Cruiser bikers doing their thing on the streets of Denver. Photo via Flickr user Nick Nunns
Like San Francisco's Haight Ashbury in the 60s, or select swaths of Brooklyn in the early 2000s, Denver's Baker neighborhood is currently in the midst of a familiar transition: A poor but artistically vibrant community has suddenly been "discovered," attracting big money and changes to the landscape. Now it's poised to end up a decaffeinated version of the culture that originally made it famous. The two most iconic villains in Baker's story are the Denver Cruiser Ride (a weekly faux-Burning Man parade of costumed bros riding the bicycle equivalent of an SUV) and the Punch Bowl Social (a Costco-size bowling alley that attracts upper-class beer-pong enthusiasts). As a Baker resident, I have a readied list of grievances against this crowd that I can deliver at a moment's notice—but whenever I do, I can't help sounding like a bigot attempting to rally a mob with my hate speech.
In 2012, I wrote an editorial for Denver's alt weekly, Westword, calling cruiser bikes antiquated cartoon tanks, and argued that anyone who rides one was not a "serious bicyclist." I accused them of being too drunk and dangerous on the roads, unaccustomed to the silent rules of riding a bike in the city. The Denver Cruiser ride was, to me, "the most unenlightened bunch of Philistines that our city has ever been forced to contend with," and I self-aggrandizingly appointed myself the Carrie Nation of cyclists, stating that "someone needs to speak up and tell them to go the fuck home."
The story received a plethora of comments, all but one or two exhibiting an impressive level of scorn and vitriol. In my eight years as a journalist, I have yet to receive hate mail with this kind of passion. One choice example: "Your writer is a fuckin' prick. HE is the dude who is ruining cycling for everyone! I bet he's the doucher riding in the middle of traffic like he owns the road....GTFO BRO."
"Now you've got a target on your back you miserable piece of shit," read another.
One of the editors at Westword said that the volume and venom of the comments reminded him of reactions to immigration-policy stories. Reading these angry replies was a visceral experience for me, strengthening my resolve to despise cruiser bikes all the more. I ignored pleas for bicycle bipartisanship. Hating cruisers became a part of my identity, and I found myself smugly staring down these motorcycle-size bikes as they rode down the sidewalk (the fucking sidewalk!) of Broadway Avenue. "I don't think I could seriously date anyone who attends the Denver Cruiser Ride," I'd say, repeatedly bringing up the subject at dinner parties, pontificating about how they were ruining the neighborhood.
If you replaced "cruiser bikes" with "Jews" or "blacks," I sounded just like Edward Norton in American History X.
I wasn't alone in this. Throughout the Baker neighborhood a general tension was felt about the Punch Bowl Social, which had become the hive of the weekly Cruiser Ride. With their 900-seat capacity and club-remix DJs, the bowling alley/restaurant was attracting swarms of wealthy meatheads who, up until then, mostly remained in the Lower Downtown neighborhood (LoDo)—the site of Real World Denver and countless disturbing anecdotes involving roofies.
Bumper stickers began popping up around the neighborhood reading "Keep LoDo Off Broadway," referring to the main strip of Baker containing all our favorite bars, boutiques, and bookstores. The Punch Bowl and Cruisers were responsible for an increase in crime, I'd say—without any statistical proof. The neighborhood had been getting steadily more popular over the last decade, causing rent to skyrocket. One by one the musicians, artists, and writers who had made the neighborhood what it was were unable to afford it, and relocated to cheaper and more dangerous neighborhoods (which will, no doubt, experience a similar fate once the locusts drift that way in ten years time). Thankfully, we had an easily identifiable demographic toward which to channel our hate.
If you were a service-industry artist who rented a house in Baker, the changes were an economic nightmare. If you were a business owner on Broadway Avenue, the fiscal boom was worth the cultural bloodletting. Soon other bars were inviting the cruisers to come in for a pit stop, where they would guzzle down expensive cocktails like Ken & Barbie versions of the Hells Angels for an hour or two, before collectively hopping on their whale wheels and riding to the next alcoholic pillage down the road, cheering and belching all the way as "Blurred Lines" thumped from someone's rolling speaker system.
I'd been DJing off and on at a Broadway Avenue bar for the last year or so, and was recently disappointed to learn that the bar owners had offered their hospitality to the Denver Cruiser Ride. The bar's architecture carried a certain Bukowski romanticism, sprinkled with the Tarantino aesthetic of vintage movie posters and rockabilly danger. And now, for two hours on a Wednesday night, it would be home to a crowd who probably consider The Hunger Games a challenging piece of literature.
As an underfunded writer with an ever-increasing rent to pay, last Wednesday I reluctantly agreed to take the Cruiser Ride DJ gig.
I arrived early, setting up my gear before the troops arrived, then went outside to smoke the customary joint in an alley. But once outside I stopped, noticing a Denver Policeman foot-patrolling the area, a phenomenon I'd never witnessed there before. Damn cruisers, bringing cops into our neighborhood, I thought, walking the extra block to another alley to smoke. (Despite what you may think, public consumption of marijuana is even more illegal in Denver than it used to be.)
