June 9, 1995
In his book “Visions of Cody,” Jack Kerouac reminisces about the legendary pool halls of downtown Denver during the years following World War II. It was here, on Glenarm Street, where his compatriot and fellow beat adventurer Neal Cassady, son of a Larimer Street wino, came of age. The poolhall scene of Denver of the early days, wrote Kerouac, was “a scene graced by the presence of champions, the Pensacola Kid, Willie Hoppe, Bat Masterson re-passing through town when he was a referee, Babe Ruth bending to a sidepocket shot on an October night in 1927, … great newspapermen traveling from New York to San Francisco, even Jelly Roll Morton was known to have played pool in the Denver parlors for a living …” (“Visions of Cody,” McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York.)
Through the late ’40s and ’50s, Jack and Neal often returned to Denver and to the streets of what has been termed “lower downtown.” Today, they would find a completely changed scene in “LoDo.”
For decades, the Denver of Jack and Neal remained pretty much the same and the city wore its “cowtown” moniker self-consciously. It seems, however, that the civic boosters who winced whenever they heard “cowtown” have finally had the last laugh. Microbreweries, the ballpark at 20th and Blake Street, a giant gaudy amusement park (Elitch Gardens) and a planned mega-coliseum (with an abominable aquarium) have replaced (or soon will) the musty pool halls and skid-row flophouses.
With the recent announcement of the NHL Quebec Nordiques moving to Denver, the city has catapulted into the “upper echelon” of U.S. cities, a pallid designation based on the number of sports teams and tourist attractions. As sports bars, ferris wheels and overpriced loft condominiums erase the whimsical spray-can art, abandoned railyards and hobo lean-tos, one can’t help but feel the city has forever lost a piece of its soul.
If Kerouac and Cassady were to visit Lower Downtown on a Colorado Rockies game day, they’d run into hordes of yuppies with cell phones making business calls on streetcorners, together with investment-hungry movie stars and developers staking their claim in one of the hottest downtowns in the country. The beat hipsters, eyeing the ostentatious display of progress, would quickly jump the first freight out of town, that is if they could push their way to the railyards.
The Central Platte Valley, just to the west of LoDo, was until very recently a vast urban “wasteland,” sprinkled with decaying remants of buildings, railroad tracks and makeshift hobo abodes. It was truly an urban wilderness, an eerie high-plains version of New York’s Central Park – undeveloped, unmanicured and wild. Here, in the middle of the city, was a no-man’s land, a waystation, which reflected Denver’s geographic position as the crossroads of east and west.
With a sprawling amusement park just open, and the aforementioned coliseum (perversely named the Pepsi Center) on the drawing board, the selling of downtown Denver is nearly complete. The tourism, marketing and advertising gods have divided and conquered.
However, on a rainy day when the Rockies are out of town, one can still find skeletons of the lost city. In the alleyways of lower downtown, a few places still are frequented by the ghosts of legends past. A rusted fire escape, the backside of ancient brick walls, and the stagger of one of the few remaining winos reminds one of the Denver of old.
Don’t linger too long, though. The outrageously priced parking meters in LoDo will soon run out and you’ll find a parking ticket unceremoniously slapped on your windshield.