Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Go Go Magazine

Go Go Magazine
Volume 3, Issue 6
March 15 - March 28, 2001

Denver's Main Street cruises towards change
by Sean Weaver

     The monotonous grinding from the heater resonated through the crowded bus as it crawled up the street. Nobody talked. Nobody read the signs hanging above the windows advertising jobs, education, God. The passengers, who silently gazed at the imposing gray weather through dirty windows, wore the morning on their faces. The bus jerked to a stop near a corner where three men stood. A fourth man tried to make himself comfortable on a mesh metal bench nearby. "Just fuck you," yelled the man on the bench. His voice slurred. "Fuck you." One of the men from the group of three walked over to yell at him.
     "Those are my friends," he screamed, waiving his hands in the air. "Don't dis them."
     "Fuck you," the man on the bench yelled again as he crawled into fetal position. The doors closed; the bus slowly continued its journey. Two temp construction workers glanced nervously out the window, wondering if they had missed their stop. "I really don't want to do this today," one said as he leaned to try to see down the street. At the next stop, a man-- an everyday looking man, wearing pressed brown slacks, a tan dress shirt and a leather jacket-- boarded the bus. He placed three freshly-minted quarters into the fare box, smiled at the driver, and looked back to the passengers. His eyes brightened. "Do you think you're pretty?" he began singing with a rich tenor voice as he walked down the aisle. "Do you think you're pretty?" Some of the passengers looked up at him, amused by the impromptu floor show. Others ignored him. He danced his way to the back door, singing the entire time. As the bus pulled up to the next stop, he looked around, smiled and finished his song. "If you don't think you're pretty, just look at the crazy man on the bus." Exit, stage left.
     Anything can happen on East Colfax. Everything usually does. A collection of businessmen and bums, dreamers and drunks, politicians and pimps moves along the avenue to a 24-hour syncopated city rhythm. It is a street with a reputation. Denverites named their main street after Schuyler Colfax, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who in 1865 sponsored the bill to make Colorado a state. The Indiana representative was known for his liberal views as a strong anti-slavery proponent, and attracted a crowd of admirers during his several visits to the territory. Abraham Lincoln once claimed Colfax was "running a brilliant career, and is sure of a bright future." Initially Colfax's career looked promising. In 1868, he was unanimously nominated as a vice presidential candidate for Ulysses S. Grant's successful campaign. Colfax's career toppled when he was charged with corruption-- a common experience in Grant's administration-- for accepting bribes through a holding company for the Union Pacific railroad. "It's fitting that Colfax street has been involved in numerous scandals," said Denver historian and author Tom Noel.
     Colfax's origins were far from humble. At the middle of the nineteenth century, the street was a showcase of Denver's elite-- a tree-lined neighborhood home to several of Denver's millionaires, well distanced from the working class Denver neighborhoods. With the advent of the electric streetcar, Colfax, at the close of the 1800s, gradually became more middle class as transportation to the city became easier and more cost-effective. By the 1920s, small shops lined the street, catering to the streetcar mobile population.
     "Typically, you would get off the streetcar, and walk a couple blocks for groceries, then home," Noel said. Following the Second World War, Americans abandoned the inner cities, flocking to tranquil, uniform suburbs. The flight impacted Colfax, as beatniks, hippies, drug dealers and prostitutes populated the street during the next three decades. The '50s also saw the development of the interstate system, which replaced main streets as tourist centers across the United States. "Colfax was the main east-west artery," Noel said. "It was eclipsed tourist-wise." Noel said he noticed a change in the street during the last decade. "I feel it's on the upswing as far as economic prosperity," he said. "I like it as an alternative shopping center. It's easier to park, right on the street. You don't wait in line like one of the big stores and park a half a mile away. The scale of the business is smaller and more humane."
     Pete Gatseos has seen it all. Gatseos moved his diner from Boulder to its current location at 514 E. Colfax in 1972. "I just had to move down here," he said. "It's better. I can't stay away from Colfax." Gatseos never saw the street as the seedy underside of Denver. He saw it as home. "I've had some of the same customers for 25 years," he said.
     Gatseos leaned over the counter watching his customers as his daughter Nikki walked through the diner carefully wiping off each of the yellow Formica tables lined in rows across the one-room eatery. His gaze locked on the Sunday afternoon football game, blaring from the 13-inch TV perched on a small shelf by the front door. Almost mechanically, he picked up his bottle of Budweiser and took a sip. "Was that an interception?" he asked. A woman sitting by herself started coughing.
     "Hey, you can't choke before Valentine's day," Pete said walking over to her. "Are you okay?" He rubbed his hand across her back, then gently patted her.
     "Are you trying to kill me?" The two had gone back several years. She looked at him and smiled.
     "Don't choke before Valentine's day," Pete said as he walked to a table to sit with another man.
     "Do you like football, darling?" Pete asked the woman.
     "A little bit."
     "If you marry me, we have to watch football.
     She nodded her head and continued eating. His daughter finished wiping the tables, and walked behind the counter. She placed three small buckets stuffed with silverware on the counter and began rolling them into napkins. The grill, normally hissing with hashbrowns and eggs, was silent. Pete's daughter walked around the counter and sat next to her father.
     "I can't believe it's the fourth quarter already," Pete said.
     "The game is over," his friend replied.
     "No, it's not."
