It’s a warm winter evening, a perfect night for being out and about. I walk down the streets of Lodo (lower downtown, Denver’s city center), passing spacious breweries and newly remodeled Union Station. I pass a person or two, but otherwise the streets feel shockingly empty. I look in the window of a few cool-looking bars, and I see a few people at tables but no crowds. On a night like this in D.C., every seat at every bar in this neighborhood would be filled. It feels weird. It feels like the calm before the storm. Then it occurs to me: Denver is preparing. With a warehouse-sized brewery on every other corner, Denver doesn’t have the population to fill these spaces, not yet; but in a few short years, it will.
Denver is the one of the fastest growing cities in America, ranking somewhere between 4th and 6th depending on the source. Even more substantial is the number of those with college degrees moving in. According to the Washington Post over the last 5 years there has been a near 22% increase in educated young people, more than any other city in the nation, and that’s only set to increase. The economy is booming with energy, tech, and marijuana leading the charge. The predictions vary, but Denver’s government is estimating that the current population of roughly 650,000 is set to add another 132,000 people in the next 5 years or so, and Denver’s businesses are ready. So is the housing market, with a large amount of new condos and apartment buildings going up.
Personally I’m reveling in the spaciousness, the calmness, lamenting what’s to come. After living in D.C. for so long with its constant noise and bustle, I’m in love with Denver’s low-key vibe. I selfishly want the city to stay just how it is, and yet I’m guilty of attempting to convert East Coast friends. Denver is just so wonderful it’s hard not to want to share it with the people I love. I’ve been living in Denver now for just under two months, and I’m amazed at how much it’s changed since my childhood. I never spent much time in Denver, because honestly there wasn’t much to recommend it. Back in the ’90s, uptown was named 5 Points, and it was overrun by gangs and crime. I remember going there a couple times for raves as a teen; it was dirty, filled with sketchy characters and rundown warehouses where squatters laid on cold nights. It’s now been rebranded the River North Arts District, or RiNo for short. And those rundown warehouses have now been converted to gyms, cool coffee shops, sushi places, and finally a fucking walk-up cupcake stand. And back then, New Belgium Brewery was just a barrel of Fat Tire being brewed in Jeff Lebesch’s basement; now there are too many breweries to even count, not to mention wineries, pot shops, and even a whiskey distillery.
Denver certainly loves its substances yet remains one of the healthiest cities in the U.S. We might drink a lot, but we like healthy food and lots of exercise. I’ve found for myself that even as my beer consumption has increased, my weight has gone down. I’m burning the extra calories on the ski slope. With the mountains right next door, and more sunshine than any other state in the nation, the outdoor lifestyle thrives, attracting adventurous and active people who are eager to meet new friends. And the dating? Well, they don’t call it Menver for no reason. I’ve never tried so little and gotten so much attention. And the food? A Philly native recently told me he thought the food here was crap in comparison to the East. Bullshit. The food here is good, especially the Mexican, Southwestern, and Latin American. There is no comparison: Denver is better on that front, though the East Coast has fresher seafood and better Chinese. So in my opinion, it’s solid toss-up depending on what your cuisine preference might be.
But Denver isn’t perfect. It’s weak in in a couple ways that are important to me. Arts and culture is one. Many of Denver’s residents high-tail to the mountains on Friday and don’t get back until late Sunday night. That means there is little room for theatre, film, and alternative arts to flourish here. Yet. My prediction is that as the population of young hipsters continues to grow that problem will take care of itself, especially as Denver is starting to put money into its arts initiatives. The cost of living is another matter. Though lower here, it’s is already on the rise, and whatever money I’d save in rent is going to be made up on the high cost of activities such as skiing. But really, I think that Denver’s biggest struggle is going to be its transportation. Denver is still completely reliant on being a car culture, with Colorado taxpayers and property owners fighting expansions of the light rail, which goes almost nowhere useful. If anything is going stunt Denver’s growth, it’s going to be the lack of good public transit. This is going to plague Denver for some time to come, with the young city residents butting up against the largely boomer suburban population as the city’s roads begin to overcrowd.
While no city is without fault, Denver is still pretty damn awesome. Comparing the pluses and minuses, I’d still take Denver over D.C. in a heartbeat. Of course a few months down the road will give me a better feel for what the city really has to offer, but so far this city puts a smile on my face day in and day out. May Denver continue to awe me with its greatness.