Thank God for Small Flavors

As Tuesday's sunrise spread vintage Broncos colors across downtown, it looked like a city transformed.

Which, of course, it is. From the bluff alongside I-25, you now gaze over hundreds of housing units popping up in the Platte Valley, the almost-finished facade of Ocean Journey and the cranes carrying pieces of the Pepsi Center. From here you can't see the giant Pavilions sign reminding us that this is Denver, a city that subsidizes retail projects that demand advertising logos be deemed works of art; a city that considers the disappearance of the last surface parking lot along the Sixteenth Street Mall a mark of progress. And there, to the right of Coors Field, peeking through this riot of construction, is the edge of the Ballpark Neighborhood--where more walls could soon come tumbling down.

The Platte Valley, not this modest neighborhood just northeast of LoDo, seemed to have a lock on favored-location status for Denver's major-league ballpark. But surprising almost everyone, the stadium district instead decided to put Coors Field in the historic heart of the city, where it would share the streets with century-old warehouses and storefronts.

That there was any neighborhood left to cozy up to Coors Field was almost as miraculous as the choice of sites. Larimer Street was once Denver's busiest commercial strip, but by the Sixties it had slid into the city's skid row. Dana Crawford's Larimer Square saved the Victorian buildings in the 1400 block, but from there on up to 20th Street, the street was stripped bare by urban renewal. Beyond that, what was left was a no-man's-land of pawnshops and bars and modest storefronts along upper Larimer, with their hundred years of history and grime. The people who'd kept these businesses going had grit, too: people like Ed Maestas, who owned Johnnie's Market, the oldest grocery downtown; and Manuel Silva, who ran La Casa de Manuel a few doors away.

When the announcement came that the ballpark would be built just a couple of blocks from there, these businesses decided to hang on to what they had a little while longer. Rather than take a fast buck and turn their places into parking lots, they agreed to a moratorium on any demolition in what was soon called the Ballpark Neighborhood. They hoped to make that protection more permanent by having the entire neighborhood declared a historic landmark.

Half a dozen years later, those plans are still in limbo. And without historic protection, Manuel's is history.

Ten days ago Manuel Silva got the letter announcing that his lease at 2010 Larimer Street was being terminated--and that La Casa de Manuel had until December 15 to get out. That's a fast end to forty years of history.

Manuel's father, mother and eight siblings moved to Denver forty years ago, in September 1958, with exactly $500 in life savings and dreams of opening a restaurant. They leased space from William Katchen that had previously been occupied by a Japanese jeweler and started setting up a Mexican restaurant, but $500 didn't go far. Public service and the phone company wanted several hundred dollars in deposits, so the family sat in the storefront with no heat and no phone until a neighbor noticed their plight and helped them get a loan from the St. Cajetan's credit union. They used it to open Monterey House #1.

By the Seventies, Manuel had taken over. He changed the name of the restaurant and filled the modest space with a half-dozen folk-art murals painted by Jose Castillo, a bellman at the Brown Palace. For at least the past twenty years, Manuel has had just a month-to-month lease on the storefront. For most of that time, that was all he needed. But then came baseball.

Baseball brought plenty of good things to this neighborhood, but it also brought problems. Higher rents, for example, on both leases and per-hour parking spots. "Baseball is a bitch," says Manuel, although it sounds like "pitch" when he says it. On game days you have to pay $15 to park in order to get a $4 burrito. "You'd have to be mentally retarded for that," he adds.

For the past three or four years, Manuel knew his deal could be up any day. Still, when that day came, he wasn't ready. "I've been working hard all my life," says Manuel, who's sixty. "I can't retire now."

So he's looking for another space. He owns a building on West 44th that's occupied by another Mexican restaurant, but its owner is 67, so maybe he's ready to retire. Manuel would like to stay in the neighborhood, though, since at least half of his customers--and there are hundreds each day--walk to his place from downtown. There are some empty buildings on the block, and if he moves into one of those, it would be easier to transfer his murals and his assorted Best of Denver awards and his old family recipe for that great, stew-like green chile--as well as all his regulars. Manuel's still considering his options, although he has to consider them quickly. "I'll see what comes out," he says. "If I move, it's going to be hard on my customers.

"You look and see the whole thing changing," he adds. "All the old ones will be going."

Johnnie's is already gone. Ed Maestas, the unofficial mayor of Larimer Street, was diagnosed with leukemia in the fall of '97 and died soon after; the restaurant that was supposed to replace his market never opened. The Elbow Room, which connects with Manuel's, was closed by the city years ago for general bad behavior and never reopened. Plans for that prize corner, and the century-old building that occupies it, have been stalled by the feuding Katchen heirs. They're the ones who are evicting Manuel's.

They're the ones who will tear the buildings down.
Because the neighborhood never got its historic designation, the owners can do whatever they want with that corner. It should make a swell parking lot.

Ironically, the neighborhood's push for historic designation was recently revived--too late to save La Casa de Manuel, but perhaps in time to preserve a few other Victorian storefronts that might otherwise be on the brink of distinction. City planner Dave Becker, who compiled the plan for northeast downtown, is now working with a committee to get landmark status for the area. They should have a draft of guidelines--the absence of such guidelines killed the last attempt a half-dozen years ago--in a month, and then there will be public meetings; with any luck, the proposal will go before the Denver Landmark Commission and City Council next spring. And in the meantime, there have been smaller success stories throughout the neighborhood between 20th and 26th streets and Lawrence and Blake. The Burlington Hotel has been restored to a fine shine. The old Bronco Inn has been bought by the folks who own Pasquini's. And around the corner from the old Elbow Room, Diamond Lil's--yes, the adult bookstore complete with live girls--is about to embark on an authentic, historic renovation. Its business, however, will remain thoroughly modern.

In a city intent on transforming itself, you have to thank God for small favors--the homegrown success stories that give a town its flavor.

"There's no comparison between Casa de Manuel and Wolfgang Puck," says Kathleen Brooker, the director of Historic Denver who's serving on the committee pushing the Ballpark Neighborhood's historic designation. "I just want to get the district done," she says. "It can always be redone, but it can never be replaced."

And the rest is history.
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