Between Rock and a Hard Place

Half of the 2700 block of Downing falls into one police district, the other half into another -- leaving residents caught in the crack.

The dope man never saw it coming.

Long-haired, pale-skinned and heavily tattooed, he sat in the champagne-colored leather back seat of his silver luxury sedan, watching his driver trot across the 2700 block of Downing Street to deliver a package to a crackhouse.

Ten feet away, Mary calmly leveled her weapon. Standing in the front yard of her Five Points duplex, the 53-year-old drew a bead on the back of the dope man's head. Then she pulled the trigger.

Scott Laumann
This laundromat is the only legitimate business on the 2700 block of Downing.
John Johnston
This laundromat is the only legitimate business on the 2700 block of Downing.

A blast of water shot from the garden hose in Mary's hand and through the half-open rear window of the parked car, splattering the dope man, his female companion and his expensive ride's plush interior.

"I'm gonna beat your ass, bitch!" he bellowed at Mary, storming from the car.

Mary dropped the hose, jogged up her front steps, went inside, locked the deadbolt behind her and called the police.

"Yes, this is Mary again, and I just had an altercation right outside my house with one of the drug dealers on my block, and he's threatening to harm me."

Mary was quiet for a moment, listening.

"That's all I ask," she said, then hung up.

"The dispatcher told me they'd do the best they can," she reported.

Ten minutes later, the dope man and his silver sedan were nowhere to be seen -- and neither were the police. Crackheads and drug dealers were swarming, though.

This summer, Downing between 27th and 28th avenues has turned into an open-air drug market in which crack cocaine is bought, sold and smoked in broad daylight. The block is also a staging area where customers in cars pick up addicts who guide the buyers to drug houses on nearby streets.

For crack dealers and smokers, the 2700 block of Downing is strategically located on a thoroughfare that divides two neighborhoods, Five Points and Whittier, as well as two police districts. One side of the street falls into the Denver Police Department's District 2; the other side is in District 6.

"If you're trying to make a bust and they run from one side of that street to the other, you have a different animal on your hands," says District 6 neighborhood officer Jim Cortez, who has patrolled Five Points since 1988. "If you call in on your radio and say, 'I have a foot chase going into District 2,' dispatch has to patch 2 and 6 together, and then you're interfering with other people's calls. It gets complicated in a hurry."

The crackhouses are concentrated on the western, District 6 side of the street, behind which lies a warren of old sheds and narrow, littered alleyways. Mary lives on the eastern, District 2 side of the block, where a dozen or so law-abiding residents -- black, white and Mexican -- have been terrorized in recent weeks by crack-addicted thugs threatening to kill them and rape their children if they call the police or speak to reporters.

"They've threatened them with guns, threatened them with bodily harm," says Cortez, who has been working undercover on the block this summer. "It's about 50 percent Mexican families on that block, and it's especially frustrating for them, because they have a communication problem in reporting the crimes they see and the threats made against them."

Among those who dwell on the eastern side of 2700 Downing, Mary alone agreed to be interviewed for this article, asking only that her last name not be used.

"I'm just tried of being squeamish about this shit," she says. "It's an insane asylum turned inside out."

Outside Mary's living-room window on a summer Sunday afternoon, the scene was this:

Across the street, a heavyset, ponytailed man dressed in a shiny blue track suit looked out from his chair behind a set of iron bars guarding the front window of a squat brick building. Constructed in 1887, it was once a hairdressing salon. Painted beside the bars is the word "Beauty."

A teenage girl in a black miniskirt sauntered past the window and, with a no-look flick of her wrist, palmed a bundle of plastic vials and tiny bags passed through the bars by the man known on the block as "Mo," whose legal name is Morris Ayers.

The girl in the miniskirt then worked the block, peeling the vials and bags free of a large rubber band and distributing them among five thickly muscled young men pacing the sidewalk. They, in turn, exchanged the vials one by one with the shuffling, wild-haired, candy-bar-gobbling crackheads who converged on the block from all directions.

Several of the cocaine smokers bypassed the sidewalk dealers and approached Ayers directly, bending at the waist to talk to him through the window. After a few words, he either waved them off or got up to peel back the soiled blanket hanging over the old beauty parlor's entrance and opened the door.

Before he stepped aside to let them in, Ayers cast a calculating glance up and down the street that was half predator, half prey.

Not all of the crackhouse patrons arrived on foot, and not all were black. Every five or ten minutes, a car with a white face behind the wheel turned onto the block and drove slowly until the driver and a dealer on the sidewalk exchanged "crack nods," a slight raising of the chin and eyebrows that is both inquiry and response. The driver -- usually male, middle-aged and alone, or male, in his early twenties and with a carload of friends -- then pulled to the curb. The dealer leaned in the window for a few words and then got in the car and rode with the driver off the block.

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