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They arrive before the sun, traveling from Longmont and beyond to the corner of Champa Street and Park Avenue West. The small man carrying two plastic grocery sacks stuffed with clothes. The adolescent boy wearing a pressed white shirt and perfectly parted hair. The old woman huddling inside a plaid blanket. They lean against storefronts, slouch on the curb, sit on top of suitcases, backpacks and cardboard boxes. And they wait.
For them, and for the hundreds of other men, women and children who come here every day to catch a bus to Mexico, this busy intersection has become a kind of purgatory, a grimy way station where they must bide their time until the next passenger coach rumbles up. Three bus companies operate out of this corner, shuttling passengers back and forth from the border as often as six times a day. Each company has a small waiting room with plastic chairs, TV novelas and whirring fans, but come rush hour, there's not enough room for everyone. The travelers and their families spill over into nearby businesses and residential areas, darting through traffic, crowding sidewalks and pushing this edge of Curtis Park into chaos.
For years now, tensions have been rising and falling with the ebb and flow of traffic. The city has held meetings, discussed solutions and applied band-aids, but every year, as more immigrants arrive in Denver and Curtis Park continues to gentrify, the situation grows a little uglier.
Late last month, the neighborhood celebrated a small victory when the Los Angeles-based Golden State bus lines, which had the heaviest schedule, stopped its operations in Colorado and six other states, laying off 280 employees, including three in Denver. The embattled company, indicted by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft last December for allegedly smuggling illegal immigrants, had been struggling financially. But the neighbors' cheers were soon drowned out by the sounds of buses from other lines, including Los Paisanos, gearing up to fill the void; still other bus companies are interested in renting Golden State's former terminal on Champa.
The neighbors know it. The bus companies know it. Authorities know it. This intersection is, as one Denver official says, "a collision waiting to happen."
As morning commuters roar by, the man with the plastic bags, the boy with the pressed shirt and the old woman with the blanket file onto a crowded bus, which lurches from the parking lot and disappears into the stream of traffic on Champa. Back on the corner, a rumpled man hawks packages of disposable razors from a backpack, a homeless couple rattles a shopping cart along the sidewalk, and a bus-company employee wearing a black T-shirt sweeps corn cobs and cigarette butts into the gutter. Slowly, another line begins to form.
When John Hayden arrived in Curtis Park eight years ago, he considered the neighborhood one of Denver's best-kept secrets. Just blocks from downtown were rows of elegant Victorian homes, tree-lined streets and endless potential. But Curtis Park also had a blend of culture, history and demographics that he hadn't seen anywhere else in town. As he settled into his first home there, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that neighbors were committed and active, not at all shy about hosting July Fourth barbecues, Valentine's Day parties and spring picnics.
"I just fell in love with it," Hayden recalls. "Everyone knows everyone else. We take care of each other. We're not just neighbors; we're friends."
That's not to say that Curtis Park is perfect, he adds. The neighborhood has seen more than its share of drugs, petty crime, poverty and decay. And although things have improved, getting police, firefighters and code-enforcement officers to respond to complaints can be like pulling teeth. One night in January 2001, Hayden arrived home and found a man in his living room, stealing the original stained-glass windows that he'd planned to use for a renovation project in the Champa Street house. Hayden confronted him, the burglar pulled a knife, and Hayden fled to his yard and dialed 911. The police arrived twenty minutes later.
"Their response was, 'Well, there's a lot of transients in this neighborhood,'" Hayden recalls. "It was like, 'It's your fault for living here.' There were tracks in the snow and everything, but they didn't go after him. They didn't seem to care."
Yet few problems have plagued Curtis Park like the crowded conditions at the bus terminals. The companies began arriving in the early '90s: first Turismos Rapidos (now Americanos USA) at 2147 Broadway, and then El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express, at 838 Park Avenue West. But Turismos Rapidos stood on a wedge of land about five blocks from the Victorian homes along Champa, and both companies had parking lots that accommodated the flow of buses and passengers relatively well.
As immigration increased, though, Turismos Rapidos and Limousine Express expanded their schedules, and more bus companies appeared on the scene. In 1996, Golden State moved into a space at 2301 Champa that had once been a drugstore. Of all the bus lines, neighbors say, Golden State was the worst. At its peak, it ran ten buses, from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m., and hauled about 400 people per day. The company didn't have an on-site parking lot; coaches simply wheeled up to a curbside passenger loading zone and loaded and unloaded passengers.