Boot Hell

In northwest Denver, you wake up, rub the sleep from your eyes and straggle toward Common Grounds at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. There you wave to a friend, breathe in the aroma of espresso and order a muffin or scone and a large coffee. You grab a table, scan the paper, walk around the block, head to work and let the caffeine soak in.

It's a ritual, this morning trip to the neighborhood shopping strip. And if you come here for coffee early in your day, chances are you'll be back in the afternoon, picking up laundry, enjoying an ice cream cone, buying a six-pack, having dinner, browsing through a bookstore, renting a video, sipping a mocha.

You might stay longer than the two-hour street-parking limits allow. You might pull into a loading zone. You might even grab a spot in the lot across from Common Grounds that says "reserved." Most of the time, that's not a problem. Most merchants understand that customers park in one place, meander about and spread cash as they do. It's relaxed here. Friendly. People talk to each other and work out their problems. This is Highland, not a strip mall. This is a neighborhood.

Isn't it?

It was a Wednesday around 11 a.m., and Mike Drumm needed his morning fix: a double-shot, half-decaf latte. So he climbed inside his '96 Saturn and drove the ten blocks from his home to Common Grounds. He pulled into Highland Plaza, located directly across the street from the coffeehouse and into a spot that was reserved for the 32nd Avenue Laundry. Drumm didn't think much about that. Most of the businesses in the plaza had just opened for the day, and besides, there was always extra parking in the lot, especially where the health-food store used to be. Just to be sure, he looked around. Sure enough, there were plenty of empty spots.

"I'm not wedging in here and taking the last space," he thought. "I'm just going to run over there, get my latte, get in my car and drive away."

So he ran across the street, got his latte and returned to his Saturn. And there it was: a bright yellow clamp on his tire. The infamous Denver boot.

"Fifty bucks cash," the boot man said. "There's a bank two blocks away."
"Fifty bucks cash! I was only there for five minutes!"
"Sorry," the boot man said. "Just doing my job. Fifty bucks cash."

Realtors call it the next Washington Park, one of the hottest housing markets in the city. But to those who live and work in Highland, it's as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

Newcomers are arriving daily; they're fixing their bungalows, sinking roots and settling down. And they're bringing money with them. For the most part, that's been a good thing, merchants say. Rents have risen and some shops have closed, but others have taken their place. And despite the turnover, 32nd Avenue has kept the comfortable, funky atmosphere that the independent merchants there worked so hard to develop.

Still, Rod Wagner worries. He's owned the Galeria Mexicana folk-art shop for six years. In that time, he's seen the area change from a place where drunks slept in the alley to a place where moms roll babies down the sidewalk.

What happened to Drumm and dozens of others during the past few weeks is wrong, he says. If all newcomers adopt the attitude of the Highland Plaza boot man, if they only see Highland as a cash cow--that's fifty bucks cash--they'll kill the spirit that makes the neighborhood what it is.

"I don't think these people understand how a village works," Wagner says. "This is the first time someone has come in here and bought a place and drawn a line in the sand. This is not lower Manhattan, where you can sell a parking space for $35,000. Everyone feeds off everyone else. People come here to buy a gift, go across the street to buy flowers, then meet their girlfriend at the restaurant for dinner. That's how this area works. You can't be an island. That might work for businesses in Aurora and Highlands Ranch, but it won't work here. This is a neighborhood."

And neighbors don't boot each other, says Sandra DeCarolis-Smith, who owns the Earth Spirit boutique that stands across the street from Highland Plaza. She's worked hard to foster a sense of community. Collaring her customers, illegally parked or not, will destroy that.

"I'm more sad than angry," she says. "I'm more concerned about the attitude. This is just not friendly. It's anti-community. I've stood here and heard people getting mad and screaming. This boot thing is going to drive people away. It's going to hurt everyone."

But the saddest thing about it, DeCarolis-Smith adds, is that it's unnecessary. Unlike other shopping districts--even South Pearl and South Gaylord streets--32nd Avenue doesn't become gridlocked with traffic.

"It's not impossible to park here," she says. "If you go a half-block on Lowell, you'll find some. There's no reason for this."

"This is really a selfish thing to do," Wagner agrees. "I don't stand on the curb with my stopwatch to see if someone's two-hour parking limit has passed. They're making a mistake."

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