Neighborhood Botch

Squabbles over money plague one of Denver's Oldest neighborhoods.

It's a far cry from the warm fuzzies everyone talked about in the early Nineties. Some feel the problems stem from a combination of the coalition's belligerence and the city's growing lack of interest in Cole. When asked whether this administration cares less about Cole than Pena's troops did, CDA's housing manager, Ernest Hughes, hedges. "The environment is different, the time is different," he says. "Because of Pena's focus on Cole, now there can be less focus, or a different focus. It's probably a little harder to work in Cole because the coalition is more adversarial now." And the neighborhood, despite some visible improvements, continues as a high-crime area where most residents struggle merely to survive while their "leaders" squabble over government funds.

The Cole Coalition's troubles didn't end with Americorps. In 1994 it received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to plan a YouthBuild program that takes 24 young people between the ages of 16 and 24, gets them through high school or its equivalent and trains them in the construction trade. The goal was to have four homes in the neighborhood renovated by the end of the program. In 1995 the Coalition received more than $800,000 to implement it.

A year later the program is barely off the ground. (The coalition had spent $153,000 of its funds as of the end of October.) A companion program in Aurora that received funding at the same time is doing well, by all accounts. Because of the disparity in the two programs' productivity, the federal government is auditing the Cole-based YouthBuild.

"Rocky Mountain Mutual Housing in Aurora has been very successful," says Guadalupe Herrera, director of the regional Housing and Urban Development office. "They've really run with that. They've hired 24 young people, and they've been very successful in coming together with the Aurora schools to get them their GED training."

And the Cole version? "What's the holdup?" asks Herrera. "What they started out to do was an awesome undertaking. I'm sorry they haven't been able to administer it correctly."

As with so many tussles about money, control is the issue. Officials of Denver Area Youth Services, a citywide nonprofit organization, say applying for the HUD grant was their idea, and that they approached the Cole Coalition because they wanted to work with a nonprofit within the neighborhood. But DAYS executive director Tony Perea says he allowed the coalition to control the money, and the coalition soon sent Perea a letter saying his services were no longer needed.

"We couldn't muster any real enthusiasm in bringing our interests together," says Perea, who adds that the coalition pretty much disregarded his group's opinion on every decision about how to run the program.

Semien and the coalition's general counsel, Frank Vigil, deny this is the case. They're reluctant to admit to any delays at all. Any problems, they say, were due to bickering with DAYS.

Semien insists that YouthBuild--a grant several years in the making--is what will allow the coalition to transcend politics and continue its efforts to help the neighborhood. But that may be merely bravado. Many people in Cole don't even know the coalition still exists, largely because the group rarely holds public meetings these days.

Still, while the Cole Coalition licks its wounds and tries to repair its image, other organizations are filling the void. Local activist Bert Weston recently formed yet another umbrella organization, the Cole Neighborhood Consortium, whose goals she describes as "inclusive" and "collaborative." Yet she can't even say whether members of the Cole Coalition, the most visible organization in the community, were even contacted about joining. "I don't think this decision was driven by any motivation for or against the coalition," she says.

Cole's factions make it practically unique, says the CDA's Hughes. "Denver's communities of color are so small that generally you have one main organization meeting the needs of the community," he says. "But a large part of one has to die before another takes its place."

And the Cole Neighborhood Consortium appears to be gaining ground. It managed to acquire nearly half of the $800,000 the city withheld from Semien and the coalition.

While this dispute rages, life in Cole slogs along. Its days as a highly publicized social laboratory for civic improvement may be winding down. "Nobody cares about the Cole neighborhood anymore," says the city official who asked not to be identified. "So they let the whole thing go to hell in a handbasket. Nobody was watching, and it was allowed to escalate. It appears we care about Cole, but nobody really cares about the neighborhood."

Except for some of the people who live there. At night things can get a little out of control. Longtime resident Henry Garcia protects his alley trash runs with a shotgun, and Sam Gomez has had to duck for cover in his own kitchen while gangbangers--who are, thankfully, poor marksmen, he points out--have turned his block into a war zone. Everyone talks about gang intimidation, broken car windows and slashed tires.

Cole's underworld culture seems to live in the wide alleyways, which alternately function as either scenes of loud late-night parties or highly organized routes by which gangs ply their drug trade and evade the cops.

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