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Living at Ground Level, by Larry Borowsky
 
by Larry Borowsky
 

Denver's Cheesman Park was originally a cemetery.  The first headstones were raised in the 1860s, shortly after the city's founding.  Some of the town fathers were laid to rest here, on what was then just a bald prairie knob outside the city limits.  But within a generation the rapidly expanding burg had overtaken the old graveyard, and rail barons and mining tycoons had appropriated its majestic Rocky Mountain overlooks for their palatial dwellings.  The dearly departed were duly evicted; the last casket was lifted in 1893.

Residences at Cheesman Park.
A mix of old, large single family homes, attached townhomes, and
apartment buildings is common in the Cheesman Park neighborhood.

Photo by S. Buntin.

But Denverites never really stopped digging holes in the old burial plot.  Quite the contrary.  Ever since people came here to live they have torn mightily at the earth's crust—first to remove the dead, then to install the underpinnings of modern life.  They pushed the dirt aside for roads and home foundations, alleys and sewer lines, telephone poles and streetcar tracks.  In the 1910s thousands of saplings were planted here as part of Mayor Albert Speer's "City Beautiful" campaign; some of those very same trees may yet be arching overhead. The Denver Botanical Gardens was added to the park's eastern flank after World War II, resulting in more digging, more digging, more digging.  The water board carved a reservoir on the distant side of Josephine Street; the parks department sunk fountains atop the eastern heights of Cheesman Park proper.  For more than a century, it seems, the above-ground residents have been trying to get back under the surface.

Colfax Avenue at Cheesman Park.
Colfax Avenue and a string of local shops, diners, and other commerce
run along the north end of the Cheesman Park neighborhood.

Photo by S. Buntin.

That's a roundabout way of saying that all neighborhoods, even the most urban, are at bottom just pieces of ground.  We scarcely view them as such, so overpaved are our cities.  Occasionally we catch a glimpse of terrestriality in town—a weed-covered lot, perhaps, or a construction trench with walls of auburn soil caked under the asphalt skin.  But in our minds we subtly separate the urban from the earthen.  Land is something we associate with the countryside, with farms and forests and national parks;  it somehow disappears for us at the city limit.  We regard New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Birmingham, Phoenix, and other densely populated places as interruptions, aberrations—supraterrestrial.

Cheesman Park and condos.
The neighborhood's namesake—and one-time cemetary—Cheesman Park.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Which may explain this preoccupation with digging.  Though in our minds we push the land away, in our hearts we yearn to embrace it.  We want to put down roots, to bond with the earth; we want the land to hold us, contain us.  There is comfort in such intimacy.  Our best urban spaces achieve it, imbuing us with a sense of peace, well-being, even love.

Victorian house.
One of the many eclectic Victorians nestled along
the northeast corner of Cheesman Park.

Photo by S. Buntin.

In Cheesman Park we find an almost perfect synthesis of surface, an organic fusion of clay, brick, asphalt, mortar, bronze, glass, soil, and bark.  The entire cityscape coheres, a seamless membrane of sprawling manors, cozy gardens, skyscraping condo towers, tidy apartment blocks and townhomes, cavernous courtyards, wrought-iron fencing, concrete sidewalks, lofty maples and oaks.  The park itself yawns green on a south-facing slope, catching the sun's rays and reflecting them outward, radiating warmth.  For the neighborhood that surrounds it, this simple rectangular preserve is the sun —- the source of energy, the fuel that powers the biosphere.  Interestingly it is here, where most of the graves used to lie, that the sod is now least broken.

Bungalows.
A "typical" Cheesman Park residential streetscape:  narrow streets,
wide sidewalks, shady trees, front porches, and diverse architecture.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Like any healthy ecosystem, Cheesman Park supports a rich diversity of species.  The local natives are young, old, rich, poor, sophisticated, swank— almost every description fits.  Among the most frequently sighted phyla are caffeine-powered bohemians, idling gloriously on sun-splashed patios;  tank- topped skaters wheeling over the colonnaded plaza at the east end of the commons; tender hobos from Denver East High School, tromping to or from class in their baggy pants; lesbians and gays, old men and women, artists, carpenters, schoolteachers, lawyers, immigrants, monks, you name it.  You'll even find some plain old family units with bright smiles and toys all over the lawn.

Cheesman Park.
A park with a view:  by foot, bicycle, auto, or penthouse
condo, Cheesman Park defines the good urban neighborhood.
Photo by S. Buntin.

At the edges of Cheesman Park, where bodies used to reside six feet under, penthouse apartment dwellers now live 20 stories high.  How far removed we sometimes find ourselves—yet how close we still are to our roots.  There are people living today who were born when urban streets were still dirt, when horses were stabled throughout cities, when outhouses and backyard wells were still in common use.  For these elders there is no need of grounding, no rift dividing the mind from the land—but they are few and fast disappearing.  The rest of us will have to work through our sense of alienation, bring ourselves back into psychic contact with our spaces, lay ourselves down in the only bed that can truly support us, truly nurture.

To make our urban neighborhoods livable, we must keep in mind what lies beneath them.

  

Larry Borowsky wrote a bi-monthly column for 5280 magazine and is the principal writer for the Colorado Historical Society's Roadside Interpretation Project. He has written about Denver neighborhoods and Colorado history for The Denver Post, Aspen Magazine, 5280, Frontier Magazine, Women.com, Trip.com, and other media outlets. He also works with the Colorado Center for Healthy Communities on its publications.

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