Killing time while flooding my skull with THC, I read a recent editorial by Ann Coulter on my phone, where the manically divisive conservative argued that America's increased interest in soccer was due to immigrants and socialism and "can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay."
"If more 'Americans' are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy's 1965 immigration law," Coulter writes. "I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time."
The essay was wildly, beautifully, unintentionally ridiculous, perfectly illustrating the transparent xenophobia and racism of those who fight against the inevitable shifts of national demographics. It reminded me of a bit I'd seen days earlier on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in which the British comedian strung together clips of Europeans expressing anti-immigrant sentiments.
"The French want to preserve their way of life and don't want to adopt the culture's, traditions, and customs of these foreigners," one woman grumbled.
"You haven't seen crime yet, but if you let the Bulgarians come here, you will," lectured another man with a stabby finger.
"Me and my wife used to go out on a Saturday night, have a few drinks with the locals," complained an Englishman in one vintage clip. "We can't go down to the locals anymore—they're full-up with noisey foreigners."
My blood went cold and I dropped my smoldering joint on the ground, realizing (perhaps through a THC-induced widening of neurochemistry) that I sounded exactly like these bigots whenever I moaned about cruiser bikes and the Punch Bowl Social.
They drive up crime.
They drink too much and can't be trusted on the road.
They caused the increase in rent (the economic equivalent of "driving down property value" for the renting-classes).
They should go back to LoDo, where they belong.
Walking back into the bar and turning on my DJ equipment, I looked out at the crowd of Denver Cruiser Ride patrons that were beginning to file in. Scanning them with my judgy eyes, I realized that a lot of them probably weren't the wealthy residents I'd originally pegged them to be—they just dressed as though they wanted to be mistaken for entitled brats. This made me think of Arthur Miller's 1946 novel, Focus, where a Gentile man buys glasses that cause him to be mistaken for a Jew, which results in him being ostracized while living in an anti-semitic part of New York City.
The persecution he endures would be reprehensible whether he was Jewish or not, but the fact that a new pair of glasses can inspire all kinds of assumptions against his character highlights how trivial, reactionary, and childishly dangerous a racist or anti-immigrant mentality can be. And how easy it is to get blindly caught up in it.
Suddenly I felt like the diner rednecks in Easy Rider, who sized up Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper with their long-hair and beads, calling them inhuman "troublemakers" who should be "put in a cage," and threatening that they wouldn't make it out of the city-limits. The crewcut diners eventually catch up with the hippies late at night, murdering one and injuring the other two in their sleep.
Thankfully, I'd never encouraged any kind of violence against the cruisers or Punch Bowl patrons, and would gladly condemn anyone who did as a petty asshole. (Admittedly, I have daydreamed of spraying them with my garden hose when they ride past my house.) Still, this epiphany broke my heart. Having grown up in a conservative, working-class town where I used to wear make-up and drop ecstasy before sauntering into the local cowboy bars, I always identified with the hippies in Easy Rider, not the intolerant bigots.
Earlier in the day, I'd been told that the cruiser-crowd had been requesting the DJs play more "party music," instead of the obscure indie and psych-rock they'd been spinning each week. I'd whined about this at the time, citing the indignity of a budding professional music critic like me succumbing to the shallow tastes of these people. But once the bar was full and I began flipping through LPs, I found that our musical ven-diagrams were more intimate than assumed.
There was plenty of blues, punk, and country that I'm sure they wouldn't have cared for, but I also had Jay-Z, Daft Punk, Outkast, and the Gorillaz—party music for everyone. They may not have been familiar with my Lykke Li, Janelle Monae, or Yelle selections, but they danced to them just the same.
The bar was typically empty when I'd DJ on Wednesday nights, but now there was a large crowd having a blast to the music I'd picked out for them (a heartwarming dynamic for even the most bitter of DJs).
Suddenly the divisions between myself and the cruiser scene began to appear a bit silly. They ride a different type of bike than I do, attend different concerts, order fancier drinks and have different social rituals. The classist in me wanted to point out that they have more money, and hence drive cars for transportation and bikes only for fun, but it was difficult to sustain this attitude while looking into the mass of humanity assembled on that dancefloor.
After riding my bike home later that night, I looked up the old story I'd written about the scourge of Denver Cruisers, attempting to recapture the sharp antagonism I'd once held for these modern yuppies. Scrolling through the comments—so venomous, so hungry to despise—I came across one reader with a very practical message of diplomacy for both myself and my detractors:
"I have had two road bikes and now have a cruiser," she wrote. "It has a four speed hub. After reading your article I think we should have a course on writing without the negative comments. There is too much hate and egotistical correspondence on the internet. Perhaps we should just start being nice to each other on the roadways. I have seen bikes blocking the roads on Saturday morning rides. They are courteous and wave me by when the way is clear. Most of the cruiser rides are not recreational users of the road. Some of us haul groceries or ride to work. Please play nice as we are all in the same sandbox."
In the hope of never feeling like Ann Coulter or an English racist again, I will try.
Josiah Hesse is a journalist from Denver, Colorado, covering the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.