By William Breathes
By Patricia Calhoun
By Michael Roberts
By Patricia Calhoun
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The assassins drove into northeast Park Hill in the early-morning hours of May 18, 2008. They parked their vehicles in a dark alley and began filling glass bottles with gasoline.
They were Crips, young gangbangers who went by names like "Tre Hundred," "Baby Hoo Ride," "Li'l Mario" and "Quise." They were itching for a fight, having just clashed with a bunch of Bloods at Bash Nightclub in LoDo during let-out, a few hours after Michael Asberry, co-founder of the Denver Crips, had been shot and killed in Aurora.
Now it was time for payback. Although the police hadn't yet named a suspect in Asberry's death, it was inevitable that when a Crip got gunned down, the Bloods would soon suffer. That was the way things worked: a natural balance, an eye for an eye.
And Asberry wasn't just any Crip. He was a founder of the gang, akin to royalty. Payback would have to be big, an assassination that would cut to the heart of northeast Park Hill, the long-established home turf of Denver's Bloods.
They had the perfect target in mind.
Once the bottles were topped off and plugged with rags, the gangsters walked around the corner to the Holly Square Shopping Center at 34th Avenue and Holly Street. Everything was closed for the night; the windows were dark in Family Dollar, Tyson's Food Market, Park Liquor, Steve's Style Shop and Little Saints Daycare. No one was there to watch as several of the young gangsters lit their Molotov cocktails and tossed them onto the roof.
As the Crips hurried away, the fire moved through Tyson's and then Family Dollar. In the liquor store, heat-triggered bottles exploded like fireworks. The inferno spread quickly through the common area above the stores, consuming one business after another. By the time the fire crews arrived, the flames had broken through the roof and stretched thirty feet into the sky.
The assassination was complete.
Firefighters were still tending to the smoldering remains when neighbors began gathering a few hours later. Preachers stood side by side with gangbangers, awestruck by what they had lost. "This is worse than 9/11 to me," yelled a young man in red. "This is my home. It's Iraq right here."
Police at the scene suggested that an electrical malfunction might be the culprit, but no one was surprised a few days later when arson was determined to be the cause. Eventually, nine Crips would be indicted for the crime and receive sentences ranging from probation to ten years in prison, as well as paying a total of $1.98 million in restitution. One of them, Katsina Roybal, would ultimately pay a higher price: Last week, she was gunned down while sitting in the evening heat on a front porch in the Cole neighborhood. While police have yet to name a suspect, many assume that Roybal's murder was just another round in the city's vicious gang cycle. A casualty, like Holly Square itself, of the decades-old war between the Crips and the Bloods.
The Holly, or what was left of it after the fire, was more than just a battleground in this war; it was also a barometer for the economic climate of northeast Park Hill. In the early '60s, it had become the commercial heart of a nascent African-American community, a gathering place for generations of kids, including local boy-turned-NBA superstar Chauncey Billups, the neighborhood's beloved "King of the Hill." And then it had turned into ground zero for the community's gang and drug problems — social diseases to which it seemed to have finally succumbed.
"This is a blessing," declared a woman dressed in her Sunday best, standing over the Holly's charred remains. Like many residents, she'd had enough of the Holly and its troubles and was happy to see it go.
Terrance Roberts, standing in the crowd that day, had also long prayed for change at the Holly. But not like this. The neighborhood had already been a victim of crime, violence and neglect for as long as anyone could remember. It didn't need the extra damage.
So Roberts wasn't about to give up on the Holly. The community activist recognized that the shopping center had been the heart of the neighborhood, both good parts and bad — and it was all the residents had left. They'd already lost the area's other hub, the Dahlia Shopping Center. Once a proud African-American-owned enterprise, that strip mall a few blocks away had been ravaged by crime, neglect and broken promises, and was now a trash-strewn empty lot. But Roberts knew better than anybody that it was never too late for a comeback. He was living proof of that, thanks to all that he'd been through.
"The Dahlia and the Holly were the two community hubs," he says today. "We loved them both. They were like brother and sister areas. And the Dahlia is gone, man. What happened with the Dahlia is kind of like a death in the family. The Holly is kind of like a family member who needs some intervention and needs to be saved but is still alive. It's like having two kids but one is already gone, so we only have one that can be saved."
Looking at the ashes in May 2008, Roberts knew there was no time to lose.
In 1961, when Odell Holleman and his family moved from the Whittier neighborhood into a home just off Holly Street in northeast Park Hill, he knew he'd found the perfect place to live. The streets were wide and quiet. Smith School, an elementary school for his two children, was one of the best in the city. Downtown was an easy bus ride away down 32nd Avenue, a stretch that would later be renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard; Stapleton Airport was a handful of blocks in the other direction.
"Honestly, I think it's one of the ideal sections of Denver," says Holleman, who still lives in the house with his wife. And in the beginning, one of the best things about his home's location was the Park Hill Shopping Center, as the Holly was then known, right around the corner.
