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Shape Up Or Ship Out

Fighting neighborhood crime is just the tip of the iceberg for Capitol Hill's Unsinkables.

Friday, May 3, 7:15 p.m.,
13th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street

Six men and six women are gathered across the street from a coffee shop, listening to Denver police officer Stacey Goss lay the ground rules for the night. "If I have to take my gun out, get behind me," she tells the group of civilians. Should she get into an exchange of gunfire, she wants the criminal to aim at her, not them. "If you decide to leave early, tell the rest so they don't look around and wonder why someone's missing."

Everyone in the group is eager to get going. Each spring for the past decade, the Unsinkables community organization has hit the streets in an effort to take back their neighborhood from the drug dealers, prostitutes and drunks who are as much a part of Capitol Hill as the mostly middle-aged professionals who would like to see it cleaned up.

The portion of Capitol Hill they call home sits between Logan and Clarkson streets and 11th and Colfax avenues; from May through October, members of the Unsinkables patrol these blocks every Friday or Saturday night with Goss, a uniformed, off-duty cop whom they pay $35 an hour to escort them.

Daniel Anthony is ready for the first walk of the year. In his wallet, he keeps a handwritten copy of the state statute that allows private citizens to make arrests. "It's to remind cops that I have the right to arrest people," says Anthony, whose overzealous policing last year earned him a lecture from District 6 Sergeant John Spezze. One of the Unsinkables' walks turned into a chase when Anthony, who is vice president of the group as well as a Guardian Angel, ran after a fleeing drug dealer. He ordered the man to drop to the ground and then pinned him down until police arrived.

He's hoping for another big catch tonight.

In addition to looking for crime, the group's members also rip fliers off light poles and pick up trash -- empty beer cans, used condoms, old shoes -- and as they march down Pennsylvania Street, heading north toward Colfax, each has a garbage bag in hand.

In a parking lot between Pennsylvania and Pearl streets that used to be a hangout for crack users, the Unsinkables stop to watch two men and a woman walk by. "This place is on the trespass list," Goss explains. Because of pervasive loitering on Capitol Hill, numerous property owners who encourage arresting trespassers on their properties have placed their addresses on a Denver Police Department list that lets cops know. Since the three walkers keep moving, Goss leaves them alone.

The neighbors cut across the parking lot to Pearl Street, where Goss pauses to look over a bulletin she keeps in her pocket; it bears the likenesses of several wanted criminals. "This one's pretty violent," she says, pointing to a man who violated his parole. She checks the bulletin against a string of people walking past, but there's no match.

As they head south down Pearl -- down what the Unsinkables believe is the neighborhood's most troubled street -- Mark Nachtigal, who works for an oil company downtown, recounts how he recently was approached seven times to buy crack along this street. "I walked from 13th to 16th, and I saw two people smoking crack in front of an apartment building," he adds. "And it was eight at night!"

By 7:50 p.m., two more neighbors have joined the group, and the Unsinkables pause outside Bonanza Liquors, where a homeless man named Mike has set up camp. They all know and like Mike, a man of indistinct age -- older than forty and younger than sixty -- who used to cut hair in better days. Goss inquires about his health, and the man says he's taking his pills; he pulls a bottle of seizure medication out of his pocket to show her. Goss tells him his buzz cut looks nice, which makes him happy.

After saying goodbye to Mike, the neighbors turn down an alley and continue on into the night.


Despite this periodic brigade, drug dealing has increased in Capitol Hill in recent years, and some of the Unsinkables have begun to wonder whether their neighborhood will ever be the kind of place they want it to be.

The answer to that question may lie in the past.

Since the turn of the last century -- around the time that the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown was living at 1340 Pennsylvania -- Capitol Hill has suffered from an identity crisis. In the early 1900s, what was originally a neighborhood for oil barons, mine operators, railroad magnates and newspaper moguls began to include people of lesser means -- as owners of vacant lots realized they could make a quick fortune by erecting apartment buildings.

An absence of zoning laws allowed apartments and businesses to rise up alongside stately Queen Anne, Neoclassical and Georgian Revival mansions. In 1901, 59 building permits had already been issued for multi-unit residences in Denver. Newspapers at the time fueled fears about the city becoming a "Gotham of tenements and slums." One article suggested that the good citizens of Capitol Hill buy vacant lots, place construction restrictions on them and then not sell any to people of "bad character," according to Denver: The City Beautiful, by Tom Noel and Barbara Norgren.

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