say, if there was a Mayor Farcyde, I’m glad he made his move. Cheesman Park is a nice place to contemplate life, go for a run, and pass time with a loved one. Close to the gazebo, I can see dredged up flowerbeds. The dark soil against the bright green grass ominously suggests that I do some digging—literally and metaphorically—to discover what lies beneath the surface.

 

Photo by Dan Manzanares, courtesy of Write Denver.

 

Cheesman Park By Jordan Prochnow

Cheesman Park: I look at all of the laughing people, and I am reminded of how I got here.  The last time I was here I was a child, my long legs propelling me faster and faster along the dirt path. I’m haunted by the voices of my former friends, their laughs echoing in the breeze. Those people, the ones that I thought of as friends, are gone, mere ghosts like the fog that was my former self. 

I see a young girl on the monkey bars, giggling, and I want to tell her not to change. I want to tell her to be careful, but to never be afraid of falling.  Though childhoods are too short for heartbreak and chaos, these things are inevitable. 

Although we can’t escape heartbreak and chaos, we have the option of deciding what we do in their aftermath: we can sail along without the fear of failure, or we can fall, leaving ourselves to pick up the pieces in the end. This time, I want to take life as it comes.

 

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Put to Rest (or a Nostalgic Walk in the Park) By Lynn Farquhar

On this particularly warm day in late October, throngs of folks are getting in what is possibly their last gloriously sunny day in the park before the chilly days of fall.  A volleyball game is underway; a young family is doing their best to cajole their little girl, dressed in rust and ochre, into an adorable pose for a photo against a pillar with the last remaining rose garden of the year in the background. She’ll have none of it, preferring to play hide & seek behind daddy’s leg.

It’s hard to imagine this place as the cemetery it once was back in the late 19th century, or, after years of neglect, how it looked when they established a public park here after disinterring thousands of souls.  

Back in the late 60s there were musical productions staged right here in this pavilion... I especially remember The Sound of Music.  These musicals were always free to the public and picnicking crowds would come out and fill the whole park come rain or shine as full-blown Broadway-like performances began at dusk and people would be humming or singing the shows’ songs leaving the park on those nights.

I notice fresh pink rose petals strewn around the inside of the pavilion and a group of teenagers all dressed up; the young men in dapper red and black outfits with black hats and girls in mostly black dresses surrounding a young woman in a brilliant crimson gown.  They head over toward a black stretch limo parked by a stunningly beautiful large tree aflame with golden color.  Then another, smaller party walks by and a white Hummer stretch limo pulls up for them, the young lady and her entourage dressed mainly in shades of violet. For months I’ve been seeing these kids celebrating or taking photos for their quinceañeras, which must be what is going on here. 

Are there still spirits here from the cemetery days? And if so, what do they make of all these people...playing Frisbee, practicing yoga, chatting on their cell phones, or speeding by on those red rental bikes?  

There goes that family with the little girl in fall colors.  I wonder if she’ll live in Denver into her 60s like me.  I try to picture what transformations will have happened to Cheesman Park by 2072.  Will there ever be free shows here that she will be swept away watching with her kids or grandkids?  Will she ever hear anything like the sound of Argentinean accordion and see graceful tango dancers practicing their steps in the pavilion like I did one sultry summer evening? Or see young women celebrating their quinceañeras in fluffy gowns with their friends and families?  Will that gorgeous tree still be there?  I hope so. ■

 

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The Physical Reclamation of a Thing By Karin Belz

Deep tree roots drink the water soaked in blood and history,

bones and bribes.

Here the park stands above time: an exploration

in hurried hushes, a blur of stolen moments.

Youth and beauty scuttle toward the grave.

 

On this sunny day people walk by, sit on the rusty benches,

talk to strangers who soon become friends,

chat, work, read, move, breathe.

But in the end we all drop

like the leaves on the trees drinking in blood and history, 

bones and bribes.

 

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Coming Home By Sumi Lee

I have walked through the Congress Park neighborhood many times and thought I knew it well: the quietly unique houses, the tall antenna sprouting from a park, and how hard it can be to spot that blind corner on York as you try to cross the street near the Botanic Gardens. But it wasn’t until a neighborhood walk in late October that I discovered that there is a secret garden on 11th and Elizabeth, hidden by a blind curve behind the water treatment building.

