The Accidental City


Denver is a square, proud, prompt little place, surrounded by immensity.
–Demas Barnes (Denver visitor, 1865)

Denver is the unlikeliest of cities; there’s no port, no access to an ocean or a major river, nowhere to get to (easily) between here and there. Compared to other urban centers, it came late to the party, and unnaturally, forced on an unwilling landscape. Started by claimjumpers and promoted with false claims of easy money, there was never any gold at the confluence, but there was an opportunity to set up a transportation hub in one of the less explored and exploited regions of the country.

In the first two years, 100,000 people came through looking to find a fortune; by 1864, the city had less than 5,000 residents and was practically destroyed by flood and fire. For those still here, isolated in “this god-forsaken place,” it may as well have been the end of the world. It was touch and go until the railroad came in in 1870, setting off one of the first of Denver’s booms.

Maybe it was the boom and bust cycles, or the latecomer status, or the distance from centers of culture, but for much of the city’s history it’s been better known as a place to go through, rather than a place to stay.


You may thank your stars that you left this country when you did, for it is deader than it ever was. The fact is I am getting damn sick of this God-forsaken place.
–Silas Soule (1861)

One hundred twenty years later, in the late 1980s, the oil bust wreaked havoc on the Denver’s economy; people were jumping ship for wherever they could make a living, and mostly anywhere was better than here. Downtown was sleepy and lonely (especially after hours), and the skyscrapers that had been built in the 70s emptied out as fast as they went up. The good news? Parking was plentiful and free.

One of the many odd jobs I had at that time involved emptying the offices (cubicles and desks mostly) from the Arco Tower on 17th Street in Downtown. For weeks, we loaded the furniture on carts and rolled them onto semi-trailers destined for warehouses in Texas. The wealth (and jobs) that had been imported left town when times turned tough.

Looking at the empty storefronts in the Arco Tower, my buddy Ray and I proposed to the property manager that we install a series of temporary artworks that would show the space off while also having a sense of humor. Our proposal? Cows. Denver, we thought, should embrace its traditions, and engage in a fun dialogue to encourage people to come back downtown.

It sounded good to us. But not to the property manager. Anything but cows, he said.


…the rare beauty of the accidental location, the grandeur of the region, the charms of the climate, and the enormous permanent resources of the country became fixed in the minds of the people…
–Jerome Smiley, History of Denver (1900)

From its founding 150 years ago, Denver’s residents have described the city with a combination of self-deprecation and boisterous civic boosterism, sometimes with more than a touch of defensiveness. But along the way, something has changed, and there is a bit of self-confidence that doesn’t seem so out of place; there’s a willingness to embrace both the city’s frontier roots and its urban existence.

Denver is no longer so oddly placed in the middle of the frontier. The world has changed. Denver was an accidental city, but now it has grown to become a metropolitan center. Maybe now we can look back with some pride and just a little bit of nostalgia for our cowtown past.

Note: This post is co-published with a new project we kicked off this week in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the city of Denver. Called, we intend to publish 150 expressions of the history, culture, and community of Denver over the course of the next six months (or so). And potentially drink some whisky along the way too. We are looking for submissions, please visit if you are interested in participating.

Design Strategy: An Overview

I did a presentation at the Image, Space, Object conference in August on the topic of Story & Emergent Design – afterwards one of the participants came up and said they enjoyed the talk, and especially the part where I said that I have a tough time explaining to my mother what it is that I do for a living. It occurs to me that this is a fairly serious issue for people who do design research and strategy – or at least it is for me. If my mother doesn’t understand, will anyone else?

I often find myself offering up an ‘elevator pitch’ to people I meet and, given their typical response, I think it’s fair to say that if I happened to be riding up with Steve Jobs at One Infinite Loop, I’d be out of a job before I reached the fourth floor. Or maybe not, Jobs is known as being fairly design savvy. But it’s a tough one to explain at a cocktail party.

Fortunately for me and my livelihood, there is an increasing awareness of how design strategy can help to inform business decisions. Quite a bit of my work is focused on interaction design (websites, social networking, publishing strategy, etc.), so it tends to come through the communications, marketing, or information technology groups at organizations.
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My Neighbor, Myself

Our next door neighbors have been having some hard times. Jane, the mom, hurt herself six months or so ago by falling down some broken stairs, busted her tailbone. She’s been in a lot of pain, can’t walk too well, and has been out of work since then. She was recuperating, and then she fell again, in the house again. 

