Like Atlanta and Dallas, Denver owes its success to geographical serendipity, sitting at the right distance between suppliers and markets to rise as a transportation crossroads and financial exchange center.
The first boost for Denver was the silver rush of the late 19th century. After the silver mining bust, Denver kept reinventing itself.
Now, high tech is strong, as digital startups see the city as a haven from high-cost Silicon Valley.
Denver's two water arteries - the South Platte River and Cherry Creek - converge near the city's founding spot, more nuisances during the years from flooding than major economic generators. Now safely tamed, the creek and river offer pleasant walking trails and bicycle paths.
A downtown park along the river offers a nice retreat. While unmajestic, the South Platte with its rapids rushing over clusters of rocks and mellow current offers a subdued beauty. During a downtown visit, I saw kids wading into the stream and lovers embracing on blankets.
The old frontier town has done a better job than most - such as my own Atlanta - in preserving commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the "lo-do" area, dominated by the Colorado Rockies' Coors Field.
Like Camden Yards in Baltimore, Coors Field sits in an old warehouse district, now a flourishing center of bars, restaurants, bookstores and entertainment venues.
The Atlanta Braves wanted to develop such a district around the similarly neo-traditonal Turner Field, whose surrounding neighborhood never had a flourishing commercial area. The short-sighted city/county government rejected the Braves' development plans, leading the ball club to move to Cobb County.
Along with a new stadium, the team is building what it hopes will become a fun district of hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants beside a non-distinctive shopping mall. Perhaps the Braves will be successful, but the suburban center lacks the soul of Baltimore and Denver's old brick buildings. Nor does the Cobb site have mass transit.
Union Station, an urban jewel
Unlike Atlanta, which tore down its two downtown rail stations, Denver has preserved Union Station, shown above, the center of a thriving light rail system that covers a good portion of the city's metro area. Union Station is also the termination point of a new rail line running to and from the remote airport, which rises east of the city among a long stretch of undeveloped prairie. With a traditional-style hotel, shops and restaurants, the station is a nice gateway to the city, and stands only blocks from the ball field.
Union Station is also the endpoint of a distinctive Denver feature- free shuttle buses that run up and down the central 16h Street Corridor, converted into a pedestrian mall. The buses run from Union Station up to Capitol Hill, where the Colorado capitol and the city's governmental building stand across from each other, separated by a monumental park of green lawns, reflecting pools and marble pathways.
Also bordering the park are Denver's ultramodern art museum and public library. The library's futuristic art-deco architecture contrasts with the Greco-Roman columned style of the nearby old library building, preserved for city offices.
Haven for the homeless
The Capitol Hill park with its fountains and public art also serves as the campground for the city's homeless. Late into morning, they slumber in their sleeping bags tucked behind buildings or laid out in the open on benches and grassy spots.
At noon, the homeless men line up for a meal on the park sidewalk. Their eyes remain downcast, not looking toward the city hall's tower or the capitol's sunlit gold dome.
The homeless, muttering to themselves or staring vacantly, are also frequent passengers of the free 16h Mall shuttle.
City of trains
The frequent trains crossing downtown give the city an urban cosmopolitan feel. I awoke before dawn to the sound of train bells outside my hotel window. Watching the trains zip by with their cheerful colors, I regretted that Atlanta's MARTA system has remained truncated years after its opening, limited by suburban prejudice.
In contrast to Atlanta, few black people are seen in Denver. Denver's gritty Five Points neighborhood near downtown was a center of black culture in the early 20th century, but the Mile High City has one of the smallest black populations among major American cities. The metro area has a dominant white majority, with Latinos the largest minority group.
After years ofAtlanta's northern suburbs blocking MARTA, citing the fear of black crime, I all too easily concluded that Denver's metro wide acceptance of light rail, with an efficient network of city and suburban stations, is connected to the smaller black population reducing white paranoia.
America's top boomtown
Denver has replaced Atlanta as the top American boomtown, with young singles drawn to its sunny climate, mountain recreation and easy-going lifestyle.
Marijuana, legalized several years ago, is available in edible or smokable form at downtown dispensaries. I didn't partake, but often felt as if I'd been transported back to 1965's groovy times.
The mile-high cool might not last too much longer. Like so many other metro areas straining natural systems, Denver's growth looks doomed. According to an excellent Colorado museum exhibit, of which I was the only viewer, climate change is reducing the amount of mountain snowfall, from which Denver gets its water.
The exhibit simply explained a complicated picture. Too many people love living in the mountains, taxing resources. The reduced snowpack weakens mountain forests, which grow susceptible to disease and insect infestation. The loss of trees reduces the snowpack.
Why worry when the Orange Crush dominates the NFL? One morning I ducked into a Rite Aid to buy a Denver Post, and a diminutive black homeless man pushing a shopping cart called out to me joyfully "Hey, buddy! Six days until the Broncos begin!"