     Two more people walked in, sitting at separate tables. Pete's daughter walked to each table, placing rolls of silverware in front of them. She didn't say anything. The room quickly erupted into conversation. "Pete's got a girlfriend for every holiday," one man blurted out. "But he keeps his wife for Christmas," a woman replied. "That's because she cooks for Christmas." "You've got to get married sometime," another man added. "Interception!" Pete yelled out. "Interception!" "That's the game," another man proclaimed after letting out a short yelp. "That's the game." The woman walked to the register to pay for her bill. "You have to save your money," Pete told her. "I want to take a cruise," she replied. "All right, let's take a cruise. When do you want to go?" "I don't care, just get me on a boat." She walked out the door. "The game's over," Pete said to the room. A block away, local artist Roland Bernier took a break from his studio to drink a cup of coffee and read at Tom's Diner on the corner of Colfax and Pearl. "I've been coming here for almost 20 years," Bernier said. "It's a hard habit to break." "You meet a lot of interesting people here," Bernier added.    
     He has watched the diner change hands several times during the years he has been a customer, and noticed a change in the clientele. "They cleaned the place up quite a bit, and kicked out some of the riff raff," he said as he slid his cup of coffee across the yellow and orange colored counter. The waitress topped his cup off, then sat down at the end of the counter to eat her Philly sandwich. "The people who came here before added a lot of color to the place, but I don't think the new owner saw it that way. Now there are a lot more families." Colfax Avenue, like Tom's Diner, is changing. The street is gradually waking up from a long fitful sleep, ready to take on a new day. In a sparsely decorated office at the Alta Court at 1320 E. Colfax, Dave Walstrom, executive director for the Colfax Business Improvement District, monitors the developments along the street. "What's so exciting is people are moving back to the city to enjoy a more convenient area to live, work and shop," Walstrom said. "Who would have thought urban flight was a round-trip ticket? It's a wonderful resurgence of urban lifestyle and culture."
     Walstrom has spent the last eight years at the helm of the district, and said he is excited to see the street change. "All of us have a certain vision for the street," he said. "I come from a small town in Kansas, and have that appreciation and wonderful memory of main street, and that translates to what I see in Colfax. I think it can be a transportation corridor to downtown-- an urban village." Walstrom said during the last two-and a half years, approximately $50 million has been invested in Colfax between Broadway and Colorado Boulevard, and 900 new residential units have been added. Additionally, the city has named the Colfax corridor in Capitol Hill for a land use study. "If the economy doesn't downturn significantly, we are looking at that much or more in the next couple years," he said. "About the minute we update our list of projects, they are outdated again." During the last several years, a surge of new businesses have opened or relocated to the street, including the Fillmore Auditorium, Abend Gallery and the Goosetown Tavern. "These are young entrepreneurs, and these are fun places to go," Walstrom said. "I think you'll see more of that coming. We used to think about Colfax as a place where people loitered. Now we're seeing it as a place where people linger."
     Chester Johnson sifted around his counter with a neatly folded stack of the day's register receipts. A wood Wurlitzer jukebox sat next to the register, surrounded by furniture from the '50s to the '70s. "Has anyone seen the stapler?" he asked his two employees as they arranged a new shipment of retro furniture around the room. "I guess I'll just use the tape," he muttered to himself. Johnson recently joined the new trend of business owners and moved his store, Chester's Closet, from Broadway to its new location at 919 E. Colfax. "People are flocking to us," he said with a voice and mannerism that sounds like a conversation at a smalltown gas station. "We're doing great business right now. As fast as we've been moving stuff out of the warehouse, we've been selling out." Johnson said several years ago, he probably wouldn't have thought about moving to Colfax. Now he said he was excited about the change. "There's lots of new lofts and condominiums around Capitol Hill," he said. "It's a high-class group of professional people who are living here now."
     Midnight. The East Colfax All-Stars played their last set of the evening at Sancho's Broken Arrow on 741 E. Colfax. "I think she likes you," a woman yelled over the music to her friend. "Come on, go for it." Another woman in her mid-20s-- wearing faded green cargo pants and a brightly colored tie-dye shirt-- rollerbladed through the room where oversized tie-dye banners and posters advertising the Grateful Dead, Phish and Phil Lesh cover red green and gold wallpaper left over from the mid '60s. "This is my local bar," said Carrie Roach, as she sat next to the pool tables watching her roommate play. "I live here." Sancho's took over the infamous Gold Nugget Disco last year, transforming the space from a dive with a past to a hangout inspired by the past. Twenty-something neo hippies flock to Sancho's each night, crowding the bar, filling the cocktail tables, and relaxing on rows of couches. "I think it's just got a good vibe," said Sancho's owner Jay Bianchi. "We keep the place alive and keep trying to improve it. We genuinely like what we're doing." The band finished its set and gathered around the bar for an end-of- the-night pint of beer. "Most people who come here come to hear the live music," said bass player Allen Burki. "It's continually growing. The word's getting out that something's happening. It gives us a chance to get out there and do our thing and play original music." Burki sipped his beer and smiled. "And it's a lot of fun." Outside, two men waited under the pale orange glow of a streetlight, waiting for the bus. Awoman in a navy blue business suit slowly paced the sidewalk across the street-- her musk perfume filling the air. A handful of cars drove by. One stopped. A man inside the car let out a yelp, and called to the woman. The woman smiled and waved. A bus filled with tired night-shift workers pulled up to the stop.

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