The house is a mess, a rental property and not well-maintained, but it was all she could afford. Since she hurt herself the owner has been trying to get her to move out, but she doesn’t have the money to go anywhere else. So, they are involved in some litigation, or threats of litigation. I imagine that the owner wants to sell the house now, as I’m pretty sure she’s lost her homeowner’s insurance. But she can’t really kick Jane out, given that her slumlord ways were the reason that Jane got hurt in the first place. 
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Colorado 2008 Voter Guide

Officially, we’re one week out from election day 2008. But, as Kirk Johnson wrote in this article for The New York Times, the process of voting is changing. Colorado voters are increasingly using early voting and vote by mail as options to going to the polling place on election day. It makes a lot of sense, given the combination of an insanely long ballot and the voting fiascos that have plagued our state in the past few election cycles.

I ran into Patty Calhoun at the primary this summer, and talked about how we’re going to miss going down to the polling place and visiting with the residents at the Ivy Manor (now called the Spearly Center) where voting day was the one of the most exciting events of the year. Somehow, that “I Voted” sticker just isn’t the same when it comes from your mail-in ballot, and not from the community-spirit infused volunteer.

The following is my attempt to make sense of an unnaturally long and tedious Colorado ballot. To create this version, I used a Ballot Guide tool provided by Politics West, which works pretty well. I did actually read the ballot amendments that are proposed, and I considered a variety of points of view, including progress now, the denver dailies, bell policy center,, and others.
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DNC Arts Roundup

The city of Denver, led by the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, did a great job of bringing world class art to town during the DNC through the Dialog:City program. While I would have liked to have seen some additional involvement from local artists, the program offered a thought-provoking combination of installation and performance.

I had a conversation with Rudi Cerri of DOCA, and he pointed out that Dialog:City was intended primarily as a program for the residents of Denver, and not for the attendees at the Convention. It’s unfortunate (though understandable) that it took place during the DNC – many denverites were staying away from downtown and all the traffic hassles, so the events weren’t as well-attended as they might have been otherwise. Nonetheless, it was great fun for those of us who were able to make it.

I didn’t make it to everything, but the following are some thoughts and photos from where we did make it to.

Terra Nova: Antarctic Suite

On Sunday night in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, DJ Spooky (Paul Miller, formerly known as the ‘subliminal kid’) offered an hour or so of electronic soundscapes with imagery overhead addressing the issue of the antarctic ice shelf and global warming.

Although the political component of the imagery was a bit obvious and risked preaching to the choir (e.g., US residents create more greenhouse gasses than anyone else in the world), overall the combination of music and images had a hypnotic feeling that was reminiscent of old school performance art.

I snapped a couple of photos before I was told it wasn’t allowed due to potential copyright violations (which I found pretty amusing given Paul Miller’s writings on remix culture and the art of the mashup.

A Spiritual Singalong

On Monday, Jill and I headed down to the DCPA, where we caught part of Ann Hamilton’s performance piece entitle “O”. It involved a combination of adult and child choirs, including members of The Spirituals Project (started by the remarkable Dr. Art Jones of the University of Denver).

The work was essentially a choral singalong in a unique urban setting – the choirs were on the stairs in the stairs of the DCPA Galleria, while the audience were on the ground. The roundness of the long O sound that was used to anchor the singing, combined with the acoustics of the galleria, gave the event a fullness and richness that worked to complement the simplicity of the staging.

At the end of the performance, the chorus and audience joined in singing America The Beautiful. It was pretty emotional, and I although I’m not usually overly patriotic, I found myself choking up (twice in one night, actually – the second time was during Michelle Obama’s speech).

Jill and I had the chance to meet Ann on Tuesday; she was extremely gracious and easy to talk to. She said that music has been increasingly important for her work in recent years, including at her Acoustic Tower in California, where she has worked with Meredith Monk, among others. This photo doesn’t really do justice to the experience, but it gives some sense of what went on there.

Images from Iran

Over in Civic Center Park, just across from where the police and anarchists were having a bit of an altercation, there was an independently produced installation called “Pictures of You: Images From Iran.” The artist, Thomas Loughlin, wanted to show the connections between people from around the world; the portraits of iranians are printed on translucent fabric and hung on the walls and across the ‘halls’ of a mosque-like structure. All in all, quite a beautiful effect.

