The RiNo district of Colorado’s sunny Mile High City offers lessons on how ambition and a free spirit can go hand in hand, says Uwern Jong.
I was always going to like a city founded over a barrel of whiskey (although it was, more likely, moonshine, as whiskey was a term that was used quite loosely in those days). But it was a barrel of whiskey – and perhaps the threat of hanging – that persuaded the mid-19th-century owners to relinquish their claim on the land that Denver was subsequently built on.
I’m standing in the aptly named Booz Hall, in Denver’s hip and happening RiNo district, which, though a horny animal might have sprung instantly to mind, is actually property-marketing speak for River North. In between sips of Colorado-honey-flavoured bootleg, I’m getting a quick lesson on the history of the city. Booz Hall is home to a co-operative of five Colorado-born distilleries and wineries, each with a PR-savvy and inherently hipster Coloradoan name: 3 Hundred Days of Shine, State-38, Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, Rising Sun and Wood’s High Mountain Distillery. The five sit alongside the Red Wolf art collective, a local band of merry (no doubt from their neighbours’ wares) bohemians who came together to support one another and grow as creative entrepreneurs.
Denver today, it turns out, is somewhat of a miracle, a marvel of creativity and ambition. To start, it was an unlikely place for a city: smack bang in the middle of the continent, as far as possible from either coast and over 5,000ft in elevation. Even for the most hardcore of pioneers, it was a tough spot to have settled. But there was gold and silver here. Not lots of it, but enough for news to spread like wildfire on the prospecting grapevine and to attract a fresh wave of opportunists who’d missed out on the Californian Gold Rush of just a decade before.
Denver’s early boom came as a result of some great PR, courtesy of one William Byers. Often credited as the city’s first entrepreneur, Byers founded its newspaper, Rocky Mountain News, as well as its chamber of commerce. He dubbed Denver ‘the Queen City of the Plains’, which caught the attention of both the east- and west-coast socialites and financiers. His impassioned efforts to make Denver thrive climaxed when he successfully rallied locals to raise an extravagant amount of money to build their own railroad, connecting the city with the rest of America.
But a lesser-known fact about Byers is that, besides being a consummate businessman, he was also a passionate naturalist and outdoorsman, an erratic, free spirit. It wasn’t uncommon for investors to come calling at his office or at one of his mansions and for Byers not to be found, because he’d taken himself off into the mountains.
Byers came from a long line of mappers, so trekking was very much in his blood. It was he who guided the artist Albert Bierstadt through the Rockies – the seminal oil painting ‘A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie’ was the result. He was also tour leader to Samuel Bowles, who in 1869 published a guidebook to Colorado called The Switzerland of America.
It is even said that it was Byers who, with a large helping of Samuel Bowles’s imaginative travel writing, was primarily responsible for the birth of tourism in Denver and, beyond it, Colorado.
For the rich, adventurous Manhattanites of the Gilded Age that spanned the last 30 years of the 19th century, Denver was positioned as an exciting gateway to a magical landscape – a wonder of the world that Americans could be proud of and consider their own.
But in their search for idyllic mountain resorts to ‘take the waters’ at, they also ended up in the discordant saloons of the city, sipping moonshine and enjoying its free, open-to-everyone atmosphere – much as I’m doing now. And from letters of the time, it seems that the city’s early visitors actually revelled in the rawness of Denver. Even back then, it was considered a down-to-earth, evocative and dynamic destination.
Some 150 years later in RiNo, I can’t help but be charmed by the same vibe the very first travellers experienced here all that time ago. There is still a certain rawness to Denver that makes it exciting to visit and a mecca for innovators, artists, intellectuals and cultural mavericks. And it’s not just the well-cloaked nouveau-hipsterism you find in other American cities; there’s an authentic laid-back sense of ambition here. Perhaps there’s something in the water (the distillers would certainly have you believe that). Or maybe it has something to do with the legalisation of marijuana…
Whatever the reason, the tenants of Booz Hall and members of the Red Wolf collective have managed to fuse ideology and capitalism: leaning left, but earning right. They are the poster children of the Denver of today, representing a new generation of socio-economic pioneers.
The RiNo district is filled with such people. But it’s a phenomenon that has only come about in the past decade. In the post-industrial bust years of the 1980s, Denver, and this part of the city in particular, was a gruff place. It ambled along aimlessly for a couple of decades, then, driven mostly by this new generation of Coloradoans, it underwent a much called-for regeneration that changed the area’s social complexion completely. And, while RiNo has retained its industrial identity, it’s loosened up and taken on a new culture – one that’s socially liberal, highly mobile and openly innovative. Alongside Denver’s Lower Downtown district, this neighbourhood has experienced a population boom in the past 10 years, drawing people from all over the country and the globe.
This is reflected in the food here. Denver was recently billed the fourth most exciting food city in the US – quite an accolade, but it’s easy to see why. Dining around RiNo is like tasting the world.
Hop Alley – named after Denver’s original Chinatown – presents rarely found Southern Chinese dishes, inspired by owner Tommy Lee’s childhood visits to Hong Kong, but contemporarised by Colorado wood-fire cooking techniques. The smoky, char-siu pork belly is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted and the restaurant’s eclectic and innovative menu is proof that Denverites are open to having their tastes challenged.
The menu at Work & Class is at once American and Latin American, reflecting the backgrounds of its two owners, Tony Maciag and Dana Rodriguez, who bring humble, home cooking to the table with a finesse worthy of a Michelin star. You can actually taste the pair’s passionate story in the food – one of immigration, toil and success.
