LOADING

I am the target audience for Denver’s marketers. I ski. I hike. I like beer. Maybe I’ve tried weed. And when a good job opened for my partner Elisa, I happily moved to the Colorado capital in 2015. We picked a new building behind Union Station, the fast-redeveloping transit hub of downtown. I arrived jobless, clueless, and exhilarated to finally be out West.

We were among the more than 70,000 new transplants—many of us white, relatively young, and affluent enough to make such a move—who have arrived since 2010 in the city of Denver. Among its many draws: It’s more affordable than many West Coast cities, has more jobs than many Southern cities, and boasts more mountains than either.

But those tourism ads don’t tell you what happens later, when you get tired of the skiing and hiking and complicated beer. There is no television commercial about the loneliness of the endless newly built apartment buildings, or the uncanny recognition of being surrounded by your lifestyle doppelgängers. Within months I felt stuck in a surface layer of the city, and it made me feel shallow too.

There is no newcomers’ guide for urbanist ennui.

Which is where we get to the map that grounded me in history and connected me to people all around Denver. Let me tell you how it happened.

Lacking a job or much direction—I had quit a newspaper reporting gig in Raleigh—I went that first summer to a park near our apartment. In the park I found a hill, and on Google Maps I found a label: “Stoner Hill.” There, I found the stoners. They were mostly teenagers, many lost, often homeless. I spent days with them, eventually reporting a story for the city’s weekly newspaper, Westword, about the ongoing struggle between the kids and the condo-owning adults nearby who wanted to shut them out.

On a deeper level, my first piece of Denver journalism was about who owned the public spaces of my new city. And it made me wonder: What was here before?

The broad-stroke history was easy to find. There were Phil Goodstein’s tomes of Denver history. There were planning case studies about the transformation of a polluted railyard into this riverfront redevelopment zone. There were even plaques around the neighborhood. But nothing could tell me what exactly preceded Stoner Hill, or my own apartment, or any of my other new landmarks.

Deep in my Google searches, I found a skeleton key: “Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889,” hosted by the Library of Congress. It was a sprawling illustrated map in the pictorial format that had grown popular in the 19th century as a marketing tool for boomtowns like Denver.

Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889, by Henry Wellge. (Library of Congress)

The map captured a sweeping bird’s eye view of the early city. It was distorted and perhaps embellished to impress unsuspecting would-be transplants, not unlike the modern city. But as I pored over its rendition of the South Platte River, I realized I could sync its details to real life, block by block.

On the exact spot of Stoner Hill, delightfully, was a castle. Further research showed it was the “Castle of Culture & Commerce.” (I guess Denver’s priorities haven’t changed much.)

With map in hand, I raced through the history of each building and block around me, cross-referencing the inky details with the Denver Public Library’s digital archives. The pictorial captured details and personality that a traditional map would miss, with context that would fall outside the frame of a photograph.

This mild new obsession would be foundational to the next leg of my career. I soon joined the founding staff of Denverite, one of a crop of hopeful “hyperlocal” online publications that launched in the mid-2010s. We believed that readers wanted to know more about the city’s politics, history, and culture, and we wanted to channel our own interests.

Many of our first stories focused on the city’s most important questions, especially gentrification and displacement. But we found room for whimsy, too, and the old map was an early success. I published a series of map-crops and observations under a curiosity-baiting headline: “Find your neighborhood on the Google Maps of 1889.”

The post passed from Facebook groups to neighborhood organizations. Some people found their houses on the map. Others saw the trolley lines, the old city hall, the iron bridges that still cross Cherry Creek, the warehouses that became brewpubs like John Hickenlooper’s.

People spotted little oddities, too: The state capitol was drawn the wrong way, perhaps because it wasn’t finished at the time, or maybe just for aesthetics.

Part of the appeal was Denver nostalgia. In a city that keeps erasing itself, even the recent past is glorified. People here plaster their cars with “NATIVE” bumper stickers and pass around photos of ‘70s-era fast food joints on social media. History becomes the pastime of any neighborhood with a hint of new development. For old-timers and newcomers, this grand illustration was grounding and maybe even exciting. It was easy to get lost in the details, the thrill of seeing what survived and what didn’t.

But the more readers latched onto the map, and the more time I spent in the real-life city, the more I wondered about what maps like this miss. For all their personality, they aren’t about people.

The beautiful 1908 pictorial map offers no hint, for example, of the black renaissance soon to begin in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. An 1874 pictorial doesn’t show that the intersection of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek was the domain of Cheyenne and Arapaho people when white settlers arrived several years earlier. The maps show factories and their wispy plumes, but not the immigrants who worked there or the pollution that still fouls the ground.

In a way, my relationship with these maps followed the same path as my relationship with Denver itself. For months, I was mesmerized by the scale, the detail, the mechanics of the place. But that wasn’t enough. While my colleagues at Denverite delved into each neighborhood to find the human stories that are invisible from 10,000 feet up, I started to feel embarrassed about this mappy niche I’d carved out. It was too easy.

Eventually, I saw my maps for what they were: a reference. You can only squeeze so much meaning from quaint illustrations. Their real power came when I showed them to people, and a certain group in particular.

I found the 1889 map’s highest and best use back on Stoner Hill, where I’d been documenting the clash of homeless kids and condo owners. I climbed up one afternoon and told the kids that the place used to be a damn castle, as I’d learned from the pictorial. They were delighted. Actually, they had invented all their own legends about it: It was a burial mound, or maybe a landfill, they said. This little snapshot of the 19th century imbued their spot with more history, I think, and reinforced their understanding that their city was a changing place, a story that they were part of.

That’s the marvelous thing about these old maps to me: Even with their many limits and omissions, they can help us find our place, and they invite others to do so, too. And here I am, sharing them again.  


GADF