Harkness Heights O! My Harkness Heights
—by Mollie O’brien
I am a proud resident of the Harkness Heights neighborhood. The grandeur of its name belies its size. It’s a small neighborhood by Denver standards (its boundaries are 44th to 41st and Lowell to Federal) and lots of people make fun of its name and its allusions to greatness. But its a comfy area and we all pretty much know each other thanks to a really good neighborhood association which exists mostly to raise money for a big picnic each summer, luminarias on the winter solstice, and various Denver charities.
In the early 80s my future husband and I lived for 3 years in Wash Park in a falling down apartment across the street from the Candlelight Tavern. About the best thing about the place (other than the fact that every time a new leak turned up in the ceiling the landlords lowered the rent $25/month) was that the famous Benny cooked at the Candlelight. This was in his early culinary days and you could get a T-bone dinner complete with his incredible refritos, chilies, and tortillas for $5. When our apartment finally got to the point of being too dangerous to live in we realized it was time to move. Culture shock abounded when we realized there was no way we could afford to live in a normal building anywhere nearby so we started looking beyond the expensive yuppie boundaries that contained Wash Park.
One day we decided to drive past Federal on Speer just to see what was up there. Friends told us it was full of gangs and street crime but we went anyway and immediately found a wonderful 2 bedroom apartment with a great backyard and off street parking all for $375/month. It was $100 more a month than we’d been paying but just outside our front door was the looming sight of Mr. Twister and all that Elitch Gardens had to offer.Our Wash Park friends while reluctant to see us they go encouraged us to visit them when we “were in town.” And so we were off to the wilds of Northwest Denver.
We moved the end of April to 35th and Utica and were soon delighted to find that we were invited to a “neighbor night” at Elitch’s of which we naturally took full advantage. (I’m sure that was a ploy of Elitch’s – the first night the park was open to the public the noise from the park didn’t die down until well after 1am.) That spring brought us knowledge of other North Denver earthly delights such as the vintage Dolly Madison shop at 38th and Tennyson with their waitresses right out of central casting, all the cool old taverns (the Music Bar, the old Billy’s Inn, Rosa Mia’s and Luigi’s on 35th), and the dear little parks like the one we called Wolfe Street Park because there never seemed to be any kind of sign identifying it otherwise.
In 1986 when we became parents for the first time we decided it was time to move to a house. Things were still relatively cheap up here but, we were musicians and not earning a whole hell of a lot annually and so we ended up buying a nice little place on “the other side of Federal” where we lived until another adorable little baby girl came along and we needed yet a bigger house. This time we moved into our current bungalow on Irving in Harkness Heights.
The first week we were in our house at least 3 neighbors came by with cookies and cakes, to say hello, to welcome us to the neighborhood and, I’m sure, to size us up. This latter bit can be attributed to the fact that one of the people who lived in the house before us was, shall we say, considered a bit of a neighborhood problem? Within a month’s time we had more babysitters available than we’d ever known across Federal and there were 2 babysitting coops to join. If we ever needed help moving a piano, fridge or sofa all we had to do was go down the alley a bit to see who was working outside that Saturday and we had a ready and smiling moving crew at our disposal. It was all pretty sweet.
Since then our neck of the woods has become trendy – maybe too trendy for some. We love, though, having a really good burger joint nearby (the reinvented Billy’s Inn), Sunflower Market, banks that know us, oldtimers who still bring muffins and treats to new neighbors, the tall kid on the bike with all the gizmos who curses loudly to himself as he rides by, the new stop sign (well, not that new really) at 41st and Irving, Taza De Cafe, all the people who are out and about on a warm weekend day, the blizzard potlucks and our impromptu year round traveling cocktail parties. We even notice some smiles on the faces of the Safeway checkers in their new digs and we begrudgingly acknowledge and have eventually accepted the huge new chateaus just north of our border.
Many years ago, before our kids were of school age, a friend of mine in the music business in Nashville told me that if I moved there I’d probably be really successful. I could do lots of session work, maybe even get discovered and become famous. There were many reasons why I chose not to do that and sometimes I wonder what would have become of me if I had packed the family up and moved there. As it was, I’ve been lucky enough to play all over the world and have done plenty of gigs that lots of people can only dream of. I’m always so happy to come back home to 42nd and Irving and I can’t imagine moving now.
After all, I get to play with my husband at our very own neighborhood festival, the wonderful Sunnyside Music Festival; there are people who come up to me in the grocery store and say hi because they know I’m a singer; the little kids in Harkness Heights know me because I’m the voice of the Stegosaurus in the kids’ TV show The Big Green Rabbit; and friends and neighbors ask me to sing for their parents’ memorials and, now, their kids weddings. I’m really famous, right here in Harkness Heights, and that’s all that matters to me.
B50 Note: Ruth Wiberg, in her book Rediscovering Northwest Denver (originally published in 1976 and available from Amazon), says that Harkness Heights “was probably named for Charles Harkness, an early owner, who is listed in the city directory of 1874 as a candle manufacturer.” The neighborhood is also the home of the Denver Victorian Playhouse, which was built in 1911 as the Bungalow Theater (with a 100 seat theater in the basement). As Ruth Wiberg notes, it “is one of the few theaters in the world to have presented everything Shakespeare wrote.” Mollie O’brien is a singer who has lived in Harkness Heights with her husband, Rich Moore, for over 20 years. More information on her music is available on her website, mollieobrien.com.