Shape Up Or Ship Out

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

Last summer, to guard against racial profiling, the Denver Police Department started requiring officers to note the ethnicity, gender and age of every person they have "reasonable suspicion or probable cause" to stop. Calcamuggio shines a flashlight on the card while Goss fills in the bubbles. Carol: Black. Victor: Hispanic.

For the Unsinkables, "cleaning up the neighborhood" isn't just a figurative term, it's a literal one.

The Unsinkables before their first crime-fighting walk of the year.
Anthony Camera
The Unsinkables before their first crime-fighting walk of the year.

On a chilly spring morning, Daniel Anthony, Kathi Anderson and Mark Nachtigal stood on the corner of 11th and Pennsylvania, watching tow trucks haul away cars. During the first week of April every year, the Unsinkables, with permission from the city, have cars in their neighborhood towed so that street sweepers can thoroughly clean the roads.

Then they have them towed back, usually to a place that is as close as possible to the original spot, but sometimes a little farther away. (Elsewhere in Denver, cars parked illegally on street-sweeping days get $20 tickets and the city just cleans around them, but in the Unsinkables' neighborhood, drivers get $60 tickets to help cover the towing cost.) This creates a great deal of confusion for people returning to their cars, and as Anderson was chuckling at memories of angry people trying to find their cars in years past, one very irate woman hopped out of the passenger side of an SUV and plucked a ticket off her parked car. She then marched up to one of two bicycle cops who were ticketing the cars as they were towed back into place, and started yelling -- to no avail.

Jennifer, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, had parked on Pennsylvania the day before. Although she lives at Sixth Avenue and Williams Street, she parks in Capitol Hill so that she can catch a bus downtown, where she works and takes classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. After working late the night before, she got off the bus and couldn't find her car. "I walked around for thirty minutes," she said. "At first I thought that I just couldn't remember where I'd parked. Then I thought it had been stolen."

Since she didn't feel safe walking home at 11:30 p.m., Jennifer called a taxi. In hopes of finding her car in the daylight, she had her mom drive her around the neighborhood on this morning. "It seems like a total waste to tow cars and then move them back just to sweep the street for one day," she says. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen."

Comments like these roll right off Anderson's back; it's not like people weren't warned. Bright yellow pieces of paper had been posted throughout the neighborhood, advising car owners of the potential for towing. The Unsinkables also posted notices in apartment-building lobbies.

The group estimates that between 120 and 140 cars are moved each year during the street-cleaning effort. The reason they go to such extremes, Anderson explains, is that the streets are so dirty that simply sweeping around cars doesn't accomplish anything. "This is the only time of year that the streets of Capitol Hill really get clean," she says.

The Unsinkables have also planted trees and flowers, installed additional lights and trash cans, and improved bus stops. (Grants from CHUN, the city and the Regional Transportation District have made those projects possible.) One of the group's next goals is to remove the pay phones outside Cafe Netherworld, at 13th and Pennsylvania.

Sheila Weisenborn, general manager of the cyber cafe, would like the same thing: The phones attract drug dealers and others who are bad for business. "There are always five or more people milling around the phones, and when other people walk over to 7-Eleven, they get harassed. It's ďHey baby,' or some kind of threat," she says.

But according to Weisenborn, the building's owner refuses to remove the phones, because they bring in a lot of revenue. (The owner declined to comment.) She's hoping the Unsinkables will circulate petitions about the pay phones; if they can show the city that enough people don't want the phones there, maybe the owner will be pressured to remove them.

"The Unsinkables are great," Weisenborn says. "They keep our sidewalks clean, they clean graffiti off our building and they walk the neighborhood. I've never heard anything but good things about them."

10:30 p.m.,
13th Avenue, between Pennsylvania and Pearl streets

The neighbors are teasing Larry Dickinson about his stuffed dog, Admiral. They've decided they don't look very threatening with Admiral as their mascot, so they tell him he can't bring his toy on the walks anymore.

"Well, if I can't bring him, I'm going to start wearing a dress," says Dickinson, a self-described right-wing drag queen. He tells everyone that he's working on Governor Bill Owens's re-election campaign and that he has political aspirations of his own. "I'm going to run for city council," he says.

As the group nears the alley between Pearl and Pennsylvania, Dickinson announces that he must go home and put Admiral to bed. As the group turns down the alley, Goss points out the back of a boardinghouse where drug dealers once hid in the shadows and bushes; after the Unsinkables asked the owner to fix up the place, he removed the foliage and installed lights. Now the alley is eerily quiet -- so quiet that Calcamuggio says, "Someone needs to commit a crime."

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