By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"Terrance is one of several people who grew up in the lifestyle, who have been shot, been in gangs, been in prison, and are now trying to save lives by keeping kids out of the lifestyle," says Rhonda Jones, police commander of Denver District 2, which includes northeast Park Hill. "Without their help, we would have a much tougher job. There is no way to know how many lives they've saved by the work that they do."
Roberts focused many of his initial efforts in the area around the Holly, developing the sort of anti-gang organizations that had been popping up in Five Points since the 1980s but had never been actively attempted in that neighborhood's counterpart across Colorado Boulevard. As Roberts joked with his old friend, "If you're the King of the Hill, I'll be like the Robin Hood."
Roberts knew northeast Park Hill needed all the help it could get. He recognized that there were positive developments in the area around the Holly, like the Hope Center, a Denver community agency working with developmentally disabled clients, which had opened its vocational program in the former Safeway in 1979 and had been there ever since. And Skyland, the rec center where Billups had learned to play ball, had reopened in 2001 as the greatly expanded Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center, which today boasts track and volleyball programs recognized statewide and beyond. The Pauline Robinson branch library had opened in the southeast corner of the Holly, too, and was hosting well-attended after-school programs.
But gang and drug problems remained.
"It's the same back-and-forth between the Bloods and the Crips, but now there's even more trauma behind it," says Roberts. "There is lots of anger and vengeance going back 25 years. There is a lot of pain in Park Hill, a lot of pain in the Five Points area. It's the only part of town you see any representation of the African-American community, and it's split down the middle by Colorado Boulevard."
The powderkeg seemed poised to explode — and it did, on May 18, 2008.
Even before the embers cooled at the Holly, community activists were working to avert a gang war. Some spread the word that Michael Asberry hadn't been killed by a Blood. While no one has ever been charged with the crime, rumor has it that the Crips founder was gunned down by another Crip in an argument that got out of hand. Roberts and other leaders organized a march and a rally to call for peace – and for the most part, additional violence was avoided.
But the charred remains of the Holly remained at the heart of northeast Park Hill for months. A chain-link fence went up around the scene of the crime and a city truck came by every now and then to hose down the rubble and still-dressed mannequins and piles of shattered liquor bottles to keep any asbestos from getting airborne — but that was it. For neighbors, it was a slap in the face, proof that while gang members may have lit the fire, bureaucratic indifference was adding to the damage.
"If it had happened in Stapleton or South Park Hill, everybody knows that it would have been cleaned up in a week," says Roberts. "The Crips burned it down, but the government left it. It was a literal mountain of evidence of how bad the gang problem really is in northeast Denver. I think it helped gang members who wanted to recruit kids. I think it was a way for them to say, 'Look at how the Crips look at us, look at how the government feels about us.' I think sixty or seventy kids became Bloods over the arson, which is a whole new generation of Bloods."
The garbage from the fire was eventually cleaned up — nearly six months after the attack, once community members started complaining to the media. But that left the shell of the shopping center itself, apparently damaged beyond repair, and the knowledge that Denver has a less than stellar track record when it comes to projects in northeast Park Hill.
Back in the late 1990s, then-mayor Wellington Webb vowed that rehabilitating the Dahlia, by then a nearly vacant mall, would be a top priority. In 2001, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority had created the Northeast Park Hill Urban Renewal Area, a section of the neighborhood where tax-increment financing would be used to fund the revitalization of the Dahlia as well as the Holly.
But a complicated proposal to bring residences and retail to the area around the Dahlia fell apart when a former landfill was discovered underneath the shopping center, one that would require millions in loans and grants to clean up. Then a plan for a high-density development helmed in part by now former mayor Webb fizzled because there wasn't enough market demand. (Webb declined to be interviewed for this story.) Finally, in 2008, the now-vacant Dahlia site was certified clean and purchased by Oakwood Homes, the housing developer behind the Green Valley Ranch subdivision. But then the housing market collapsed. Today, a corner of the lot features a new Denver Health clinic, and another section has been earmarked for affordable senior housing scheduled to be built by the end of 2011. Still, about half of the eight-acre site remains in limbo.