Denver's best pandemic culture of 2020, from markets to drive-ins

Against all odds, 2020 became the year we fell madly, deeply in love with Denver.

Once stay-at-home orders relaxed in the spring, our cabin fever led us to seek out safe, in-person opportunities to counteract endless hours of Zoom meetings and awkward virtual versions of our favorite events. The creativity we found was inspiring, and it often popped up when we least expected it.

While taking walks on Denver’s new pandemic shared streets, we encountered surprise live music and roving murals on billboard trucks. We saw live theater performed on a golf course, with viewers safely bearing witness from golf carts. While picnicking in Denver parks, we witnessed happy moments like this year’s Sunnyside Music Festival which, in lieu of filling a park with thousands of concert-goers, brought music to the streets by putting bands on pedicabs that roamed the neighborhood.

From incredible outdoor dining set-ups to entire festivals dedicated to animations projected onto buildings, we found a surprising abundance of cultural experiences that didn’t just begrudgingly become pandemic-friendly; they embraced this year’s limitations to create unforgettable moments.

Here are a few of the experiences that really stuck with us this year, reminding us that, even when times get tough, the creativity of Denver artists, business owners and cultural institutions make this city an incredibly rich and vibrant place to live — even during a year as difficult as this one.








When street art became a lifeline

In the deepest, darkest parts of the pandemic — those scary months when we were still adjusting to our newfound solitude and the constant, daily barrage of bad news — we didn’t see much of Denver unless it existed between home and the grocery store. But little by little, our neighborhoods began to change.

It started with the boarded-up windows of East Colfax and South Broadway, which soon turned into colorful canvases with reassuring messages of community and stick-togetherness. Then suddenly, everywhere we looked, there was hope — thanks in large part to Denver’s Koko Bayer, who created the city’s most iconic piece of pandemic art. The colorful hearts emblazoned with “hope” were wheat-pasted on walls and shuttered storefronts across Denver.

Then came Austin Zucchini-Fowler‘s bright, pointillist-inspired murals of first responders, turning health care workers, line cooks, veterinarians and servers into literal angels watching over a beleaguered city. This new crop of murals felt so comforting because they weren’t hollow platitudes telling us to hang in there, baby; they found beauty in the moment by acknowledging the struggle that got us there.

And then, as our lockdown spring gave way to a summer of protest, new murals suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, actual life and death splashed on walls across the city. During the protests, the Black Love Mural Project paid artists to create temporary murals in Civic Center park, which showcased artists of color while also offering sanctioned canvases to prevent damage to the park’s sculptures. The most powerful pieces of the summer came from the #SprayTheirName campaign, which immortalized Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and George McClain with the dynamic portraiture that Denver artist Detour is known for.

Particularly when portraying local people of color killed by law enforcement, #SprayTheirName murals often acted as public, open-air mourning spaces where people paused to light candles and grieve communally at a time when there weren’t many ways to do so. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, a memorial mural popped up in downtown Denver the very next day.

By the time the Crush Walls festival came around in September, we were all pretty adjusted to the new realities of our pandemic lives. The annual outdoor street art festival felt serendipitously designed for the pandemic, bringing 50 new murals to the city and allowing visitors to watch the creation of public art from a safe distance. Unfortunately, a truly stellar year of Crush Walls art was overshadowed by the early December news that the River North Art District parted ways with Crush Walls after sexual assault allegations against its founder, Robin Munro, surfaced on social media. (Munro has since denied the allegations.)

As if more than 100 new murals in a few months wasn’t enough, we also got a stunner of a new public art piece from iconic Colorado artist Clark Richert. Situated just off of Broadway at the edge of Uptown, the giant, LED-lit polyhedron called Quadrivium is a stunning and trippy piece sculpture created with the intention to “light up and inspire viewers” and bring people together, Richert said.

The rebirth of the drive-in

From occulty Denver band Itchy-O’s “sound bath” concerts to pop-ups, film festivals and a renewed enthusiasm for vintage movie drive-ins, this was the year of being entertained from the safety of our vehicles.

As it turns out, the drive-in experience is a lot more fun than when we were kids stuffed into the back of our parents’ station wagons with a stash of gas-station candy. In fact, it’s kind of the best.

You’re in the comfort of your own car (hello, mid-movie seat-warmers) with your favorite snacks and beverages, and if you wanna make chit chat during the previews, you won’t get sternly shushed from the guy behind you. You are in your own little bubble — of the world but not in the world. Safe. Or as safe as one can be in a year like 2020.

That safety proved valuable for Film on the Rocks, last summer’s Red Rocks drive-in movie series from Denver Film, which even hosted part of its annual Denver Film Fest in the same format. It was a hit.