This Garden has gone through five iterations in its existence. It is unclear how much the soil in the garden now resembles the soil from its first iteration in 1960 at 11th and York. But I am skeptical as I look around: kale was probably not a trendy vegetable back then. 

I picture some of the best crops and plants from that first garden being uprooted, just when the pH balance of the soil was finally made right, no weeds in sight, and the bug problem finally cured. That’s when the gardeners get the notice: time to move. I can almost hear the sweet curse words right now. 

Now some plots are lusciously green and full even in late October, though some are showing signs of early winter disarray: plots scattered in browned stalks, yellowing leaves, its soil tough and dry. Maybe these dying plots already know that the next move is coming, and they know to not even try.

I, too, have had the soil beneath my feet changed more than a few times: sometimes by choice and one time when I wasn’t ready. Living in five different cities in the span of one decade, I knew to save the boxes I just unpacked and didn’t fret over posters taped slightly askew. They were going to come down, soon probably.

So it should have felt like a part of a mastered routine when I once again unfolded the boxes laminated in five layers of tape to ship my belongings from New York City to Denver in 2010. I knew the practical necessity of the move: I had graduated from law school with no job at the height of the economic downturn, and I was paying rent that was a steal for New York City but downright a robbery for anywhere else. 

But even though the move made practical sense, my heart still sank leaving New York. And more detriment than leaving was this: I wasn’t moving to just some other city. I was moving back home.

I had earned my ticket to move out to the east coast at a young age, and I was supposed to not only get out there but also stay out there. I wasn’t supposed to come back home, at least not yet. So even though moving back home was my choice, my two checked bags and a heaping carry-on at DIA felt like a sign of defeat.

Even when I finally found a job, transitioned out of my parents’ house, and moved into an apartment in Capitol Hill, I still couldn’t throw away the boxes. I didn’t even bother hanging up any art. I am a city girl, and I lived in New York City. What is this, and what am I doing here?! I’ll be out before I know it. 

For the first few years, I searched through the neighborhoods for the rush of something new: I stood under the roaring speakers at Beta, went to nuanced local food festivals that all seemed to end with me eating the ubiquitous Mexican corn, and biked between the downtown museums. But they all paled in comparison to the New York nights that I loved. I defined Denver not by what it was, but what it was not. “If I were you, I would leave this small place,” even my mother would say. “You belong out there, not here.”

Then, about a year ago, I found myself on a date with a man who had also lived in New York City and moved to Denver about six months prior. We were enjoying what I thought was a nice meal, but he complained about how the pulled pork he was eating was not as good as that one Cuban place in the East Village. I had been to the said East Village restaurant and knew how good that was. “I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, you know,” he said. “Do you know what a big deal that was, to have achieved that status?” I smiled because I knew, and because I saw how I must have sounded for the first few years in Denver. I knew the food he was eating wasn’t the best, but that’s not why I was there: I was there to get to know him. But I could see that he could not get past the pork to get to know me. 

“Give it a year and see how you feel,” I said. “You will either see Denver for the amazing place that it is, or you will leave. I know it feels like exile in suburbia right now, but you will never actually see Denver if you keep comparing it to New York.” I was as surprised as anyone to hear myself defending Denver on a first date.

So what had happened in the past five years? Somewhere between the initial shock of moving back home and realizing how exhausted I had been in New York, I let Colorado surprise me. I let myself stare at a sunset for as long as it takes to see where one color might begin and another end. I let myself get overwhelmed by those first minutes of being on top of a fourteener. I let myself be sublimely happy while eating a breakfast burrito. I let myself slow down and actually look people in the eye—and look myself in the eye. I let myself laugh in a cab ride home after a night out, and I let myself admit that I have had a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that I consider the possibility that maybe I can unpack the boxes for good.

Because this is my truth: there is no shame in coming home. There is no defeat in experiencing the world out there and choosing to go back to the place you once were with a new set of eyes. Home is a place you earn. If you can endure the growing pains, it will provide you with new insight. Sometimes home is a choice that you didn’t know you would make, but Denver is the place I have earned to be.

 

Photo by Giles Clasen