Luke Dubois: From Gentleman to Terror

Luke Dubois’ installation, called “Hindsight”, uses the familiar eye chart as the starting place to analyze the contents of State of the Union Addresses from Washington to Bush. He included a separate panel for each address. The results offers some fun and startling insights into the concerns of the country at different times in our history.

It turns out that “Gentleman” was the most common word in Washington’s speeches, while “Terror” was the most common in the shrub’s addresses. No big surprise there, I suppose.

During the course of the convention, there were docents available to explain the various works, and one of them (the best one, from my perspective) was my mom, who did her part to help explain the details of American history as explored by Luke Dubois. Here’s a photo of her in front of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union roundup. Oddly, she didn’t want her picture taken in front of George W Bush’s tablet.

We didn’t make it everything – I was sorry to miss Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Veteran Vehicle Project’ (I just saw the humvee during the day, not while it was projecting at night, and only saw Minsuk Cho’s Air Forest in City Park from a distance. But still, it was great to see that culture can be explored in conjunction with the american political process.

DNC Saturday: Elitches Welcome Party

Thanks to our friend Jayne we got some tickets to the big press welcome party at Elitches (Denver’s biggest amusement park, located in the Central Platte Valley near downtown). Thousands of people, music, local politicos, free beer and food. Most of our evening was spent watching adults playing midway games for free, and then walking around like oversized 8 year olds with their collection of stuffed animals.

The welcome address was in the Elitches theater, where we were kept at a very safe distance from those making their presentations. Like, several hundred feet away. Apparently, the event was designed to cater to the 20 or 30 photographers with press passes.

Okay, you can’t see much in that panorama, so here’s as good a close up as I could come by from the cheap seats. If you squint you can see our governor Bill Ritter, mayor John Hickenlooper, Senator Ken Salazar, and attorney Steve Farber, who is apparently responsibly for raising a lot of the 50 million bucks it took to bring this party to town.

At least the speeches were mercifully short, and there was one of the best national anthems I’ve heard (sung by the performers at PhaMaLy), and some great dancing in full regalia by representatives of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, and Northern Ute tribes. Unfortunately, we were too far away to get a decent photo.

Once the official presentation was over we were treated to a performance by the Flobots. The Flobots offer a high energy combination of rap and rock with a classical flair (really!), and their politics are terrific. Fortunately, the crowd was allowed to get down to the stage during their performance.

Regarding their intentions for the convention, they put out this statement on their website:

During the DNC we will seek to embody the change we wish to see in the world by behaving as citizens of an America that does not yet exist. We invite you to join us.

You have to love a band that quotes Langston Hughes:

“America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath – America will be!”

The evening ended up with enough fireworks to scare the dog, who was cooped up in the house a half mile away.

DNC Opening Night Photos

JHH and I went to opening night of Dialog:City on Thursday, and took some photos along the way. We started off the evening at the Robischon Gallery. Here’s a shot of the gallery with DJ Spooky’s Terra Nova prints in the background.

Then we went on to the kickoff of the Karaoke Convention at the Supreme Court bar. Karaoke Convention is a pretty clever idea, here’s an image of a participant doing his karaoke to the dulcet tones of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. You get the idea.

It actually wasn’t overly crowded downtown, which is a bit surprising, though I’m thinking that people are staying away from the city because they’re afraid of too much traffic. Of course, it’s going to get crowded soon – we’re lucky to be able to walk down to where the parties are. Assuming we find out where the parties are.

I posted some of the photos from the evening on Flickr, and plan to post some other updates this week.

Dialog:City – arts in Denver for the DNC

Denver is getting ready for the Democratic National Convention – and the city’s artists and galleries are hoping to get some exposure along the way. An article by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times today speaks to the broader ambitions and styles that are in place, especially as expressed by public art, including Lawrence Argent’s Big Blue Bear (“I see what you mean”) in front of the convention center and the Donald Lipski horse on a chair (“The Yearling”) by the Denver Art Museum, as well as architecture such as the Libeskind addition to the DAM and the (more compelling if less flashy) David Adjaye building for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

The gist of the article is that this city is willing to be less serious and more playful in the approach to public spaces. It’s always tough to pigeonhole a community into a single perspective, but it is certainly true that, as Jim Green points out in the article, Denver, at it’s best, combines “sophistication and informality.”

