Columns » Outsider



We've all seen the bracelets and pins engraved with the initials "WWJD." Worn by folks who are trying to become better people, the initials stand, simply enough, for "What would JesusGandhi do?" Not a bad guide for decision-making, most of us would agree.

Yet, as an observer of the painfully sincere do-gooders who make up the majority of City Council, it occurred to me that they ought to wear matching bracelets, with the simple legend: WWDD -- What Would Denver Do?

Did Denver build a downtown convention center? Well, let's build one too!

Did Denver build a new airport? By gum, we built one too!

Did Denver take a decaying industrial district close to downtown (the Central Platte Valley), and redevelop it with an amusement park, a baseball stadium, and lots of cool urban stuff? Well, let's make ourselves a brand new park under the stately shadow of the power plant, where Fountain Creek joins the mighty Monument Creek!

And let's put a baseball stadium in there somewhere, too! Didn't Denver lobby strenuously at every level for transportation dollars, and use them to widen Interstate 25 to the max? Well, let's call up Ronnie "Eight Lanes Is Not Enough" May at the state Legislature, and get some of that fine asphalt pork!

And what's the matter with all that? Nothing. But just as some of those who wear the WWJD bracelets pay little attention to what the words really mean, our elected officials may be leaving out the eggs in this particular Denver Omelette.

Consider Denver mayors Federico Pea and Wellington Webb. Together, they revived and re-created Colorado's capital city. Pea started the process, and Webb has continued it.

In the 17 years since Pea took office for the first of his two terms, Denver has built a new airport, a convention center, a new central library, Coors Field, the new Bronco stadium, the Pepsi Center and has started work on a massive new addition to the Denver Art Museum.

In addition, hundreds of millions have been spent, both privately and publicly, on Denver University, on the Auraria Higher Education Campus, on the restoration of lower downtown, on parks, on schools, on light rail, and on scores of educational and cultural facilities throughout the city.

It's an incredible record of achievement. And it didn't come easy. Mayor Pea's call to "Imagine a Great City" was met with derision from Denver's daily newspapers, which labeled his administration "Feddy and the Dreamers."

He persisted, but it cost him all of his political capital. By the end of his second term, Pea was the least popular politician in Denver and fled Denver for a job in the Clinton administration.

So what does that have to do with us? Simply this: If we are to become a "World-Class City," as our Council-adopted mission statement quaintly declares, we have to aim a little higher. Airports, highways and parks are crucial parts of a city's infrastructure; you don't get extra points for providing them.

The difference between a real city and a random aggregation of buildings and roads is found elsewhere.

Denver has transformed itself from an overgrown cow town (Wichita on steroids) to a near-great city not by building roads, but by realizing dreams. Look at the Michael Graves public library; Denver hired one of America's greatest architects, who created a spectacularly beautiful, dazzlingly original building. Moreover, Graves managed to incorporate Burnham Hoyt's beloved mid-century library building into the design, thereby preserving the past while creating the future.

And what are we doing here in River City? Thinking small and crabby thoughts, planning for a small and crabby future. If we're a real city, we ought to have, for example, a real art museum. Instead, the powers-that-be in the art world propose to build a lumpish addition to the Fine Arts Center, thereby vandalizing an architectural treasure.

It's just small-time empire building; a slightly expanded FAC is no substitute for the real thing. Why not go all the way, and hire Frank Gehry to design a new art museum next to Confluence Park? We need our very own Federico Pea -- someone with enough passion and moxie to make the city anew.

Otherwise, we'll just remain what we are -- a pleasant, terminally boring collection of suburbs, linked, no doubt, by the Ronnie May Memorial Highway(s).

And speaking of moxie, a correction. Former Mayor Bob Isaac insists that, despite my report to the contrary, he never characterized his preferred candidate for president as an idiot. My apologies (and Bob, if you become a member of the president-elect's inner circle, can I get invited to the White House?).


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