DENVER -- There were balloons and free cookies, stickers and speeches on Tuesday to mark the 30th birthday of a pedestrian mall that runs through the heart of this city's downtown. The mayor read a proclamation, office workers hustled past with late-morning lattes and a few homeless men shadowboxed with the celebratory red-and-white balloons.
So goes life along Denver's mile-long 16th Street Mall.
For all its vitality and new development downtown, Denver is still a city in search of an icon. It has no Golden Gate Bridge, no French Quarter, no Empire State Building. The snow-capped Rockies float like a mirage off to the west, far beyond the city limits. What Denver has, instead, is the mall.
Unlike attempts by other cities to revive their downtowns by closing major streets to traffic, Denver scored a major success and created a new public square with its 16th Street Mall. It draws map-carrying tourists, badge-wearing conventioneers and white-collar workers, all weaving through a sprawling circus of buskers and petitioners, transients, sunglass sellers and street artists. Each year, about 16 million people ride the free shuttle buses that carry people along it.
"This is our iconic image," the mayor, Michael B. Hancock, said on Tuesday morning as he slipped on an "I ♥ 16th Street Mall" T-shirt. "It's the heart and soul of our downtown. This really is our identity."
But Denver has a mixed relationship with its downtown emblem and has struggled with the fact that a civic space built to draw all kinds of people will draw, well, all kinds of people.
In the daytime, it is nearly impossible to walk its length without being asked to sign a petition supporting marijuana legalization, donate a few dollars to help starving children, help someone buy a cup of coffee, register to vote, help clean energy, assist Planned Parenthood. Occupy Wall Street protesters converged here, as did janitors upset with contract negotiations. A Federal Reserve branch near Curtis Street is a popular target.
"There's always crazy stuff," said Kendra Jackson, 24, who watches it all stream past from the window of her cupcake kiosk.
At night, though, the streets can feel eerie and empty, as if the bustling daytime party has departed for restaurants and cafes in areas like Larimer Square or the newly renovated loft neighborhoods along the South Platte River. Fights break out, and people are sometimes stabbed or shot. In May, the City Council banned camping along the mall to scatter the homeless people who sleep there.
Dale Miller, who was selling newspapers focused on the homeless community, said the crackdown had succeeded in dispersing people without solving the underlying problem of homelessness. Many people moved to the river or now bounce from alleyway to alleyway at night instead, he said.
"That's just how it is now," he said.
In 2004, the Downtown Denver Partnership, a local business organization, sought to address the safety concerns by hiring five yellow-shirted "safety ambassadors" to walk the mall, answer questions or concerns from residents and tourists and report any concerns to the police. They are still out walking the beat.
"I've seen all kinds of things," said Dave Oldfield, 60, who said he comes to the mall two or three times a week -- mostly, he said, to people watch. "I've seen topless women, I've seen a guy jump out of a building. It's not boring."
But for Jimmy Hayde, 57, it finally got to be too much. Mr. Hayde, whose family is from Hell's Kitchen in New York City, spent 20 years living downtown and working as a bartender, and he said he once loved the mall's energy and unvarnished humanity.
But Mr. Hayde said that as a new baseball stadium arrived in 1995 and other neighborhoods bloomed, the 16th Street Mall lost its luster. In March, he moved out, writing a Dear John letter that was published in The Denver Post.
"I can't keep making excuses about how you're the loveliest and liveliest part of Denver," he wrote. "You're not. I'm ashamed of you. Your new friends see you as part of an exciting downtown. Your old friends know better."
In the carpeted hush of the Christian Science Reading Room, the librarian, Ron Stotler, said he embraced the diversity of the mall. Some days, rich businessmen come in. Other days, homeless men stop in for a glass of water and a warm spot to read. Just the day before, he said, he had a visit from two topless women who were advocating a marijuana-legalization ballot measure.
That was just life on the mall, he said. "It's a melting pot."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.