MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

IN WHEAT RIDGE, THE TIME IS ALWAYS RIGHT FOR FIGHTING IN THE STREET.

The bloodletting is delayed until after a short ceremony honoring members of Wheat Ridge High School's state champion lacrosse team. The people in the audience at the Wheat Ridge City Council chambers listen patiently as the town's young Farmers are honored with a proclamation. Then they get ready to rumble. The opening salvo, the townspeople know from experience, won't come until the council opens a discussion on what to do with West 38th Avenue, the subject of the nastiest street fight in town.

Earlier, residents filed into council chambers with the charged air of fans at a World Wrestling Federation match. They've come to watch--and, to some extent, participate in--a public brawl over whether to expand a one-mile stretch of West 38th Avenue to three lanes and 36 feet or four lanes and 44 feet. The majority of them are swathed in black and yellow, team colors of the "Thirty-Sixers," as those who favor a narrower street have come to be known. Small black-and-yellow-striped ribbons are pinned on jackets and purses. The larger ribbons serve as pompons, to be flapped vigorously in the air as a show of support or derision, whichever the occasion warrants.

The Thirty-Sixers' enemies, the four-lane-loving Forty-Fours, wear no readily discernible uniform, but there is a sameness to their membership nonetheless. Most appear to be men in their sixties wearing jackets and ties.

The bout begins as crowd favorite and Thirty-Sixer Vance Edwards--a 24-year-old second-term councilman who still lives at home with his mother--is forced to defend himself against a handful of his colleagues who have threatened him with public censure for his actions regarding 38th Avenue.

"What a bunch of crybabies!" Edwards snaps, staring down his council opponents. "You're really pathetic. You want to censure me? I'll give you something to censure me for. I find you morally bankrupt, kind of weasely and without spines."

Edwards's tag-team partners, councilwomen Claudia Worth and Jean Fields, then join in the action. "I'd like to make a friendly amendment to have my name added to the censure," says the tough-talking Worth, who in the late Eighties was placed under police protection when handgun legislation she introduced led to threats from angry local gun owners. "In this case, I'd consider it a badge of honor."

"This is grossly unfair," Fields chimes in. "I have rights. I want to be censured, too."

"That's enough grandstanding for one night," growls Councilman Don Eafanti, who demands that the council hurry up and vote on whether to censure the trio. The vote is even-Steven, 4-4, but Mayor Dan Wilde casts the tiebreaker, resulting in an official censure, an action that is to be duly noted in the local Wheat Ridge Jefferson Sentinel. Score one for the Forty-Fours.

The crowd goes wild. It hoots. It boos. Ribbons flap furiously. The fight then spills over into the public-comment portion of the meeting, as scores of outraged citizens vent their spleens.

One man suggests that, if built to 44 feet, West 38th Avenue should be known by the acronym CUSPIDOR, which he says would stand for "Cronyism," Untrustworthy," "Stupidity" and several other choice words that he spits out.

Resident Karen Thiessen launches a counterattack at those who voted to censure Edwards. "At least he has the guts to do what's right," she scolds. So adamant is she about having her say that Thiessen refuses to yield the floor at the end of her designated three-minute speech. Attempting to shut her up, Wilde then calls for a recess and walks away. But he's only partially successful. Thiessen's words bounce off his retreating back as he leaves the dais. "Don't you want me to be safe, Mr. Mayor?" she shouts, her voice booming over the microphone.

Mayor Wilde won't bring the gavel down until 2:30 a.m., seven and a half hours after the meeting was called to order. But the meeting's end marks only a respite in the fight. The battle will continue at the next council gathering and probably at the one after that. For the debate over widening one short portion of West 38th Avenue already has endured at least a dozen years. It is no longer a question of how wide, and how many lanes, the street should be--if that was ever the real issue.

"It has become," says Councilwoman Worth, "a matter of a power play."

The land that is now Wheat Ridge was settled in 1859 by pie-in-the-sky pioneers who came hoping to strike it rich in the gold and silver fields but eventually settled for a more sedate agrarian life. The days when Wheat Ridge was known for its waving fields of celery are long gone, but it has retained some of that early bucolic feel, particularly in comparison to other Denver suburbs. An occasional horse and barn can be found among the Fifties-style ranch homes, and the annual Carnation Festival and Applewood Day still draw big crowds.

Many residents say they were drawn to the area by the laid-back, rural atmosphere, and they resent any attempt at urbanization and growth for the sake of growth. The city's population has remained on the short side of 30,000, within a few hundred of its size when it incorporated.

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