“We sold out our first 12 shows within days of being announced and the rest of the season met that anticipation with nearly every one of our 32 shows at capacity,” said Keith Garcia, artistic director for the Sie FilmCenter. “I believe people really wanted to see movies with an audience again, even if that audience was 6 feet away and wrapped in the warm protection of a car.”

If you loved Film on the Rocks as much as we did, good news: Denver Film hopes to expand the series in 2021 and perhaps even beyond.

“We’re hoping to kick the Film on the Rocks drive-in back up again this summer as we take baby steps to some normalcy with multiple vaccines rolled out, so that we can get even more used to the idea of watching our favorites movies, safely, together again,” Garcia said.

As we think back to that cool summer night snacking on Il Porcellino Salumi as the sun set over Red Rocks, Champagne bubbles dancing on our tongues, quoting “Robocop” line by line with impunity, we can only hope that this slice of pandemic life sticks around.

Looking at lights became the thing to do

This year’s hottest ticket wasn’t an EDM rager at Red Rocks or a multi-day festival — or even an event where much of anything happened at all. This year, the hardest ticket to snag was for local holiday light displays.

From its Halloween event Glow at the Gardens to its Christmas-themed version, Blossoms of Light, the Denver Botanic Gardens‘ light displays quickly became some of the year’s most sought-after tickets, as evidenced by all the desperate light-seekers begging for tickets on Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace. Even the Botanic Gardens was caught off guard by people’s fervent desire to walk around at night and look at twinkling lights.

“Glow at the Gardens sold out during member presale, which has never happened before,” said Erin Bird, communications manager for the gardens. “Due to greatly reduced capacity (for COVID safety), we extended the Blossoms of Light run by nearly two weeks. It is currently sold out until Jan. 5 and runs through Jan. 16.”

This year is the 30th anniversary of Zoo Lights, Denver Zoo‘s annual holiday light display, and even with all the COVID-19 rules and precautions, demand for tickets was “as high as it’s ever been,” said Carlie McGuire, public relations coordinator for the zoo. “We opened Zoo Lights early and extended it, but we saw a huge demand, selling out most dates before we even opened to the public on Dec. 4.”

This Christmas, as so many of us hunkered down to spend the holiday season alone, we found solace — and a little extra cheer — in the heavily decorated parts of town where we could take a socially distanced stroll. Union Station unveiled Merry & Bright Lights, an outdoor light show that projects animations by local artists onto the exterior of the station, and Larimer Square became a festive wonderland with outdoor bars, fire pits, a Christmas tree lot and holiday selfie backdrops.

The Mile High Tree, a 110-foot-tall LED Christmas tree with a trippy programmed light and music show, returned this year with a new spot on the 16th Street Mall, offering families more free and socially distanced fun. Even the Parade of Lights, which was canceled this year, got in on the festiveness by placing ornate, brightly lit parade floats at locations throughout downtown.

Denver’s new favorite thing: open-air markets

Once a leisurely way to pick up groceries on a sleepy weekend morning, during the pandemic, farmers markets became so much more, offering a tiny sliver of normality and socialization at a time when both were in short supply. Yes, there were lines to get in, occasional reservation systems and ample rules that made markets a little less celebratory, but it hardly mattered — the opportunity to get out of the house, breathe in the fresh air and support local businesses made it all worth it.

With indoor events largely off the table, Denver saw a ton of new pop-up markets this year. On Friday nights during the summer, we loved perusing the vendors at Sloan’s Lake Farm and Flea, where local farms hawked produce among vendors selling home goods, apparel and art, and an outdoor cocktail bar gave us an opportunity to stick around awhile.

Made up largely of vendors pivoting to their side hustle after losing jobs due to the pandemic recession, the new Night Market Denver regularly popped up at struggling local businesses, offering visitors a chance to buy local goods, snack on creative street food and throw their favorite bars and restaurants a few bucks.

During the holidays we saw even more new markets, with Dairy Block hosting the Apres Ski Holiday Market on weekends and the new Cherry Creek Holiday Market at Fillmore Plaza utilizing shipping containers to give vendors a socially distanced way to sell gifts and treats. Even Miracle, the annual pop-up Christmas bars that were nixed by Level Red COVID-19 restrictions this year, got in on the action by slinging cheerful cocktails from a vintage Airstream. The Denver Christkindl Market got in on the action by moving to a larger outdoor space at Civic Center park, where crowds waited in lines up to three hours long just for a taste of classic Denver Christmas cheer.

While many of these markets were created with pandemic restrictions in mind, we expect a few of these outdoor shopping experiences to stick around long after the pandemic ends.

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