A Capitol Hill State of Mind

The most densely populated area in Colorado, Capitol Hill has been dubbed "Denver's Greenwich Village" for its eclectic mix of people and businesses. What's afoot, these days, up on The Hill?
Without a doubt, the Capitol Hill neighborhood sits east of the Colorado State Capitol -- with which its name is associated.

But quiz residents and shopkeepers about where Capitol Hill ends, and multiple answers arise:

"I think it goes all the way to Colorado [Boulevard]."

"For me, it doesn't go much further than, say, York [Street]."

"To Race [Street] -- that's my opinion."

"Until it turns into Congress Park."

"It goes as far as Voodoo Doughnut."

There are as many opinions on the subject as there are wacky pastries at the aforementioned doughnut shop.

However, the City and County of Denver has established clearly defined boundaries for the neighborhood: Capitol Hill runs from the south side of East Colfax Avenue to the north side of East 7th Avenue, and from Broadway, for twelve blocks, to Downing Street -- the neighborhood's eastern edge (contrary to the replies given above). After Capitol Hill comes, to the east, the Cheesman Park neighborhood, running from Downing to York, and then the Congress Park neighborhood.

Still, the Capitol Hill State Bank Building, completed and given its moniker in 1925, is located at East Colfax and York Street. The dispensary Alternative Medicine on Capitol Hill is located in the Cheesman Park neighborhood, just east of Downing Street's dividing line; it's situated on the same one-block stretch as the former music club The Cricket On The Hill, and a few doors down from Hugo's Colorado Beer & Spirits. Hugo's owner Joe-Michael Wright says of his business' location, "I feel like it's part of Capitol Hill, but it's also part of Cheesman Park. We're literally on the line, so I have a hard time drawing distinctions there."

Compounding the confusion, there's the civic-minded group Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN). CHUN's constituency comprises not just Capitol Hill, but a multitude of additional neighborhoods -- such as North Capitol Hill, Country Club, City Park, and Cherry Creek -- within which CHUN champions historic preservation, plants trees, and works out good-neighbor agreements between businesses and residents. CHUN operates out of the Tears McFarlane House located in Cheesman Park -- itself, situated outside the boundaries of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

"I always look at the hill as being right in [Cheesman Park], the highest part of the whole area," says John Donahoe, the owner of Videotique, which has been located on East 9th Avenue, just east of Downing Street's dividing line, since 1985. Has he ever considered his business as being located in the city-defined Cheesman Park neighborhood? "Not really," replies Donahoe, "I've always thought of it as being Capitol Hill; Cheesman Park just happens to be in Capitol Hill."

And the Capitol Hill neighborhood has one area, which, in some people's minds, is its own enclave: the "Governor's Park neighborhood." Although you won't find a neighborhood called "Governor's Park" on the city's official map (although you will find the park), apparently About.com considered it one of Denver's "Top Denver Neighborhoods."

Chef Frank Bonanno's restaurants Mizuna, Vesper Lounge and Bones are located on the north side of 7th Avenue, and Luca is just around the corner on Grant Street -- clearly within the boundaries of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. But Ellie Logue, PR and marketing coordinator for Bonanno Concepts, says, "We are in the Governor's Park area -- all four of those restaurants!"

However, there's one area where it remains, unquestionably, Capitol Hill.

You are Wax Trax

The East 13th Avenue Pedestrian Mall Local Maintenance District consists of a strip of businesses running along East 13th Avenue from Grant Street to Washington Street.

The district's placemaking banners, affixed to poles, bear the numeral "13" at the very bottom. One displays two cheerful men, pressed cheek to cheek. Beneath them, the phrase: "You are legendary."

Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher were business partners -- and life partners. The couple opened the record store Wax Trax in December 1975, moving it to its present-day location at 13th Avenue and Washington Street in 1978. It specialized in the emerging sounds of New Wave and punk music.

Denver drew young gay men like Nash and Flesher, who had grown up in the Midwest and the South, to more embracing environs.

