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Growing Up With Denver
First published in The Denver Post, June 6, 2000

I was a gangly ten-year-old when my family moved from the suburbs of Washington, DC, to Denver. It was 1969, a time of tumultuous racial and social unrest in the East, and my parents were thrilled when Dad received a transfer to a job in the burgeoning new Denver Technological Center. We drove cross-country in late fall and arrived at our new house—way out in the country in a tiny hick town called Parker—just in time for a rough winter. The folks there were polar opposites of people we'd grown up around. They wore cowboy boots and big belt buckles, talked slowly with funny sounding "O's," and thought we were hippie children with our mini-skirts and go-go boots. There were no neighbors within walking distance, and the small strip they called town was many miles from our house.

My sisters and I were stymied. What does one do with miles of prairie, cactus, tumbleweeds, dirt roads and no kids in the neighborhood, or more accurately, no neighborhood? We loathed the long, cold walk to the school bus stop, the hour-long ride to and from school, and the colder walk home in the late afternoon. It's no wonder we plopped ourselves in front of the television every evening, watching Gilligan's Island reruns until Dad arrived home after the long commute from DTC.

At night, I lay on my bed with my blue-gray plastic transistor radio glued to my ear, searching for familiar music in this foreign land. We'd come from a city with soul; WEAM radio played the Supremes, Aretha, Ray Charles. My sisters and I had spent giddy evenings with the furniture pushed aside, dancing like little white soul sisters. In Parker, I got homesick when a barely-audible-through-the-static KIMN would play the occasional Supremes song, and I became used to hearing more white music than black. I acclimated enough that I would quiver with pleasure when Elvis lamented about suspicious minds. It wasn't soul, exactly, but it would do.

After three long months, my parents finally determined that we were not a country family and moved us to a budding suburb called Walnut Hills, located near Arapahoe Road and I-25. Arapahoe was newly paved as a two-lane road, and only one business was situated within miles of the "Valley Highway," a small run-down gas station with a candy vending machine. We rode our bikes there after school to load up on Good & Plenties, SweeTarts, Heath Bars. Then, we'd often pedal east to the Arapahoe County Airport, a tiny strip where we'd watch private planes roar in and out over our heads. Or, for real fun, we'd hike to the fields west of us, between Quebec and Holly. There we'd find boarded horses calmly grazing. We'd pick the gentle ones and climb aboard for a bare-back ride, our fingers wrapped in their manes.

When we needed to go to "town" for supplies, my mom drove to Littleton, where we'd shop at the Woodlawn Shopping Center or along the main street. Downtown Denver was not a destination for anyone in their right mind. Hobos and winos (the term "homeless people" was not yet part of our vernacular) inhabited much of it, especially Larimer Street, which my parents called Skid Row. Colfax was worse. One summer evening we took a titillating drive through the downtown portion of it, ogling the strolling fancy women, clad in very little but sequins and boas. We watched zoned-out hippies congregating outside the Red Barn burger joint, covertly swapping packages and money. We giggled when men hurried surreptitiously into one of the many Kitty's arcades that lined the avenue. That to me was downtown—a world of lurid, depraved wonder.

Now I've lived in the Denver area for over 30 years, and it's still a foreign land in many respects. Herds of houses have replaced the horses in my former playground. Arapahoe Road is bigger and busier than the Valley Highway ever was in those days, and downtown is the place to go for a sophisticated, cultured evening. Everyone (natives and transplants alike) complains about Denver's exponential growth, snarled traffic, and the loss of our small-town feel. I understand their anguish—I've seen enough changes in my adopted hometown to make me permanently nostalgic.

At the same time, I'm energized by Denver's evolution. Maybe it's because we grew up together, Denver morphing from sleepy cowtown to big city as I grew from gangly, misplaced kid to happily ensconced semi-native. I'm getting used to the inevitable changes that come with growth, and I still love exploring all our city has to offer—its old neighborhoods, pockets of cultural diversity, and exciting new attractions. We have more choices than ever where to shop, dine, relax, work, learn, and play. And, with almost 50 radio stations to choose from now, I can almost always find a great song somewhere on the dial, one that makes me want to push the furniture aside and dance.