You can learn about a city’s history through books and newspapers. Or you can clear off a giant place on your table and unfold some maps. One of the best, and most overlooked, ways to learn about the direction a city has taken over the years is by studying it from north to south, east to west.
No one knows this better than Wesley Brown, otherwise known as “the map guy.”
Brown owns about 1,000 original maps in his Park Hill home. He can trace the city’s changes from an 1882 aerial map of what is now downtown dotted with little houses and plenty of empty space surrounding them to a 2019 map by local artist Kenny Be that shows the downtown area crammed with everything from the Denver Art Museum to Elitch’s to the giant blue bear peering into the Convention Center window—not an empty spot to be found.
The Denverite recently profiled Brown, who noted that in the early days, itinerant artists would travel from city to city offering their services. “Some businesses paid extra to have their building featured in extra-detailed insets around the map’s perimeter,” notes the Denverite.
The map maker would “walk every single block to sketch every single building in the city.” Those sketches were later placed onto the street grid and altered to have a “top-down perspective.”
The Denverite notes that the city’s first structures were built around the confluence between Cherry Creek and the South Platte. Brown’s map from 1874 shows a cluster of houses in this area, all overlooked by a hill labeled, simply, “CEMETERY”—an area that later became Cheesman Park.
An 1889 map depicts an industrial area with prominent dark smoke coming out of chimneys. “What’s going on here,” says Brown, “is that they’re trying to make this city look very prosperous.”
How times change. While smokestacks wouldn’t appeal now, maps continue to reflect the shifting values of our city. Consider Brown’s 2017 “Denver Bike Map”—no smoke required.