Current Wax Trax co-owner Duane Davis remembers Nash and Flesher as "fireballs of energy and enthusiasm for the music." Nash not only sold Davis albums by The Clash, Elvis Costello, and The Jam, but Nash and Flesher also sold Davis and Dave Stidman, both former Jefferson County social workers, the store in 1978. Davis says, "They knew Denver was too small of a market for what they wanted to do." Nash and Flesher subsequently founded a new Wax Trax! store and record label in Chicago, putting out releases by Ministry, Revolting Cocks and Psychic TV.

In 1971, Videotique's Donahoe, then in the Air Force and living on Pearl Street, recalls Capitol Hill being filled with "flower children" who were "trying to make the world a better place." That vibe didn't last too long, however; by the mid-'70s, the apartments and bars around East 13th and Pearl came to be known as havens for speed freaks, says Davis. Historian Tom Noel notes, "At one point, there were a lot of hippies [on Capitol Hill]; there was crime."

Referring to tail end of the '70s into the '80s, Davis says, "Capitol Hill was just a much darker and riskier place to be, at that time." Violence -- whether perpetrated by neo-Nazi skinheads or gangbangers -- heightened tensions in the area into the '90s.

In its early days, Davis recalls the police not always showing up when the store called concerning shoplifters. "Being Wax Trax, we were considered to be dangerous and punks, encouraging drug use and deviant sexual behaviors of all kinds," he wryly recollects.

Davis says the area began changing in the '90s, as "money moved in." He calls that early, Denver gentrification "The Great Condo-ization of Capitol Hill" -- a time when many apartment buildings were converted into condominiums.

Over the years, Davis' store has held on by the skin of its teeth as big box stores began selling music cheaper, and continues on presently as MP3 downloads and streaming music have become the norm. However, vinyl began experiencing a revival in the early 2000s, and Wax Trax sells records to an ever-changing, yet demographically consistent customer base: 20- to 30-year-olds. "Those are our folks," says Davis, 71. "Dave and I get older every year, but that base stays the same."

Bob Dylan has also shopped at Wax Trax. So has guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. "The Ramones used to spend a lot of time, did signings," says Davis. Ric Ocasek of The Cars (who also produced Bad Brains, Guided by Voices and Suicide) once said that Wax Trax had the best punk rock selection between Chicago and the West Coast.

Today, Davis has earned a bit of recognition, as well: Another one of the banners hanging on poles along the East 13th Avenue Pedestrian Mall bears an image of Davis.

It says, "You are Wax Trax."

All walks of life

The area around Wax Trax has been undergoing an economic revitalization, especially over the last few years. Davis isn't averse to the changes -- even if there's now less of an edge in the area. Davis says, "We're all for good, stable businesses that can last for a while."

Davis adds, "Every kind of hip area, that's one of its problems: People's dreams are much bigger than their abilities to stay in business, and we've seen a lot of people come and go over the years. That's just the nature of the game."

Presently, a few doors down from Wax Trax is the sleek, breakfast-and-lunch nook Jelly Cafe, which is just celebrating its sixth anniversary. Proprietor Josh Epps and his wife relocated from San Francisco about ten years ago. "The neighborhood was underserved, for sure: restaurants, bars that weren't dives,' he says. "We took it off Colfax a little, made it a little more neighborhood-, kid-friendly."

The first week Jelly was in business, Epps recalls two Episcopal priests from the nearby church at one table and, simultaneously, two drag show performers, still going from the night before, at another. "It's kind of Denver's bohemian neighborhood," he says, "and I think that's still true to this day, more so than in any other place, even if it is less so than it used to be."

Davis calls Jelly "a wonderful addition to our block: good food, nice people." Not only that, but on weekends it often attracts a line of waiting patrons, who sometimes shop at Wax Trax before a table becomes available.

Across the street is Hudson Hill, a shiny, wood-and-brick-accented cocktail bar and coffee shop opened in May 2016 by onetime New Yorker Jake Soffes. Hudson Hill's Danielle Solano says, "There's nothing like us here: When you go through Cap Hill, there's not many cocktail bars -- everything is like sports bars. So [we] give people kind of an opportunity to not have to go downtown to get a great cocktail."

