By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Buck had no problem with the new soil he got this spring, or the new sod they laid on top of it--not at first, anyway. Then he noticed all his prize earthworms were gone and demanded new ones. Asarco agreed and is looking into replacement worms for Buck's lawn. They'll never get their hands on his vegetable garden, though.
"No, they can't have that soil, because they absolutely can't replace it," Buck says. "They wrote me a letter and said it was highly contaminated. And I said no, it isn't. I'm 78 years old, I have gardened here all the days of my life, and I have hauled so much damn horse manure I am not about to give it up now."
Buck is convinced arsenic, cadmium and lead are no match for a half-century of horse manure--and he may have a point.
"Absolutely," agrees Nancy Strauss, who is tracking the medical effects of the Globe plant's pollution for the state health department. "People in Globeville are very dedicated gardeners, and when they really mix and turn and compost their soil, we're not seeing the elevated levels of contamination." Buck Oletski's soil, she says, was statistically safe the last time it was tested--"although he wanted more worms," she adds.
Although Strauss's job is to monitor the general health of the neighborhood--measuring heavy-metal levels in residents' blood and urine, for instance--her conversations with the older residents of Globeville have ranged far from medical topics.
"I'd never done anything but drive through the place before," she says. "I didn't realize. I love Globeville. I feel real lucky to work there. The people have a sense of community. They have concerns, but they don't want to leave. There aren't many places in the urban sprawl like Globeville.
"Places," she adds, "where you talk to people, and things are unearthed, if you know what I mean. And people like Mr. Oletski."
Globeville was founded in 1885. Its first residents were workers at the Holden smelter, built in 1886 by a group of local businessmen and later sold and renamed the Globe smelter when it became obvious the people who worked there would be immigrants from all over the globe. The majority of Globeville's residents, though, came from Poland and Slovenia, and the neighborhood is still flavored by those countries.
Incorporated as a city in 1891, Globeville has been downsizing ever since. In 1903, it was annexed to Denver. In the Fifties, I-25 chopped off its western half. In 1963, I-70 cut a swathe through its middle. Motorists who drive that interstate today see little more of the neighborhood than the top half of St. Joseph's Polish Church, long the religious backbone of the community. The two smelter stacks that once loomed over Globeville are gone, as are the trolley tracks, almost all of the schools and many of the meat-packing plants that used to line the northeast edge of town. The Asarco Globe Plant itself suspended production of cadmium metal in 1991 and cadmium oxide and powder in 1993; today it is no longer a smelter and employs only thirty people. The downtown Denver skyline presses in on the neighborhood from the south; the National Western Stock Show buildings from the southeast. And the sound from both highways reverberates through Globeville like the wash of the ocean.
But in Oletski Valley--less politely known as Polack Valley--there are also the sounds of chickens, pigeons and horses. And from certain angles, the Oletski family houses seem as rural as any tiny enclave on the Nebraska plains.
"We're corralled," Buck Oletski says, from his accustomed place in the backyard. "Them railroad tracks have always been there--the plants and the smelter. At one time, we burned coal instead of gas. Other than that, it looks pretty much the same."
Buck's father, the son of Polish immigrants, came to Denver in the early part of this century to work as a cabinetmaker. His wife, who also grew up in a Polish family, set about producing seven children and feeding them from the garden and the barnyard of the small house in the South Platte river bottom that Buck refers to as Down Below.
"Down Below, they had floods, and it was awful good for the soil," he says. "On June 16, 1965, believe it or not, this here driveway was full of furniture and three quarters of Globeville was under water. The Polish priest even came up here to stay at my place, giving me orders when to turn the TV on and when to turn it off. I wasn't sorry to see him go."
This is as close as Buck Oletski gets to blasphemy: The Oletskis have always been devout Catholics, and Buck himself has attended Mass every day since he retired. "But immigrants are like that," he says. "Hell, yes, I'm an immigrant. I come two blocks from where I was born, didn't I?"
He moved those two blocks in 1939, when he was 22. Until then, he lived in that little house Down Below, the second oldest of four brothers and two sisters.
"Boy, did we work," Buck remembers. "In them days, we didn't have immigrants doing the farm work for us. We had our own cow, chickens, pigeons, geese and well water, and we had to learn on our own and from our folks. There wasn't none of that fancy fertilizer. But you could go out, not even as far as Stapleton, and get all the jackrabbits and quail you wanted."