The 2.6-acre Park Hill had been built for $750,000 in the early 1950s, just as tidy brick bungalows were sprouting from the plains. The "huge shopping center," as the Denver Post described it at the time, was notable for featuring parking for several hundred cars. Like the dozens of other retail centers popping up around town, the mall was designed to lure in a new breed of shoppers, consumers who were now mobile and suddenly flush with disposable income.
"Increased use of automobiles, more than any other factor, made the shopping center a part of every day life," noted a Rocky Mountain News article a few years later. "The average shopper, if he can obtain the service and variety he wishes, will avoid the downtown traffic jam and lack of parking for the convenience of the shopping center."
Holleman, who worked as a dining-car steward on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad's famous California Zephyr passenger line, didn't have a car at the time — and didn't need one to enjoy the mall. His family would commandeer grocery carts to shuttle home their purchases from the Safeway at one end of the center. On Sundays after church, neighbors would head over to the Horizon, the family restaurant on the corner, with many of the kids sporting fresh trims from Frank's Barber Shop, one of the establishments just down the way. Later in the day, families might move on to the Dahlia, a larger shopping center that had opened a few years after Park Hill, which had a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant.
Holleman didn't mind that his family was the only African-American family on the block when they moved in. He'd never wanted his kids to grow up in a segregated area, and his neighbors insisted they were welcome. But soon enough, those neighbors began putting "For Sale" signs in their yards as other black families drove up and down the street, looking to buy.
No longer were such families being politely instructed that their kind should look for homes west of Colorado Boulevard and north of Colfax Avenue. Now they were being actively recruited to Park Hill. White residents who didn't like the sound of that began moving away, and realtors went door to door, warning holdouts that as black people moved in, housing prices would fall and city services like schools, police and trash collection would decline. By playing on racial tension, the real-estate industry reaped the rewards — buying up homes at below-market prices from whites desperate to get out, then selling those houses to African-Americans for considerably more.
"The real-estate industry was used to segregation. That's where they made their money," says Marge Gilbert, a Park Hill resident since 1948. "They determined where each demographic group would live."
Gilbert and many other Park Hill residents, both white and black, fought back against the block-busting. Forming the Park Hill Action Committee, they started a campaign that strengthened the state fair-housing law in 1965 and later filed a lawsuit that forced the Denver Board of Education to desegregate Denver schools, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court would use to order school desegregation nationwide. Their efforts resulted in Park Hill's becoming known as one of the first integrated neighborhoods in the country — but they weren't enough to halt the white flight from its northernmost section. In 1960, northeast Park Hill was more than 90 percent white; twenty years later, whites accounted for just 12 percent.
Holleman watched as nearby homes were practically given away. One family sold their house, only to build an almost exact replica in a neighborhood to the south. "Some of the things I've seen, all you can do is laugh at it," he says. "I guess they moved out of fear. I guess they thought bad things were going to happen."
Bad things did start to happen — not just in northeast Park Hill, but across the country. For decades, African-Americans had been migrating from the South to urban areas in search of better opportunities — but instead they'd found economic and social segregation. By the late 1960s, tensions were at a breaking point. There were race riots in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit, and when anger bubbled up in Park Hill, it spilled over into the heart of the community.
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.'"
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.
"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.
Some community members still hold out hope that the Dahlia site or the Holly may once again turn into thriving commercial centers. At the very least, they'd like to see a new grocery store: Northeast Park Hill has nothing other than two small convenience stores to serve the dietary needs of 18,000 residents. But such scenarios look unlikely. Although both shopping centers were built around the promise of the automobile, since neither is located on a main thoroughfare, they're not viable as retail properties today.
"The problem is that they are right in the middle of the community," says Michele Wheeler, executive director of the Northeast Park Hill Coalition. "Sometimes I wonder if these two shopping centers were on Martin Luther King Boulevard, would something would have been done by now? I say yes. But because they are stuck a block north of the main drag, nobody sees them. They're just forgotten eyesores, except to the people who live around them."
The two locations seemed destined to be ongoing reminders that while Greater Park Hill was selected as one of the ten best neighborhoods in the country by the American Planning Association in 2008, its northernmost section would forever be a flyover zone, just as it was when the airport was located at Stapleton. Homeownership in the area lingers around 50 percent, well below the state average, and foreclosures are predicted to rise. The vast majority of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at area schools, almost all of which are performing well below expectations.
To get as close to the heart of the problem as possible, in 2009 the Prodigal Son Initiative and new state senator Michael Johnston joined forces, setting up shop in a formerly ramshackle building across from the Holly's remains and launching the Park Hill Community Center. "That was the place in the community where people seemed to be working the hardest to bring back a neighborhood that had really been hit hard," says Johnston, a former school principal and Obama advisor. "With Terrance, it really was a natural partnership."
