By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
And the Holly became home base for the Park Hill Bloods. "The Holly was basically the heart of the neighborhood," remembers Mike Sanders, who hung out there from the age of ten until he quit the Bloods seventeen years later. "If you rode through the Holly, one of us would be there, from one in the morning to ten at night. Since we didn't have cell phones, we'd decide, 'I'm going to go to the Holly to see who's up there.' If no one was there, we'd just sit there, and five or ten minutes later everyone would start coming."
They'd gather there and discuss who got shot the night before, who was going to come after them that day, and which crackheads they should get to buy them more bullets. They'd sell $20 worth of crack to the drug zombies who at night turned the shopping center into something out of Thriller, then spend $18 of it buying licorice at the candy store. When someone called the cops, they had a routine: At the first sign of a cruiser, gangbangers would scatter to the alley across the street, the Skyland Rec Center across the way or nearby Skyland Park, then resume operations once the coast was clear.
Soon bullet holes scarred the walls of the businesses. Every now and then a body would be found on the blacktop, killed over a turf battle, a dice game or just a bit of crack.
Not everything went to pot around the Holly, however; not everyone was sucked into the gang. "My memories are all good, man," says Chauncey Billups, who was growing up a block from the Holly in the late 1980s and early '90s, then went on to become an NBA All-Star who now plays for the Denver Nuggets. "The Holly and Park Hill was really the heartbeat of the city. It was everything for me. Those were the streets and blocks that raised me. My mom and dad would go to work and they would drop me off at the Skyland Rec Center across from the Holly, and I'd never need a babysitter. I felt like, outside of my mom and dad, the rec center and the Holly raised me."
Yes, gangs were all around him when he'd take a break from practice and grab a bite to eat at Kapre Chicken in the Holly, but Billups was too busy chasing his dream to bother with such distractions. "I was able to stay away from it," he says of the gang life.
But most kids didn't have the outlet that Billups did, and most didn't have authority figures to show them a better way. Most kids were like Roberts, whose dad wasn't around to lecture him when the honor student started running guns for older Bloods and then took $100 he got from his grandmother to buy a .25 caliber pistol, his first gun.
That little pistol was soon replaced by a .380 pistol, then a Mac-11 with a clip as long as his forearm. Finally, he was packing a 12-gauge or an AK-47. Getting ambushed and shot in the back around the corner from the Holly in 1993 just pushed Roberts, by then a runaway known as Showbiz, deeper into the game — and the next year, the then-eighteen-year-old was sent to prison for robbery.
By the time Roberts got out, in 1996, most of his cronies were behind bars, confined to wheelchairs or dead. That made him a G, a shot-caller, top of the food chain amid a full-fledged gang war.
Only when he was back behind bars — now serving a seven-year sentence for getting caught with his Mac-11 — did Roberts start to see another way. He began learning about activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi and César Chávez. Watching the metoric rise of Billups — a kid from just around the corner — helped to cement his misgivings. "Me and him grew up on the same streets, from the same community, in the same Holly Shopping Center, and he is all about representing Park Hill in a different way," Roberts says of Billups. "For the first time, I really felt like being a Blood wasn't representing Park Hill in the right way."
He thought about how, instead of just seven years, he'd come close to being sentenced to a hundred years as a habitual offender. But the Denver district attorney had shown him mercy, and to Roberts, it seemed like he'd gotten a break for a reason. So one night, while sitting in prison, he made a promise to God: "If I am going to be real with life, then I can't do it and gangbang at the same time."
The next day, Showbiz told his colleagues that he was done with the Bloods, and Roberts started mediating potential gang riots in the prison. When he got out in 2004, he stuck to his promise, using his muscle-bound tattooed arms to sling bagels at an Einstein Bros. in Cherry Creek rather than directing gang hits. In 2005, an informal, after-school program he started at the bagel store morphed into the Prodigal Son Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping kids find alternatives to gang life.