On a morning walk in our new neighborhood, my wife and I were reflecting on our move back to Denver after living and working in Portland, Oregon, the past 22 years.
We’ve seen dramatic changes since we returned in November. Some for the better, some worse and some changes that are too early to judge because of the impact of COVID-19 on daily life.
Our perceptions and experiences are mixed after two months. I was a journalist in Denver during much of the 1980s and 90s, which saw plenty of problems and failures, and our return was not animated by rose-colored nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.”
So what motivated us to move back?
First, let’s consider what’s changed over two decades. Growth is certainly No. 1. Newcomers have poured into the city and the state, including thousands of young people like our oldest daughter who moved to Denver in 2017. When we left the city in 1998, the population was about 550,000 compared to more than 740,000 today. Statewide, the population jumped from about 4 million to 5.8 million.
That means traffic is much worse – I-70 is a construction nightmare and Colorado Boulevard at times resembles a parking lot – while housing is less affordable even with suburban sprawl spreading in all directions. There are lessons that metro Denver can learn from Portland, which has eased pollution and traffic by developing a nationally renowned bicycle infrastructure combined with strategic investments in mass transit.
Growth also has brought more diversity to the city. Denver was nearly two-thirds white when we lived here before; today, nearly half of Denver’s population are people of color. That adds the kind of cultural and ethnic richness that we did not have living in Portland.
We’ve seen how growth has triggered urban redevelopment across the city. Mary Gay and I moved into a townhouse in Central Park, an urban village neighborhood that was barely on the drawing board when we left Denver two decades ago. There are lots of vibrant examples of revitalized neighborhoods and urban renewal, such as the River North Art District and the area east of Union Station around Confluence Park and the Highlands.
Another obvious change over the past two decades has been Colorado politics. In 1998, Colorado had two Republican senators, elected a Republican governor and Republicans controlled both legislative chambers.
All those offices have since flipped to Democrats. As a result, state leadership has become more progressive, and that was a big reason why we decided to move here. Environment protection, racial and economic equity, criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, health care expansion, clean energy and investing in K-12 and higher education – those are important to us and for a lot of Coloradans.
That said, the fact that western Colorado voters just elected the gun-worshipping crackpot Lauren Boebert to Congress is alarming. But I suppose it’s an extreme example of the deepening urban-rural divide that continues to polarize Colorado and many Western states.
Other changes are more welcome, such as the advancement of top-tier medical research and treatment centers. Colorado’s public and private universities have developed a host of new programs and campus improvements. And we look forward to a post-COVID new normal when we can reconnect with old friends and colleagues and rediscover the wide array of local cultural, music, arts and sports events.
Without a doubt, however, one of the most powerful motivations pulling us back to Colorado was the lure of the Rockies. The majesty of the mountains remains unchanged, and the state is packed with outdoor adventures from skiing to hiking, backpacking to biking, camping to climbing. Oregon also has spectacular scenery — especially the rugged coast — but we traded rain and overcast skies for sun and snow. Frankly, we took sunshine for granted when we lived here before. Not anymore.
All these positives don’t gloss over the stubborn challenges facing Colorado communities: crime, income inequality, racism, homelessness, affordability, drought and wildfires. Not to mention the tens of thousands stricken by the coronavirus in the past year or have lost their jobs because of it. It will be a test for state and city leaders as well as regular folks to make measurable progress toward solving some of these problems.
We are eager to do our part. That’s the intangible reason for our return. We share in the pride of living here and the determination to help make Colorado an even better place.
Christopher Broderick is a former reporter and editor in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver and Portland and recently retired as Associate Vice President at Portland State University.
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