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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Fire in the City

quietly under these tangled vines
and pay attention, and one morning
something will explode underfoot
like a branch of fire; one afternoon
something will flow down the hill
in plain view, a muscled sleeve the color
of all October!

        — Mary Oliver, from "Tasting the Wild Grapes"

It was a quick ember caught by only a few of us in the group, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.  Despite the yellow earth movers, the leveling and raising and moving and building, she stayed.  She stuck to the edges, whether high-grass and cottonwood wild or splintered deck and sun-cracked siding.  Her den was beneath the old carousel, which hadn't turned for years, suiting her just fine.  She preferred the undefinable lines of dawn and dusk, when her smooth red coat drank in the shadows.  Her senses were keen, sharp enough to raise a litter of pups where neither she nor they could be snagged.  She was the clichéd cunning fox, though in this day and age there's no cliché at all.

Of all the arguments against redeveloping northwest Denver's century-old Elitch Gardens amusement park, the strongest by far came from a small but vocal band of local citizens who were concerned for the wild red foxes stealing their home beneath the high wooden roller coaster at the corner of the park.  The arguments about increased density and additional traffic and more noise had some merit, but none compared to the plight of the fox.  Density, after all, proved favorable when repackaged as "compact living," made pleasing by orientation, streetscaping, traditional architecture, and the like.  Traffic at full build-out would still be substantially less than on a summer day when the rides were in full swing.  And the noise would be relative, as loud as any construction site, perhaps a bit louder than a horde of squealing kids and whirling park rides.  But that would cease.

Highlands' Garden Village single-family homes
A (wild?) bird's-eye view of single-family
housing at Denver's Highlands' Garden Village.

Graphic courtesy of Perry/Affordable Housing Development Corporation.

The foxes themselves, and the seasonal stream on the south side of the park, posed real questions.  Here, in the middle one of Denver's oldest and most urban residential neighborhoods, lived at least two mating pair of foxes, and annual offspring that may or may not also survive through the years, on just a handful of acres.  The old Elitch Gardens is surrounded by a traditional grid of 1,000-square-foot bungalows and Victorians and Tudors, some as old as the 1880s, most circa-1920s through '40s: a working class neighborhood known as West Highlands.  The foxes burrowing into the side of the overgrown ditch owned by the Rocky Mountain Ditch Company probably descend from foxes living on the site as far back as 1890. 

That's when Elitch Gardens opened as a zoological and botanical gardens.  Over the years John and Mary Elitch created some of the West's finest formal gardens, and also brought in exotic animals and entertainment, including concerts and Vaudeville.  In 1916 Elitch's was sold, and amusement rides including the carousel, a Tilt-a-Wheel, and roller coaster were added.  Cafes and ballrooms increased Elitch's social draw, and the octagonal theater with its two-story porch made the park even more famous.  The theater, which shut down to the music of Ray Charles in 1988, was regarded as one of the most influential in America, bringing in Sarah Bernhardt, Grace Kelly, Edward G. Robinson, and others.  The amusement park closed in 1994, when it moved to Denver's Central Platte Valley, adjacent to downtown.

Through it all, the foxes avoided the pitfalls of cotton candy and peanut brittle, dancing bears and circus lions, staking claim to the wildest growth on the 27-acre site: the hedgerows beneath the giant roller coaster tucked into the southwest corner of the site.

Highlands' Garden Village single-family homes
A fox's foraging grounds? The formal gardens, with
carousel (left) and theater (right) in the background.

Graphic courtesy of Perry/Affordable Housing Development Corporation.

Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac founded America's conservation movement in 1949, wrote in the forward to that eloquent series of essays, "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.  There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.  That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.  That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten..  Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free."

Planning theorist Kevin Lynch, in his essential Good City Form, writes, "If we follow our impure preferences. and admit managed landscapes such as farms, parks, ponds, and woods to be parts of valued nature, then how can we exclude the city?  If nature is the living system and its habitat, man is part of that living system, and a city is as natural as any wood or stream."

And in his essay in the recently released Charter of the New Urbanism, town planner and landscape architect Thomas J. Comitta states, "Neighborhoods appear as balanced living environments when parks are the linchpin of a community.  Neighborhoods also appear balanced spatially when buildings are complemented by plazas, squares, and other open spaces.  The contrast between built and unbuilt is attractive on several levels:  between the firm textures of buildings and streets and the soft colors and textures of the natural world; between a more formal architectural character and nature's informality; and between the massing of structures and the openness of common space.  With parks and other open spaces to provide visually stimulating contrasts, both the architectural and natural environments in a neighborhood read as more distinguished."

Our guide informs us that, despite their best efforts, the folks molding this new urban village haven't been able to catch the fox.  They've planned out single-family homes with the architectural integrity of Denver Squares and Victorian story-and-a-halfs, backing to alleys.  They've preserved the theater and carousel and magnificent gardens at the corner entrance off 38th and Tennyson.  They've planned for north Denver's only co-housing development, and affordable senior housing.  They've scheduled ground-level retail and second-story flats and offices.  They've even recycled all of the crushed concrete, mulched the deconstructed 2x4s, and donated street trees to surrounding residences.

Retail at Highlands' Garden Village
Planned retail along the northern edge of Highlands' Garden Village.
Graphic courtesy of Perry/Affordable Housing Development Corporation.

But they haven't captured that sly fox, the one now peaking her sharp black ears from beneath the carousel, then disappearing again. The one keeping the field mice in check.  The one who carried her pups by their napes from the ditch—now completely enclosed in underground concrete culverts rather than preserved in its "natural" accessibility thanks to liability fears by the Rocky Mountain Ditch Company—to the carousel. 

It's good that their trapping efforts have failed.  Nothing defines wild in a city more than a truly wild animal, one that isn't just passing through.  She's not an anomaly, she's a resident.  She represents the point at which Leopold, Lynch, and Comitta clearly agree, where the city is part of nature because its open space preserves habitable land for all of its residents, especially the indigenous ones.

As I review the marketing pieces for Highlands' Garden Village—the Elitch Gardens site renamed—there's nothing about wild animals.  There are no renderings of wildlife among the gabled roofs and cobblestone walks.  The developer's website references no onsite vulpine family.  The fox, it seems, is a secret.  Good.  Let that secret be kept until the day a young resident catches the fox's October blaze out of the corner of her eye and goes leaping back home, all out of breath, full of new life.  Let the secret retreat back into her den, and come out again.  Then let that fire burn deep within our hearts, and the city, forever.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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