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Destination: Colorado : A Mile High, and Rising : As Denver reinvents itself, it's not only the city's skyline that's changing. New attractions are vying with the mountains for visitors' attention.

October 02, 1994|Christopher Reynolds | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

DENVER — It's a symphony night. The lights of the downtown skyline twinkle, the snow-blanketed Rockies stagger in the distance and subterranean metallic groans rise from the innards of the U.S. Mint in the heart of downtown. I sit a few blocks away in Boettcher Concert Hall, surrounded by the modern geometry of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, waiting.

On the west edge of The Plex--that's the local language--Cherry Creek trickles in darkness and the city's foremost bicycle path, beside it, lies idle for a change. Two long blocks to the northeast, Denverites are settling down to dinner in restaurants along the pedestrian 16th Street Mall, spine of downtown. Down in LoDo--that's Lower Downtown--the skeleton of a new baseball stadium is casting moon shadows on the surrounding scruffy neighborhood, and young folks are likely raising a din in a handful of brew pubs.

Here in the hall, members of the Denver Brass and the Colorado Symphony Brass have finished with their Strauss and Gabrieli; the Mussorgsky is yet to come. But hold on. They've announced an addition to the program. Here comes a man named Lou Malandra to the microphone. With a poem.

It's his poem, and it's about . . . the new airport.

"Natives and Nomads," he intones. "You who build these great white pyramid-like tents for the travelers of the world to gather/ A paradise for people and planes/ Carved by your mighty arm from out of the dust/ Sweat and toil, your constant companions . . ."

It continues for more than 100 lines, and Malandra, the poet laureate of Denver International Airport, delivers them all in a clear, loud voice. There's applause, and intermission, and Mussorgsky. Finally we all file out into the cold night, and I wander toward my hotel through downtown Denver and its various improvements-in-progress, trying to superimpose this experience on another American big city.

A paean to JFK airport at New York's Carnegie Hall? Variations on a theme of public library renovation at the Los Angeles Music Center? A BART overture at the San Francisco Opera House?

Maybe the difference is that those other cities have irretrievably settled into their identities, while Denver remains raw-boned and unfinished, self-conscious, boosterish, still a sort of frontier town after 135 years. Or maybe I just wandered into Boettcher Concert Hall on an odd night when I visited last April.

This much, anyway, is true: Denver is revising itself, amid large and unexpected obstacles.

Most obviously, there is that enormous--and enormously late--new airport on the edge of town. (See accompanying box, right.) There is the city's recently arrived baseball franchise, the Rockies, which inspired spectacular fan support last year in its first season, then tested fans' patience by falling into strike idleness this year along with the rest of the major leagues. In 1995, 50,000-seat Coors Field is scheduled to open in Lower Downtown, setting in motion a scramble toward gentrification in a neighborhood with more than a few homeless in its alleys.

There is the relocation of Elitch Gardens, an amusement park that next year will move its gardens, fountains and rides from a 104-year-old, 29-acre site in northwest Denver to a 58-acre space on the edge of downtown. City officials have also thrown their weight behind a $116 million cross-town light rail system, scheduled to open Oct. 7, despite public opinion that is divided, at best.

Nobody's blocking the ski slopes, anyway. Within a short westward drive or commuter flight (more feasible in winter) stand some of the world's most popular ski resorts, which become a major Denver preoccupation as fall edges toward winter. Vail, 119 miles west of the new airport, drew more than 1.5 million skiers during the 1993-94 season. Breckenridge, 101 miles out, drew 1.2 million. Keystone (91 miles), Steamboat Springs (173 miles) and Winter Park (99 miles), each drew more than a million. Snow willing, the skiing can be relied upon.

Still, any traveler who lands here these days is bound to be surprised one way or another, and probably none will be more surprised than those who thought they already knew the place.

Denver began in 1859, after a few glinting flakes of gold turned up at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Enduring the usual challenges of fortune-hunting settlers in the West--floods, fires, battles with the natives--Denver's pioneers assembled a boom town. By the turn of the century, it was full of Victorian architecture and acclaimed a sophisticated city. These days the city's population is about 470,000, with another 1.4 million in surrounding counties, and the boom-and-bust cycles continue: After exploding with development a decade ago, the city slumped severely in the late 1980s, and began another recovery a few years ago, accompanied by the now-predictable arrival of fleeing Angelenos and attendant worries about inflated real estate prices.

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