Getting off the train in Denver is special. You disembark in this hyper-modern station, rows of platforms surrounded by this swooping white tent. Against the deep blue of the Colorado sky you’d be forgiven for likening it to a really large bird, or you know, a really large Ikea staging area. Walking out of the exterior platform area the crowd (at least the one I followed) flowed towards a side alley tented by string lights. Walking out from under those lights I was assaulted by one of the most vibrant street scenes I’ve ever seen. To my left was a spray pad, chock full of little kids. The buildings that surrounded the spray pad all had ground floor restaurants whose outdoor seating was absolutely packed with (what I assume were) the parents of the kids on the spray pad. I am tempted to call it a sensory overload with the smells, the music, and the people. But "overload" feels like it carries a negative connotation, and standing there in the middle of that place I became so completely happy.
That is the power of well-designed spaces: they don’t just create a community they create the feeling that goes along with it. As a traveler who at this point had been on the road for about 20 days, I can’t tell you how much it meant to feel like a part of that. I have been to so many transit centers over the course of this trip, and many have been beautiful and well used, so I hate to lavish so much praise exclusively on Denver. But I have to commend their capture of a sense of intimacy and a desire to linger.
Okay I’m done. I promise I wasn’t paid to gush about Denver Union Station. With a statewide influx of 100,000 people every year, Denver really doesn’t need me to advertise. But seriously, it’s beautiful. I won’t try to describe the inside but, again, it does “intimate” really well. It also houses some pretty phenomenal restaurants, the worlds cutest ice cream parlor and a seriously sick hotel. Okay now I am really done. I promise.
Unlike many of the other stations I’ve landed in there was no one waiting for me in Denver, so my favorite part of the station might have actually been the painted green bikeway directly in front of the station. While it didn’t continue for that long, it definitely made me feel safer cycling to my hostel. In most of the cities I’ve been to I’ve stayed with very generous friends and friends of friends. For this leg, though, I stayed at the Hostel Fish. I know that word sends shudders down many peoples spines, but for travelers my age hostels are frequently the most practical, if not the only, option because of their price point. While some hostels are still 10 bunks to a room where you get way too familiar with your neighbors grooming habits, many of them are clean, comfortable and dare I say cool? For the Hostel Fish I don’t have to, the NY Times already did.
The best part about the hostel might be its location; it's super close to the stadium and several long bar streets. This neighborhood location also meant that, because I arrived on a Wednesday night, I got to see the Denver Cruisers! People of all different cycling levels gathered on the corner next to the hostel and biked en mass. I'm not sure how long their ride was, but they do them every Wednesday during the summer and it just looked like so much fun. I unfortunately had an early morning, though, so I didn't end up taking part -- but hey that's just another reason to go back.
Recreation is one of the most surefire ways to build and strengthen community ties. Making those recreation options accessible to all members of the public is key, though, and one of the best ways to do that is through creating a variety of transportation options for people to get there. I got a chance to experience some of these modes on my Denver city tour with some local Environmental Protection Agency representatives, bike advocates and representatives with the Colorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail). With their help I explored numerous bike paths, which connected everything from a children's museum and amusement park to a mixed-income development. I also got a chance to ride the light rail and get an even greater handle on the way in which the station functions as a transit center. Shaped like a "T", with the station at the top, the light rail at the bottom, and the bus station stretching between the two, below ground.
It really does mean so much not to just observe a community, but to participate in it. I attended a Love this Place event hosted by the Alliance for a Sustainable Colorado, which seeks to further sustainability by giving public presentations on several different planning initiatives. While all the presentations were interesting, the one that definitely grabbed the most attention was for an app in its development stages. The app connects people who are interested in advocating for causes -- right now, specifically transit and bikes -- to related events that are happening nearby. In a nutshell it seeks to overcome slacktivism (a trend which I am unfortunately too often guilty of).
After the event I got to catch up with two members of the ColoRail for dinner at Union Station. They are part of an ever-growing crowd of young professionals working in transportation that I have encountered throughout my trip. This is a group I am definitely new to, and am constantly intimidated by because of the really incredible stuff they are all doing. However, I'm also continually inspired by their passion for that work.
Its easy to talk about community, because it manifests in so many different ways and is such a broad, overarching term. I'm not going to try and say that it manifests in a greater quantity in Denver than in any of the other cities I've been lucky enough to visit -- but I think I may have gone in looking for it more. Knowing that I was going to a city where the residents voted for a tax to create a transportation system to benefit the community at large was never far from my mind. How could it be? The station I am so enamored with, and so many of the transportation modes I took during my stay, were made possible by FasTracks. What sticks with me, though, is that this was not a top down campaign but a loud chorus of "yes's" from the ground up. The power behind that is a lesson not to be taken lightly.