Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Unstapled: How an International Airport Became Mayberry

Obamathon Man and his associate were driving across Denver to investigate Park Hill, and as we exited the freeway, we noticed an odd hotel. It was large, drab, and looked like it was designed by the Aztecs, but the weirdest thing about it was that a hotel of its size had been placed in this relatively remote area in the first place. We passed two more large hotels, still confused. Then as we looked to our left, we noticed what looked to be an abandoned control tower, and suddenly everything made sense: this is where the old Stapleton Airport used to be.

I remembered flying into Stapleton once when I was in first grade. For my extended family who lived here at the time, the construction of DIA was a big deal; for us it was a minor civic footnote and a longer drive when we flew in. We forgot about Stapleton, and had never devoted any thought to what became of the place, other than once speculating that with a name like "Stapleton" they should convert it into a staple factory.

The eerie control tower prompted us to park and take a few pictures. We found a nice looking park full of baseball diamonds and basketball courts, and parked in the nearby neighborhood - it was the kind of neighborhood you'd expect to be near a major airport. After crossing the park, we found that on the other side was an entirely different neighborhood. The homes were lavish and immense, each one could easily fit four bedrooms and bathrooms. And they were perfect, down to the last picket on each of their fences. You could easily imagine each of these houses as the home to 2 cars and 2.5 children. It occurred to us that this area actually used to be part of the airport, and that screaming jet engines had been replaced with suburban idyll.

It was all very pleasant, but at the same time there was something unsettling about the place. No one entered or left the houses, and the only sound was an occasional gust of wind. It felt as if we were the last survivors of a nuclear winter, that the houses had been preserved and the inhabitants had long since perished. Looming over every rooftop was the control tower, and my mind began to craft horror stories about radioactive Gollum-like miscreants, scanning the vacant neighborhoods from their vantage point in search of prey.

Upon later research, I found that the Stapleton redevelopment plan was considered extremely environmentally friendly, and had a website as hip as the opening credits from Juno. But why did the area have to be developed at all? Why couldn't they have done what Orange County did with the former El Toro Air Station and turn it into a giant park (one of the few things OC has gotten right)? At this point in America's history, we have enough suburbs. Hopefully, the new administration will bring with it a new attitude toward civic planning that reduces expansiveness and promotes shared space.

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