From wagyu-beef burgers to vegan salads, charred octopus to pickled cantaloupe, the Preservery boasts a seasonally inspired menu that’s designed to titillate the tastebuds. Husband-and-wife team Obe and Whitney Ariss have redefined Western American cuisine, injecting a distinctly Coloradoan farm-to-fork ethic.
Among the countless other contemporary eateries in RiNo, these three restaurants embody the evolution of the area and the city in general. Their success has not just transformed the neighbourhood’s palates, but also driven physical, economic and, most importantly, social change. Take a look at the names of the owners – Lee, Maciag, Rodriguez and Ariss. They’re enough to confirm that this is the American dream in fruition.
Back on the streets of RiNo, large industrial buildings with enormous doors, intersected by long, discrete alleyways, provide fantastic canvases for the city’s street artists. The neighbourhood has some impressive murals, created predominantly by locals. One spot in particular caught my eye – 26th and 27th streets near Larimer and Walnut. It’s been nicknamed ‘Art Alley’ and the residents will tell you that the very best examples of the city’s street art can be found here (although I spotted quite a number of pieces that I personally liked in other parts of the neighbourhood). Subjectivity aside, what I love about street art is that it captures a moment in time and I know that if I were to visit Art Alley again in a year, it would be a completely different experience.
And, just as at Booz Hall, many creative enterprises have popped up to complement the burgeoning scene here, so much so that the area has been awarded the moniker RiNo Art District, with the tagline ‘Where Art is Made’. Who says you can’t commercialise something organic. There are walking tours in the neighbourhood dedicated purely to street art and among the number of new contemporary galleries are Weilworks and ATC DEN.
Each September, the CRUSH (Creative Rituals Under Social Harmony) festival takes place, celebrating talented street artists and showcasing their work on RiNo’s sprawling walls. Founded by Denver graffiti aficionado Robin Munro, it’s just had its eighth anniversary and is now Colorado’s largest independent art project, bringing in admirers from far and wide.
Street art is emblematic of any hipster hood, but across the city I notice that art is openly embraced by the residents. Public art is something of a passion in Denver. By way of city ordinance, 1 percent of any capital construction project over a million dollars must go towards funding public art, which is fantastic.
Beyond RiNo, I spot monumental pieces of artwork in public spaces, some of which have become iconic symbols of the city: the late Lawrence Argent’s giant 40ft-tall blue bear called ‘I See What You Mean’, for instance, and Jonathan Borofsky’s ‘Dancers’, which is permanently installed outside the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. There are in total more than 300 pieces of public artwork in the city.
I’m a big believer in publicly accessible art. It engenders pride and ownership in the local community and invigorates the built-up environment to create an important sense of identity. It encourages people to think more deeply about the spaces they occupy, stimulating consideration for our interconnected lives. It also prompts reflection about the social sphere as a whole.
I’ve often deliberated about what it is that makes a city great, particularly in times when destinations are becoming ever-more homogenous. Some say that a successful city is one that is growing economically – by human and financial capital. Others trade on the intangible – what makes a city hip or cool socially. I would say that a great city is one that is extraordinary for a mix of reasons – independence, confidence, resilience and determination.
Denver is one such city. And from what I’ve learnt, it comes naturally and has existed since its founding. True, it’s not New York, nor is it San Francisco, but it’s cosmopolitan nevertheless – leftist, progressive, diverse and tolerant. These are values I admire and look for in a destination, particularly in today’s increasingly worrying political climate.
But more than this, Denver is charming and charismatic. It is a city that wears its creative energy proudly on its sleeve. It’s a place where socially progressive creators have an almost fearless devotion to free-spirited individualism and entrepreneurism. It’s a city that plays to its own standards, that refuses to conform to conventional rules. Yet, despite being free-spirited, it is a city that is inherently ambitious, as well as being living proof that the two things can co-exist.
- Go on a scooter tour with Scootours, whose motto is ‘Cuter on a Scooter’. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to get your bearings in the city. You’ll need a driving licence to ride one, though. www.scootoursdenver.com
- Pick up a snap-button Western shirt at Rockmount Ranch Wear, where they were first invented. www.rockmount.com
- Get out to Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a show when you’re in town. It’s a spectacular experience. We heard local band OneRepublic play there and it was mindblowing. www.redrocksonline.com
- Go beyond RiNo. Denver is a very accessible city and there are other great neighbourhoods to check out, such as Lower Downtown and Cherry Creek. The area around Union Station has become a big food and drink hub.
- Take it to the road. There are many great sights to see just under an hour from Denver – Central City, Black Hawk and the Mount Evans Scenic Byway among them.
- Don’t leave the state of Colorado with any marijuana products. As tempting as that may be.
The inside track
Richard Dusseau is a 20-year resident of Denver and the publisher of Men’s Vows, a digital magazine and wedding directory intended for men about to marry. Richard’s background includes 28 years in luxury hospitality: he was an entrepreneur and founder of several hospitality consulting and operations companies and currently sits on a mix of corporate and non-profit boards. www.mensvows.com
The Modern Nomad is a unique retail experience with a chic industrial feel. The storefronts and stalls feature interesting hand-crafted items from local makers. www.modernnomaddenver.com
Old-school jazz and supper club Nocturne feels fresh and modern, with fantastic live music, talented bartenders and an enticing menu of classic and ‘newfangled’ cocktails. www.nocturnejazz.com
With its novel approach to hotel-lobby design, the Source Hotel has an amazing variety of independent shops, restaurants and bars that make it hard to leave. www.thesourcehotel.com
Photography courtesy of Colorado Tourism, Visit Denver, Davel5957, Richard Dusseau and Matthew Irving.