And Hudson Hill's clientele? "We get all walks of life," says Solano. "We get young people to lobbyists on Capitol Hill to Republican senators. So I feel like it's a middle ground for everybody."

Between Pearl and Washington, there's also a tattoo emporium, two smoking-accessory shops with "Head" in their names, and a five-seat barber shop, Steel + Lather Barber Co., offering a $60 shave and haircut combo, with a complimentary alcoholic beverage thrown in.

Nearby, the sports bar Pub on Penn is coming up on seven years in business, having replaced the quasi-Goth hangout Cafe Netherworld. And the electronic music dance club The Black Box has replaced its previous occupant: the jam band-catering Quixote's True Blue (which replaced the alt-country Bender's Tavern, which followed in the wake of the dance club Onyx).

Not everybody is thrilled with the changes on Capitol Hill. Ryan Sharp, 25, sits drinking a beer with friends on the patio outside of the SubCulture sandwich shop at 13th and Pennsylvania, near the Molly Brown House. The neighborhood has "lost its character. It's all becoming more modernized or yuppie," says Sharp, with evident disgust in his voice. "It's a different place, [compared to] eight or nine years ago, when I started hanging out here."

Over on 14th Avenue near the Planned Parenthood clinic, a man known as Billy the Poet was set to perform at The Corner Beet, which serves kava and coffee drinks. Billy says of the area around Ogden Street, "It used to be a lot more young, broke people and artists and whatnot. And now a lot of the people are either young professionals that are in kind of executive jobs or their parents are bankrolling their lifestyle. So it's harder to live here if you're a starving artist." Like many, he's seen his rent increase dramatically in the last five years.

Donahoe over at Videotique notes another change on Capitol Hill: "It used to be gayer than it is. Now it's more younger, upscale, heterosexual couples with pets and kids." Videotique stocks close to 1,000 gay and lesbian-related titles -- more if you include what's in the adult section.

Donahoe adds, "Some of my customers have moved to other parts of town, just because they can't afford to live here anymore."

Pulse of the city
City, O' City specializes in vegetarian and vegan fare.
"Whenever I would go to 13th Avenue growing up, I was awestruck," says Daniel Landes.

Landes, 45, owns City, O' City at East 13th Avenue and Sherman Street, a stone's throw from the Colorado State Capitol. The restaurant specializes in vegetarian and vegan fare, and has served legislators, members of the Colorado Supreme Court, and Governor Hickenlooper. "We're non-discriminating about who we express love to," says Landes with a smile, after having explained his business' mission statement: "By the use of hospitality, expressing love for humanity."

Landes is also a member of Denver's Social Use Committee, charged with creating rules which will allow businesses to host cannabis-friendly events. Landes would like to potentially run one at his Deer Pile performance space, situated above City, O' City. A recipe for too much laughter? Landes says, "I'm just fascinated with what would happen if we had a comedy club that had pot-permissiveness."

However, some homeless advocates blame marijuana, whether justifiably or not, for an increase in homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Denver.

"Since the pot law, my rent has gone up $200 in three years," says Brian Augustine, 55, a formerly homeless man who supports himself selling the Denver VOICE newspaper.

Randle Loeb, who also used to be homeless, has lived on Capitol Hill for 30 years. He presently works as the groundskeeper for CHUN's Tears McFarlane mansion. Loeb says the homeless situation has gotten "remarkably worse" in the last five years. "I think, in part, it's the marijuana law," Loeb says.

Davis and Landes (who counts some homeless among his customers) haven't noticed an increase. "No, actually, it's way less than it was in the '80s," says Davis, citing the aggressive panhandlers who used to frequent the area.

However, Teri Rippeto, who runs one of Denver's earliest farm-to-table restaurants, Potager Restaurant & Wine Bar, notes, "This summer, Capitol Hill had a huge homeless problem -- I think more than we've ever had." Potager, located on Ogden Street near 11th Avenue, is celebrating its 20th anniversary on March 27.

When asked what's changed in the neighborhood since opening, Rippeto laughs and says, "Probably less meth and crack." The neighborhood has never scared away customers, though: "[Potager] brings in all different types of people and always has."

