Shape Up Or Ship Out

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

Shockcor learned what a difference a few blocks can make in Capitol Hill; before moving to Pearl, he had lived just four streets away, on the other side of Colfax. "I didn't know about the crime over there, but by spring I realized what I'd gotten into," he says. "There was drug dealing and prostitution in front of, on the side of and in back of my house. And there was a 42-unit apartment building down the block that was nothing but a terror."

Residents like Shockcor, afraid to walk around the neighborhood, felt like prisoners in their own homes, so in late 1990, several of them contacted Cathy Donahue, their city councilwoman at the time, and planned a meeting. "I was shocked at how many people showed up," Shockcor says of the approximately one hundred residents who attended.

The Denver police chief came, as did vice cops, zoning and health-department officials and a representative from Mayor Federico Peña's office. After the meeting, Shockcor got a call from Ed Thomas, then a Denver policeman, who wanted to help. Thomas and the neighbors started formulating ideas to combat crime in Capitol Hill. "The plan was to organize, and we knew we'd have to continue this through generations of new property owners; otherwise, it would fail," Shockcor says.

The Unsinkables would like to see Bonanza Liquors lose its license.
Anthony Camera
The Unsinkables would like to see Bonanza Liquors lose its license.
Cafe Netherworld general manager Sheila Weisenborn appreciates the Unsinkables.
Anthony Camera
Cafe Netherworld general manager Sheila Weisenborn appreciates the Unsinkables.

A few months later, in March 1991, the Unsinkables formed. With a core group of neighbors who have been involved since the beginning and new residents joining all the time, the sixty-member organization is still going strong. The Unsinkables raised the money to pay for Goss -- who has been accompanying the group on its patrols for five years -- by soliciting donations from home- and business-owners; before Goss, other officers took turns. "Some years we've averaged twelve arrests per night; other times, we're lucky to put a couple of people in detox," Anderson says.

There is no other neighborhood group in Denver quite like the Unsinkables, and no other neighborhood quite like Capitol Hill. "They're probably the most dedicated group I've worked with," says Thomas, now a city councilman who represents the area. "They will not let that neighborhood go. It's been a struggle, but they're winning."

Or are they? Crime statistics suggest that Thomas's pronouncement is only partly true. While the number of homicides, robberies, sex assaults and aggravated assaults in the Unsinkables' neighborhood have decreased over the last decade, drug dealing has shot up in the last three years, breaking a long period of relative calm.

"A few years ago, one guy commented that we were just picking up a lot of trash; that's because we didn't have much else to do," says Nachtigal. "But this past summer, Pearl Street was the worst it's ever been."

"We can't figure out what it is," Anderson says.

David Quiñones, a police lieutenant assigned to south Capitol Hill, doesn't know what to make of the recent crime spurt, either. "We've put a lot more resources out there, so that's probably why there are more arrests, but for some reason we had an increase last year in the crack trade, and it took hold of that little area," he says.

In 2000, there were 220 drug-related arrests in the area between Colfax and 11th avenues and Logan and Clarkson streets; last year there were 341. In 1999, 373 drug arrests were made, and in 1998, there were 304, but in the years prior, there were far fewer. In 1992, the Unsinkables' first full year of existence, there were only 51 drug-related arrests. Liquor-law violations have also increased since the Unsinkables formed, from 153 arrests in 1992 to 435 last year. And Capitol Hill as a whole is still one of the highest-crime areas in Denver; it ranked 19th in overall offenses last year out of 72 Denver neighborhoods, according to the police department.

Police have acknowledged that prostitution has also increased on Colfax, even if the number of prostitution arrests in the Unsinkables' community has actually decreased, peaking in 1994 at 41 arrests and dropping to just 15 in 2001 ("Tricks of the Trade," May 2). This issue has taken on new urgency, however, and Mayor Wellington Webb recently announced that he would like to run in local newspapers pictures of "johns" who are arrested; in addition, two recent prostitution stings in Capitol Hill resulted in dozens of arrests and filled the city jail to overflowing.

Rather than giving credit to the Unsinkables for the reduction of certain types of crime, critics in the neighborhood doubt that the group has had much of an impact. In fact, some people contend that instead of deterring criminals, the Unsinkables have simply forced them to get smarter.

"The crack dealers know when their walks are," says Tom Oberbroeckling, owner of the Snake Pit, a 13th Avenue dance club. He considers the Unsinkables "completely ineffective."

Oberbroeckling also takes issue with the group's demographics. "They're a bunch of upper-middle-class white people in a neighborhood of diversity. There's not one black member. They call themselves a neighborhood group, but if you think they're representative of Capitol Hill, you're insane," says Oberbroeckling, who is white. "This section of Capitol Hill has several buffet apartments, and I bet no one from their group lives in one. They're a bunch of bored, lonely people trying to cause trouble by attacking businesses that cater to people they don't like."

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