The most ambitious initiative in the whole DNC mix is Dialog:City, which involves nine internationally known artists – it’s been criticized (probably with some merit) for not including enough local talent, but it will be exciting to see how it all comes out. JHH and I are planning to attend the premiere of Terra Nova, DJ Spooky’s mashup/multimedia performance at the Ellie Caulkin’s Opera House on Sunday. Other than that, we’re mostly planning to keep our options open all week. Lots of walking around, a tourist in our own town.

The kickoff for the Dialog:City events is at Robischon Gallery tonight (Thursday, the 21st). Jim has done his part to include local artists, including Jill Hadley Hooper and 15 others, for a related show called My Yard Our Message in conjunction with the Walker Art Center’s Unconvention program. The works will be moving to Minneapolis for the Republican’s upcoming Dog and Pony show. Here’s Jill’s addition to the mix – it’s a consideration of the topic of Animal Rights called “Free Range?”.

Of course, not all work in Denver these days has to be either political or overtly humorous. We’re opening a show this friday at Ironton Studios (called Internal Combustion) featuring large scale drawing by Bill Stockman. These drawings (some are 10 feet tall) are all about gesture. Though they also have a certain amount of informal sophistication too.

We Need to Talk

It’s been a while, so I thought we should chat. I’ve been ignoring you for a while, and I thought I should explain why.

I know, saying that we need to talk sounds more than a little threatening. Few phrases strike fear into the heart more than hearing those words. It sounds like the end of a relationship. But in this case, it’s not the end, just a change of focus.

This isn’t a dear John letter, or a dear diary letter. A dear blog letter is more like it.

The truth is, I’ve been busy, both with work and with all the chores that come with spring – house and garden, events, trying to lose the extra pounds I put on over the winter. But that’s no excuse for not paying attention to you. Not an excuse, but maybe an explanation.

For over a year I was pretty committed to writing you on a regular basis. And then, there comes a long break. Not that you would know – after all, you’re not a person.

But what are you, really? A semantic publishing system? A vehicle for promotion? An opportunity to offer thoughts on a variety of topics? I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to put thoughts down in this very specific venue.

In a sense, blogs go backwards. They require constant attention to be timely, but at the same time the newest posts push all the older ones down the queue, making them somehow less important than the next one up the list.

I heard an interview with Dave Davies on Fresh Air talking about the impact of blogs on politics.

On the one hand, there’s a compelling immediacy to the blogosphere. Thoughts, experiences, and beliefs are available immediately. There’s a buzz, a unmistakable seductiveness. The citizen journalist, the amateur, the crank, all of us have the same access to virtual ink as the professionals, the so-called experts. It’s fast, connected, and cheap to produce.

On the other hand, there is something disconcerting about posting without editorial control or some sort of professional standards, some sort of fact checking. Everyone needs an editor, I really need an editor. Davies said that he isn’t sure that he wants to read what anyone says if they haven’t spent at least a day working on the story.

Spending a day on a story is a luxury that I don’t often have – and lately I’ve been working on some new projects with a more multimedia bent (video, flash, and animation type of stuff). All of that takes time, time that I don’t have to spend writing you.

Part of it, of course, is a question of priorities and focus. It’s not just writing you that I’ve been avoiding. I’m also avoiding some of my contact with the fast-paced world of information overload (sort of a news fast as Dr. Weil would call it). It’s difficult to stay focused on everything else while still trying to accomplish my own goals.

But mostly, I just needed to take a break. Get my thoughts together, consider the priorities of living a fragile life on a fragile planet. Cogitate on slowness and the long now.

So there you have it. I’m not leaving you. Change is good.

Hey, here’s a picture of the backyard garden. It’s looking good this year.

Thoughts on Stories

On Digital Storytelling

On Wednesday I had the chance to attend a talk by Joe Lambert at the Colorado History Museum. Joe is the Executive Director and founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling, where he works with my friend Daniel Weinshenker, who runs the Center’s Denver office. The CDS is a non-profit organization based in Berkeley that assists “people of all ages in using the tools of digital media to craft, record, share, and value the stories of individuals and communities, in ways that improve all our lives.”

The topic of Joe’s talk was some evolving ways to create stories of places, or ‘storymapping’, but in reality the talk was a wide ranging discussion of the value of personal stories in building more meaningful life experiences. As a starting place, Joe placed the contemporary story movement in context, as related to other ways of searching for authenticity in our lives. As an example, he mentioned the slow food movement. Joe mentioned that in contemporary society we don’t believe in the third-person, expository voice. It is too easy to lose the real in the commercial, and it’s hard to argue that society doesn’t do its best to promote the “commodification of cool.”

