US rediscovers joy of inner city life

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THEY USED to joke in Denver that you could stand at the top of 17th Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the city centre, and send a bowling ball down its entire length without it meeting a single obstacle along the way. That, though, was 10 years ago. Today, your ball wouldn't travel half a block.

Something surprising has happened here, and the rest of the United States is starting to notice. Where once its inner-city neighbourhoods were the preserves of down-and-outs and office workers who fled hotfoot at sundown to the suburbs, they stand now as a symbol of urban renaissance. Above all, significant numbers of Denverites are abandoning the suburbs and settling again in the heart of the city.

They have been answering the developers' advertisements with headlines such as "Kiss the 'burbs g'bye". Such is the appeal suddenly of one section of Denver's downtown, an area of once abandoned brick warehouses now converted into fashionable lofts, nicknamed LoDo, property prices are now higher there than in any neighbourhood of Denver bar one. To answer demand, the city has embarked on a $1bn (pounds 600m) housing construction spree with 1,334 new apartments being built or converted in the centre.

It is a movement that seems especially counter-intuitive in Denver. The galloping sprawl of its freeways, malls and suburban homes across the high plains and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains has been typical of the American experience since the Second World War. And new evidence has emerged to suggest that Denver may not be alone in the US in seeing a revival of its once-rotting inner core.

A survey by the Brookings Institution and the Fannie Mae Foundation, a federal housing agency, shows that 24 cities across the country expect to see increases in the numbers living in their downtown areas. While the numbers are small relative to the human flood still fuelling the growth of the suburbs, they none the less represent a significant reversal in the decades-old trend of urban flight.

Cities highlighted in the report include Houston, which is forecasting a quadrupling of its inner-city residents by the year 2010 to reach 9,500. Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Portland, Minneapolis and Cleveland are also preparing to accommodate growing downtown populations. Denver, according to the report, now "has a distinct, vibrant, fashionable image", that should translate into a near tripling of its downtown population from 3,480 to 9,250 by the end of the next decade.

Dan du Bois can claim to be one of the LoDo pioneers. He moved here with his wife from an outer Denver suburb a decade ago and has never looked back. "We moved down here on a lark really. Back in the suburbs there was nothing to do at night and we didn't know any of our neighbours. We moved into the city to see what it was like".

When they first arrived, they looked out onto a crumbling concrete flyover with homeless families living beneath it. Now both the flyover and the families have gone.

On a recent evening, standing on the flat roof of the loft apartment which she bought in 1993, Barbara Gibson surveyed the LoDo landscape that she has grown to love. Across the street stands the Karmen Western Wear factory, a group of four warehouse buildings that would fetch a sky-high price from developers if one day the family firm decides to sell. To the north, she points out the lighting towers of Coors Field, the home of the Denver baseball team. The 1995 opening of Coors Field, built in historic brick and cast-iron style, further contributed to the resurrection of the LoDo area. When she first moved to Denver six years ago from northern California, Barbara, a financial executive for Compaq computers, spent six months in the suburbs and "hated it". She heard about the new lofts being converted in LoDo through a newspaper article. "I really wanted to find a neighbourhood. I'm not married and I don't have kids and the type of neighbourhood I wanted, you just can't find in the suburbs. There isn't a day when I don't go out my door here and see people I know."

It is precisely people without children and with sufficient income who are finding new appeal in inner-city living. "The demographics are really working in our favour," says Bill Mosher, who heads the Downtown Denver Partnership. Particularly important, he adds, are the so-called "empty- nesters", members of America's baby-boom generation who have now seen their own children leave home and who have new money to spend. "All of a sudden they don't want to drive all the time," Mr Mosher argues, "they don't want to mow their lawns and they want to be in the fun of downtown."

With restaurants, a performing arts complex, two sports grounds and a soon-to-open aquarium, downtown Denver has indeed acquired a new bustle. And, like many other cities, it has benefited from tumbling crime rates. Relating the bowling-ball joke, Mr Mosher underlines the extent of the change in 10 years. "People forget that Denver back in 1988 was sick, sick, sick." LoDo, where half the warehouses were empty, was known then as Denver's skid row, "because that is exactly what it was".

A pivotal force in LoDo has been Jerry Glick, a real estate developer who used to make his living building homes and malls in the suburbs. In the mid-eighties, he turned his attention to LoDo and headed the effort that led to its designation in 1989 as a historic district. "I've invested 15 years of my life in downtown because I believe in the revitalisation of the core. If the core dies, the city dies," he said.

In an office of exposed brick and heavy wooden beams inside what was once a seed warehouse, Mr Glick warns that emulating Denver's success in other cities may not come easily. Above all, he said, cities need extraordinary political will, from the office of the mayor down, to lift up an inner- city area once it has gone downhill. "I think this is really a local phenomenon, not a national one," he commented. "But could it be done in other places? Yes."