East Colfax is one of the areas, along with Lincoln and Broadway, where crime is more prevalent in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Still, Capitol Hill experiences less incidences of violence and robberies than bordering neighborhoods like North Capitol Hill, better known as Uptown (which begins on the north side of East Colfax) and Civic Center, according to the Denver Police Department's statistics. While burglaries and drug arrests have increased from 2015 to 2016, robberies and auto thefts have gone down.

Donahoe says, "I think it's an extremely safe neighborhood. I've never had anybody attack me. I've had some people scream at me, once or twice, but nothing extreme or life-threatening."

Recalling the days when he trekked to Capitol Hill as a high school student in the late '80s to shop at Wax Trax, Landes says, "It's not as dangerous as it was."

Crime? As far as Capitol Hill problems go, people are more likely to cite finding a curbside space for their car. "There's nowhere to park," says one of Sharp's friends, drinking a beer at SubCulture.

"Parking can be tough around the capitol," echoes Jimmy Balafas of the Kentro Group, which owns the building on East 11th Avenue housing the Park Tavern & Restaurant

To serve even more customers, the Park Tavern is undergoing a transformation, adding a rooftop patio. Balafas says Capitol Hill has a "very eclectic housing stock. Very urban, as urban as you get in the whole Rocky Mountain region."

He adds, "If you were to take a one-mile demographic of the amount of people living [near the Park Tavern], you have, like, 40,000 people." Balafas, who also helms the Upper Colfax Business Improvement District, adds, "I usually call Colfax the pulse of the city, but that neighborhood is probably the pulse of the city as well."

On East Colfax, Capitol Hill Books has operated directly across from the state capitol since 1980. Current owner Holly Brooks says the street is on the upswing: "A lot of the businesses on our block are really nice and they're good neighbors." As examples, she cites Sassafras American Eatery ("a fine restaurant, I wish I could go there all the time") and the dispensary Good Chemistry -- with which Brooks, apparently, has good, neighborly chemistry. Business is picking up, too: "I'm really encouraged by how many young people are coming in, Millennials."

Home sweet Capitol Hill

"[Capitol Hill] was originally the toniest neighborhood in the city and it was the enclave of the rich," says Tom Noel, author of Denver Landmarks and Historic Districts. "Only a few of those mansions are left today, unfortunately." Noel points to the reputedly haunted Croke-Patterson Mansion as one of the finest examples still standing; it now operates as the bed-and-breakfast Patterson Inn.

Although Capitol Hill isn't being transformed quite as noticeably as other neighborhoods in Denver, it's still seeing more high-dollar development projects.

Currently under construction is Ogden Flats -- which is rising out of the brick exterior of the former Penn Garage at East 13th Avenue and Ogden Street. This fall, the condo complex will be offering 29 residential units, with prices ranging from $385,000 to $1,150,000.

A block away from Quality Hill Park at East 10th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street -- which, until recently, attracted a sizable number of homeless people -- is Nine Hundred Penn. The six-story structure is being renovated into six units, selling from $1.99 million to $2.59 million. On the project's website, developer Nadine Langer notes, "You could say that we've brought Manhattan luxury to Denver, as each floor is its own condo!"

In a May 2016 report on gentrification in Denver, the City of Denver's Office of Economic Development listed Capitol Hill as a "Vulnerable Neighborhood."

Hudson Hill's Solano, who lives in the neighborhood, observes, "I feel like there's a great sense of community, where [people want] to keep [the historical buildings] from being torn down and turned into boxy condos."

No matter what changes are in store on Capitol Hill, some people -- whether they're lowly basement-apartment dwellers or living sky-high in condos -- will always prefer the vibe there.

Donahoe says, "Capitol Hill's always been a really eclectic, liberal neighborhood. I don't really think it's changed all that much, as far as those aspects go."

Echoes Balafas: "I think it's a great place; I think it's a gem. The city of Denver is lucky to have a neighborhood like Capitol Hill."

Given the changes happening throughout much of Denver, Landes adds, "I don't recognize a lot of other parts of my city, but whenever I get back to Capitol Hill, oh yeah! It's where I live, it's my home."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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