The spiny towers of Cathedral Basilica wheel past my window as I turn onto East Colfax Avenue. My passenger and narrator, Tom Martin, has set us to drive straight east, with the golden dome of the statehouse in the rearview mirror.
The next hour will play out Tom’s youth like the street is vinyl and my Honda the needle. Tom was once the lead ambassador for the 16th Street Mall a longtime employee of the Buckhorn Exchange, one of the oldest businesses in Denver.
He has what I’ll call a phonographic memory. He seems to remember every story and detail about Denver that he’s ever heard.
I recruited him because Denverite is about to publish a week-long series on the avenue — actually, you’re reading the first piece of it now.
Our reporting team has been up and down the strip, looking for little stories and big ones about what happened here and what’s still to come. We’ve heard people talk about urban decline and modern opportunity, and they’ve asked what’s coming next.
But my goal with Tom is simpler: We’re going to tap a living vein of Colfax nostalgia.
“A lot of major stars played here at the Satire,” Tom tells me, urging me to pull over next to the curling marquee of Satire Lounge. Judy Collins and the Smothers Brothers both made appearances, he’s heard.
Then there’s the turreted brick tower on our right, the storage castle. “It’s been here ever since I was a kid,” he says. “We thought it was haunted.” We’ll have a story on that one later in this series — subscribe to our newsletter to follow along.
Next, a Walgreens, once the Aladdin Theater. “It’s where I saw Sound of Music for the first time,” and where Sound of Music played “for four years straight.”
After that it’s the one-time hippie shop where a young Tom Martin narrowly avoided a coke bust. Suddenly, there are waves of young people streaming past us on the sidewalk in sweatpants and skinny jeans, denim vests and blond flattops — East High School students leaving its regal, grassy campus for the avenue, like they always have.
“I spent most of my time on the south grounds smoking dope,” Tom offers.
Tom’s memories get more specific as we drive: There was the hardware store that had a big statue of Nipper the RCA dog. “I can still tell you 80 percent of the people on my paper route,” he explains.
And yet he doesn’t remember until blocks later that we’ve passed Colfax and Detroit, the intersection where his oldest brother died on his Denver Post paper route on August 6, 1963.
“He was 12. Mom had had a premonition,” Tom says. A drunk driver killed him the day after her youngest was born. “We didn’t have seven sons even for one day.”
We continue on past an old family friend’s house and the old sanitarium where Tom heard people screaming, and Sambo’s restaurant, which he thought was a racist theme even back then. Today, the place is Pete’s Greek. At one point, I spot the portable, experimental restroom that I’ve been following around — at last, a bit of trivia I can add.
“This is my stomping ground, ” Tom declares as we pass the Blarney Castle, where he drank at 15, and then the old site of The Moon drive-in restaurant.
We’ve also passed the old antique store, the old vacuum store, and Tom’s first head shop, and then, “Holy shit, there’s a new building,” and “Son of a bitch, that building’s gone too.”
I am getting overwhelmed too.
More than an hour has passed when we pull up at The Town & Country Market, which marks the end of the avenue’s most urban stretch. We both marvel that an honest-to-God produce store has clung to Colfax all these years.
It has been 2.4 miles of city life recalled in untiring detail, except when Tom needed to stop and adjust his oxygen tanks in the backseat.
“It’s just my makeup,” he says. As a kid, he decided to train himself to have a perfect memory. Then he collected a lifetime of detail on Colfax, and I’m glad he did.
Yet you don’t need to be Tom for Colfax to make an impression. The avenue packs so much dense detail into such a long stretch, both physically and in its history, that it’s bound to leave an impression on the viewer.
This place has a million stories. Later this week, we’ll feature the photographs of a man who rode the 15 bus for months, captivated by the faces he saw, and a story by a woman who lived on that same bus route.
Over the next week, we’ll tell you what we’ve heard on the strip. We’ll stop in at the diveyest of bars, and we’ll visit the motels that have turned from tourist stops to last resorts. We’ll unravel the story of the storage castle — no ghosts, sadly — and trace the history of Judaism in the community beneath the old viaduct.
We’ll fail, of course, to tell the story of the whole thing. It’s just too big. But we’ll try to get hold of a piece of it.
Correction: The Moon was a drive-in restaurant, not a drive-in theater.