Mike McPhee – Dana Crawford, 50 Years Saving the Soul of A City

Dana Crawford CoverWhen I was hired by the Rocky Mountain News in 1980, editor Michael Howard started me right out of the chute by assigning a series on the future of downtown Denver. No time on night cops or general assignment—he just tossed me right into the big issues he cared about.

He also gave me a list of people to interview. Right near the top was Dana Crawford. At the time, Larimer Square was already a compelling corner of downtown Denver. (But you rarely ventured much further west, unless it was to eat pizza at the Wazee Supper Club, then under the dark shadows of a viaduct).

I went to interview Dana Crawford with no preconceptions but found an earnest, articulate, passionate woman with a keen business savvy and a cool, straightforward demeanor.  At least, that’s my recollection. Over the years as I went on to cover City Hall and developments downtown, I had many more encounters and chats with Dana and learned more about her.

But now, after reading Mike McPhee’s biography Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City, I realized that I could have learned much, much more.

Beautifully designed and written with an effortless style, this is a must-read biography for anyone who has watched downtown transform itself from functional and straightforward (and relatively boring at night) to complex and layered (and fairly busy at night).

It’s hard to remember—but there was once precious little nightlife. No brewpubs. Few art galleries. No Coors Field, no RiverPoint. No LoDo, no Tattered Cover or hip vibe. And it was a true novelty if you lived downtown.

Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City makes a convincing case that it all started with Dana’s keen desire to preserve (and upgrade) Larimer Square, once a forgotten leftover—used and worn and chewed up. Crawford bought up and transformed the 1400 block of Larimer St., all based on her keen awareness for how people congregate in public spaces and how large-scale developments can dehumanize the city environment.

As McPhee makes clear in a highly detailed but easy to read narrative—including a thorough look at Crawford’s pre-Denver youth and college life—it wasn’t an easy struggle. Crawford faced many hurdles, including the stealthy effort to assemble the Larimer Square properties and organize them under one umbrella firm, the campaign to encourage broader recognition of LoDo as “historic” (a step as critical to downtown Denver’s look and feel today as any new sports stadium or building DIA) and upgrading facilities like Oxford Hotel, once a “bare light bulb” place, to something hip and trendy.

Twice the efforts to save the Oxford Hotel dragged her into bankruptcy but she carried on—bringing her redevelopment touch to an old flour mill, a mattress factory and finally to Union Station (now drawing national praise for its overhaul).

“We knew that without Dana Crawford, there would be no Wynkoop brewery. That building wouldn’t be standing; someone would have torn it down,” says Governor John Hickenlooper, the former owner of the brewpub that spearheaded development in a new corner of LoDo—at a time (1989, 1990) when customers had to walk past many blocks of vacant warehouses to reach the restaurant pouring beer made on the premises, then a new concept for Colorado. “All those beautiful buildings would have been knocked over. Dana had the foresight and the appreciation of what those buildings had to offer that no else at the time seemed to have.”

Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City is beautifully rendered and the assembly of all the detail (the index alone is six pages) was a yeoman’s effort. McPhee, a longtime reporter, writes with a natural, easy-going style and clearly poured years of work into the final narrative.

The design by Judy Anderson has a fun feel of an elegant scrapbook. The design is helped by careful selection of many knock-out historical photos along with sharp photography and design contributions from Melanie Simonet.  Veteran reporter Jeff Leib edited the book, which was assembled with polish and care.

Dana Crawford stood up to the steamrollers and bulldozers—the forces were in place to scrape-and-skyscraper every potential site with indifferent concrete and glass. Other cities lost similar battles, Denver did not.

So next time you’re poking around Larimer Square or LoDo or the Central Platte Valley, stop in the brewpub of your choice and hoist a frosty mug to Dana Crawford. And Mike McPhee.