LIVE: We’re talking to strangers on the 16th Street Mall

11 min. read
The Paramount Cafe and Marlowe’s on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) sixteenth street; 16th street mall; cbd; central business district; downtown; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite;

I had an oddball idea a few weeks ago: What if I sat on the 16th Street Mall for 16 hours? What would I hear, what would I see? What is the heart of Denver really all about?

Well, now it's today, and I'm sitting here with a table, a special permit and a big pop-up tent stationed between California and Stout. Later, I'll be joined by my colleagues and we will write a blog.

6 p.m. The sun is setting and the crowds are starting to pick up again.

Sally Easter has lived in Denver for three decades and is a huge fan of 16th Street’s craft fairs and food trucks, which are convenient to visit from her job downtown.

But she also said she makes a point to get to know some of the homeless people who frequent the Mall, adding that she’s always worried about her friend Pam who sleeps nearby.

"If I had unlimited funds, I would like to see the needy people here employed,” Easter said. "One to two years ago, I saw a mother getting arrested. Near her was a neglected-looking child in a stroller and I just knew the state was going to take her away.”

Lydia Florez has also been a Denver resident for over 30 years and is a fan of the stores that 16th Street Mall has to offer.

"It used to be much worse — no shops, nothing to do,” Florez said. “It has gotten much better."

What would Florez want to change? She wants to see less people sleeping on 16th Street and find a way to help them get into shelters instead.

We need “better shelters with better organization and stability,” she said. “There just is not enough shelter for everyone.”

--Chloe Aiello

5:05 p.m. Yep, we're still out here. We've talked to a lot of great people so far, and we're hoping to speak with quite a few more before the day is over.

Pat Phalen has worked on or along the Mall for the last 25 years. It's changed, he said, and not for better.

"It's not a bad place, it's just morphed into something that's not what it was intended to be," Phalen said. "It's just gotten shabbier... it's dilapidated, run-down."

Phalen said he misses the large department stores that used to be on the Mall, and would like to see something like Macy's replace the small souvenir shops and multiple convenience stores.

And while Phalen said "you get accosted too much on the mall" by panhandlers, he added that he thinks the police can be too aggressive at times.

"The cops could be a little less forceful," he said. "They go a little overboard. Police presence is important, but make it discreet."

--Stephanie Snyder

2:47 p.m. Notable quotables.

“Pretty diverse, but it smells like pee.”

“You can get into anything in the 16th Street Mall – anything.”

“Rogues.” (In reference to “urban travelers.”)

“I’m a geezer buzzard. When I was younger, I was just a buzzard.”

“I feel like you have to provoke a person for them to mess with you.”

“An ocean of social tides.”

Man wearing tuxedo shirt and top-hat: “Are you ready to have your mind blown?”

2:14 p.m. We're still out here talking to folks.

Andy's working up a story right now. Stephanie and Chloe are talking to folks who are stopping by.

Denverite journalist Chloe Aiello gets set to shoot a portrait of someone who stopped by to talk about Denver. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Denverite tent on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Getting ready to shoot another portrait on 16th Street. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

1:14 p.m. A selection of voices we’ve heard so far.

A passerby stops to talk to Denverite's Stephanie Snyder. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Pam Sellden, the outdoor environment coordinator for the Downtown Denver Partnership, said she's on the 16th Street Mall almost every day, at all hours of the day.

"There's a lot of good restaurants and cool bars," she said. "There's always something good going on."

Sellden, who was born and raised in Denver, said she has been working downtown since the Mall was being built.

"It's changed," she said. "It used to be that downtown shut down, and now it seems like it's not shutting down as early as it used to."

What would she change to improve the Mall?

"I would move the buses off," she said, adding that it would be cleaner and calmer as a pedestrian mall.

“I think it’s cool. There’s a bunch of different people in one place,” said Matthew Jones, 23, who moved to Denver in April after living in Florida and going to college in New York.

Jones lives a block away from the Mall and passes through almost every day on his way to work at Salvaggio's Deli on 17th Street.

Jones, who is also a rapper known as “Brother” and has performed at some local venues, said he moved closer to the mall because there were too many “hipsters” in his old neighborhood on Broadway.

Denver is “very relaxed... to its detriment sometimes, too,” he said.

Genevieve Randall walks through the 16th Street Mall every day of the week to go to her job at 16th and Stout streets.

But the Denver resident of more than 25 years said the city "can do a lot more" with the space.

