By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
On the night of July 31, 1967, angry youths took to the streets in Denver — and ended up clashing with police at the Park Hill Shopping Center. Helmeted officers dodged rocks and bottles and waded into the mob with riot sticks. The Horizon and other businesses were looted and vandalized. In an editorial the next day titled "What the Negro Wants," the Rocky Mountain News opined: "The youngsters are readily victimized by the demigods and criminals on the insane fringe of the civil rights movement. They swell the mobs. Education and job training should revive hope among them, and lessen the menace of disorder."
In March 1968, a Molotov cocktail sailed though the window of Handy Ace Hardware and Paint in the shopping center, touching off a blaze that damaged many of the surrounding stores. Then, on the evening of June 23, another skirmish in the parking lot ended with a cop bleeding from a gunshot wound and nineteen-year-old Nathan Jones lying in a pool of blood, shot in the stomach and throat by police. Cops claimed Jones had fired first, hitting the officer in the head, but locals, familiar with police brutality, were reluctant to accept the story.
State riot police were called in to patrol the tense neighborhood as Jones lay in critical condition at Denver General. Denver mayor Thomas Currigan and Colorado governor John Love went on television to plead with residents to keep children at home. While the rioting appeared to be quelled, leaders warned that worse would be coming unless the city took active steps to help the struggling African-American community. "The time has come that talk has lost its effectiveness in the black community," said NAACP Chairman W. Gene Howell at a meeting at the organization's northeast Denver headquarters. "Action must be made to alleviate and remove racial inequities that in turn are the fundamental base for violence. Denver can be spared the violence that seems to be in the making in most major American cities."
Borrowing a dollar to buy a box of Star Crunch at the Holly's candy store, then eating all twelve fudgy cookies and having your stomach pay for it the rest of the day. Chatting up girls at Fast Eddie's skating rink at the Dahlia, then going to the arcade where the machines were busted open to reveal the little red buttons that, when pressed, yielded unending free games. Breakdancing crews spreading cardboard across the pavement, kids gathering at the local park for a game of Smear the Queer.
These are the things Terrance Roberts remembers about growing up in northeast Park Hill in the late '70s and early '80s, when hundreds of kids would trot back and forth between the former Park Hill Shopping Center, now renamed Holly Square, and the Dahlia, the two magnetic poles of their adolescent existence.
Granted, the shopping centers had seen better days. The turmoil of the late '60s had taken a toll, as had competition from regional malls and jumbo discount stores. Marge Gilbert, the longtime Park Hill resident, remembers food quality going down and prices going up at the two neighborhood grocery stores — the Safeway at the Holly and King Soopers at the Dahlia — before they closed in the 1970s. Still, there was life at both spots: A 1982 market study done for the city found the neighborhood was stable enough and market support strong enough for commercial revitalization at both malls.
Gang clashes at the centers weren't uncommon, usually with the Park Hill Boyz facing down such outsiders as the Brick City crew from the Arapahoe projects to the west. But for the most part, these skirmishes were relatively mild; fighters wielded bricks and chains but never guns. For neighborhood kids, it was like watching a kung fu movie. After all, this was their home; nothing bad was going to happen.
Roberts remembers the day it changed. It was 1987, and he was eleven years old. He and a buddy were tossing around a Nerf football when some older kids in red rolled up on bikes. One of them gestured to the blue shorts that Roberts's friend was wearing and asked if they were Crips.
When they said no, the older kid told them, "If you were Crips, we would have to do something to you," and then pulled up his shirt to show a .22 revolver. "This is what time it is, man."
Roberts and his friends heeded the warning. For them, it became a point of pride to not wear blue, the color of the Crips, and only sport the reds and maroons of the Bloods. They did so knowing they were outnumbered by Crips five to one, that their northeast Park Hill outpost wasn't just under attack by Crips from Five Points to the west, but also contingents in Montbello and Aurora.
"Park Hill was like the elite of the Bloods in Colorado, period," says Tito Mercado, a longtime gang member who's now moved on, with a family and a career. "It was never a fair fight, as far as numbers went. We would go places no other Bloods would go — to Five Points, to Juneteenth Festival, to the Black Arts Festival. Nobody would say, 'Those are the Crenshaw Mafia Bloods.' They'd just say, 'Those are the Park Hill Bloods.'"