For instance, in their 2007 book, “Authenticity“, Gilmore and Pine argue that “the management of the customer perception of authenticity becomes the primary new source of competitive advantage – the new business imperative.” The subtitle of their book, “What Consumers Really Want”, and their argument for the management of ‘perception’, puts some perspective on their goals with this endeavor. Corporations may not be able to provide real authenticity, but they can provide the appearance of authenticity.

This is not to say that corporations shouldn’t address this issue; of course they should. Our consumer culture isn’t going away any time soon, and whatever companies can do to provide a richer experience associated with their products and services is vital and important. But what Joe is advocating is something more grassroots based or, as he calls it, “community-based creativity.” Joe’s goal is nothing less than using stories to help create a society of producers rather than consumers.

The CDS advocates and teaches a particular form of digital storytelling that encourages sharing (“listening leads to refinement”) and the development of very personal expressions of history and experience. In the CDS technique, a digital story most often ends up being a three to four minute presentation centered around a specific moment where the storytelling gained insight and meaning about their life, their family, their community. Although the tools are based on the latest computer tools, the approach is intentionally non-professional – Joe described the results as “halfway between powerpoint and film.” The core of the CDS training is not so much the technological components but in how to write and edit a story so that is pared down to its essence. The results are often remarkably powerful and emotional.

Of course, this approach is just one on a broad spectrum, from the audio stories recorded and presented by storycorps to the documentaries of Ken Burns and others. Blogs and online journals also provide a great opportunity for the expression of individual experience; one of my favorite story sites, called A mis 95 años (in Spanish), is told from the perspective of a (now 96 year-old) Gallega who reflects on spanish history and contemporary culture.

Storymapping is an extension of these approaches that makes use of emerging digital mapping technologies to find connections between story and place. For instance, the I-10 Witness Project combines google maps with embedded quicktime videos to offer stories of the history and reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Murmur is another example of combining story and place; started in Toronto, the team has placed “ears” around the city. When you see an ear (on a light post, for example), you can call a specific number and get a story about that very place on your cellphone. You hear a story of a place, but not just the official story. You experience the ghost of the place. I remember when this used to be…

All this is just the start; already we are seeing the opportunity to present stories in multiple delivery platforms, independent of how the information was recorded. It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller. And really, don’t we all have stories to tell?

The Use of Stories

In his talk, Joe outlined some of the uses for stories; I’ve expanded on a few of them here:

Personal expression
Of course, moving from consumer culture to producer culture requires that ‘this is the age when everone creates’. But there is a richness in the process of expression, and an increasing awareness of the value of each life, including my own and those around me.

Social change
The experience of listening and sharing leads, in my mind, to the broadening of understanding. Through this process we begin to understand at a concrete level the opportunity and importance of working toward social justice.

For students, the creation of a personal expression can lead to greater opportunities in the future, based on the combination of personal understanding and passion with real technical and communications skills.

For organizations, personal stories can offer a resource for explaining the value of your activities. It’s marketing beyond marketing, communicating at the individual level.

Community history
For cities interested in engaging the community in creating a sense of place, creating an environment conducive to cultural creatives, it is hard to imagine a better opportunity than the creation of stories. And this can be an opportunity to blend the ‘expert’ with the ‘amateur’; the official story is enhanced and extended by the voice of the individual.

Beyond these uses, I also find that stories have extensive value in the design process, to encourage innovation in product and service design. I use storytelling as a idea generation and refinement technique in conjunction with other qualitative (ethnographic) research, including interviews, journaling, and observation. The CDS is also working in the way, specifically working with nurses and patients to gain a better understanding of the health care experience.

International Day for Sharing Stories

Storytelling isn’t just something to be used. The truth is it’s how we connect, how we understand ourselves, our world, our experience. It’s fun, and it adds richness to our lives. We all tell stories, and the more we listen to the stories of others, the richer our experience and understanding.

In conjunction with the Museum of the Person (Museu da Pessoa) and Stories for Change, the Center for Digital Storytelling has announced that May 16 is international day for sharing life stories. Why May 16th? Well, it’s Studs Turkle’s birthday. Seems like a good enough reason to me.

Story and Experience Design