"It's unfortunate that they lose a tremendous amount of business from the Convention Center," Randall said, adding that it's not a great first impression of Denver for first-time visitors to the city.

It's improved since they closed off the alleys, Randall said, but there is still a big problem with the amount of panhandling and homeless people on the Mall.

Ideally, Randall said she would like to see the space used to "encourage more real shopping, not all these junky little stores. It used to be big department stores."

--Stephanie Snyder

1:08 p.m.: A quick preview of some of the portraits we've been shooting.

Come on down if you want to be heard and have your picture taken.

We've been talking to people on 16th Street all day today. More portraits to come tomorrow. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
We've been talking to people on 16th Street all day today. More portraits to come tomorrow. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
We've been talking to people on 16th Street all day today. More portraits to come tomorrow. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

12:00 p.m.: Moments of friction

Traffic is really picking up. We've been moved to a new location – right up against Stout Street, with the bus lanes on either side. It's kind of overstimulating, especially because this giant pick-up truck with a huge digital billboard keeps prowling the block.

Anyway, this morning was quieter than I'd ever seen the Mall – just a light stream of commuters, and a few people wandering around. Now it's just pulsing with people. A drummer man has picked up the beat on a corner near us.

I've only seen two bits of conflict: A kid went to push a woman in a wheelchair along a crosswalk, probably thinking he was helping. She was not happy about it. I also saw a guy walking around shouting something about homosexuals.

11:54 a.m.: About that age divide

My impression so far: Older people are more likely to see the Mall as changing and dangerous, full of "rogues," as one man put it. Younger people still see it as the place to go and be with your friends – like, you know, a mall.

Out-of-towners and younger transplants have been much more favorable to the place, seeing it as alive and diverse. One Manhattanite was astounded to find this big of a space just for pedestrians.

An unusual story: A kid told me he was fresh out of homelessness. He's 22. He spent three years homeless, but just this year started hanging out on the Mall. People jeered him and said nasty stuff. After a couple weeks, he says, the owner of a clothing store came out and gave him a job. Now he has no sympathy for people asking for change on the Mall.

11:42 a.m.: We've been busy

WOW! Sorry, the last three hours have been crazy. Kevin set up the video camera and people just started streaming in. One of the most interesting to me was Tony, 53. He's one of just a few people who can say that he misses the old 16th Street, which he used to cruise with his low-rider club.

He likes the Mall well enough, but he thinks a lot of the problem is that people's expectations have changed. All these people moved in and started expecting downtown to be safe and ready for them at all hours, he says. Yet at the same time, all the entertainment for young people has disappeared – the arcades and roller rinks, a lot of the old theaters, he says.

We also had a visit from Walter Isenberg, chairman of the Downtown Denver Partnership and owner of Sage Hospitality, which has many, many properties downtown. I'll have a lot more detail from that interview later, but he of course loves the Mall. Before the Mall, he said, 16th Street was safe just by virtue of being empty.

In terms of long-term change, he's personally interested in moving the bus lanes in toward the center of the street, creating much wider sidewalks.

8:29 a.m.: 

Here's the scene. I'm between a Mediterranean place and a tamale stand. The chain stores I can see are: Aveda, Jason's Deli, T.J. Maxx, Starbucks Coffee and Jamba Juice. The not-so-chain stores: Wild West of America, Souveneir Warehouse, Obento and a nails place.

Pretty good view of 16th right there: Tons of familiar stores, some kitsch and a lot of food.

I think I'm going to go nuts with these shuttles passing constantly.

8:13 a.m.:

I've already learned a lot of important stuff, like how to get a banner made, and how to apply for a special-use permit, but now the hard stuff starts: How on earth do you get random people to engage with –

Oh, actually, a guy named Craig walked up literally right as I was typing that. He's 56, from Michigan, a construction contractor. He spends a few hours on the Mall every morning.

I ask him: What's he seen on the news?

"I’ve heard 16th Street Mall is becoming the worst it’s ever been, extreme amount of violence. They’ve increased patrols. They hired a whole new security outfit to walk up and down, to stop the violence," he says.

And what has he seen in reality?

"I’ll be honest with you, I don’t see it. I don’t see it. I’ve seen three assaults in the last six months. But I’m here in the morning, you know," he says. Overall, Craig has "downtown in his blood." He loves being down here, watching people. He ministers to homeless people at Jesus Saves – and he also thinks that they should be basically shipped off the Mall.

"I would get rid of all the loiterers, people with the signs. I know there’s laws and amendments, all this stuff, I’d get rid of them all."

So, we're off.

Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

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