But Roberts could only do so much with his very limited resources. "We aren't getting crime prevention and control money," he says of Prodigal Son. "The city hasn't given us a dime. Foundations weren't supporting organizations in northeast Denver, and that was before the recession. The people working around here are doing all that we can, but there are still a lot of kids being left out there who don't have anything to do — and so they're finding negative things to do with their time instead of positive things."
Just like the Holly, Roberts and the work he was doing seemed out of sight, out of mind.
But then something funny happened. In the spring of 2009, the Urban Land Conservancy, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to acquiring and preserving community assets in urban areas, purchased Holly Square from its longtime owner, Michael Bullock, for $750,000. "Although I only owned the center a short time, it is the focal point of the community," Bullock says, "and transferring the land to ULC, I believe, was in the best interests of the neighborhood."
The ULC had already been turning heads for the do-gooder approach it was taking to urban redevelopment. Since its founding in 2003, it had redeveloped a former tram facility at East 35th Avenue and Franklin Street into the Phillips Center non-profit space, and had also purchased a dilapidated housing project across from the Dahlia site in order to transform it into transit-oriented low-income housing. Now the organization had similar hopes for the Holly. As a precondition of the purchase, the ULC made Bullock remove the fire-damaged buildings once and for all. Working with the Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, it formed a steering committee to develop a new vision for the Holly and the surrounding blocks, a group that included neighborhood activists, city officials and a former Blood named Terrance Roberts. This past April, it even held a community fair at the Holly so other community members could weigh in.
These efforts didn't seem like hollow concessions. Aaron Miripol, ULC's CEO and a longtime activist, showed up for every event, sweaty from biking across town. "When we buy a property, we aren't operating solely from a financial and real-estate perspective," says Miripol. "We want to understand what is going on in the community. We are in it for the long term."
Miripol was sure there was enough neighborhood buy-in to make the redevelopment work. When the longtime liquor store at the Holly — a beacon for criminal activity — filed an application to reopen in a storefront across the street, residents came out against it by the hundreds, creating so much opposition at the city hearing that the liquor-store owners withdrew their application on the spot.
"I can't speak enough of the way they dealt with the liquor-store application," says Miripol. "That says something. People truly care and feel vested in this area. That's very powerful."
The neighborhood clearly wasn't ready to give up on the Holly — so potential investors shouldn't, either, he determined.
In June, the ULC released a draft vision plan for the Holly detailing possible options for the site, including a school, a training and community center, a central plaza, a community garden, a playground and maybe even a small market. But given current economic conditions, construction of any of these options is likely to be several years down the road. And that meant the desolate remains of the Holly — now just a 22,000-square-foot concrete pad with twelve rusty pillars that once supported the center's front awning — would continue to blight the community.
Or so it seemed, until Roberts came up with a better idea. Until the economy turned around, why not do something with the site that would be so big and bold it could be seen from all those airplanes flying by overhead?
The sweltering July heat makes it feel like the air's on fire at the corner of Holly and 34th — like the stretch of concrete is a crucible that's been fired and primed, ready to forge something new.
The weather doesn't stop kids by the dozen from scampering across the site, hunting down pieces of trash. They take breaks in the shade of the old auto shop on the corner, grooving to the beats spun by DJ Ktone, who's working his turntables under an awning. Nearby, Commander Jones and another police officer are filling up bags of garbage and state senator Johnston is pulling weeds. Jonny 5 from the Flobots is helping out, too, as is Mike Sanders, the onetime Blood, now rolling across his former hangout in the wheelchair to which he's confined.
Roberts is in the center of it all, directing the happy chaos. "This has never been done. This is a first," he says excitedly. "We've got people from all over: blacks, whites, Latinos." Word of the event had been spread via Facebook and text messages, fliers at the barbershop and word of mouth: Come to the Holly to participate in a neighborhood clean-up and blessing ceremony, the first step toward a massive peace mural — possibly the largest in the world.
After the cleanup, everyone gathers near where the Molotov cocktails first ignited the blaze. Local officials speak of a bright future, and religious leaders say blessings in different languages. Many refer to the life-bringing properties of fire, how ancient proverbs speak of riches coming from ashes, how forest blazes lead to new seedlings. Then Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Mayan leader who helped end Guatemala's bloody civil war, performs a healing ceremony, talking about forgiveness and having the strength to rebuild.
Standing in the fiery heat, Roberts takes it all in. He looks around and sees not a 2.6-acre scar, but a blank canvas, one that will soon be filled by a host of Denver graffiti artists and local youth. In September, their creations will spread up the twelve steel pillars, emblazoning each with the words "Peace on Earth" in different languages and facing both east and west. There will be basketball courts, too, one bankrolled by Kroenke Sports Enterprises and one courtesy of Denver Parks and Recreation. In early October, the courts will be dedicated in a ceremony hosted by the Denver Nuggets. Most likely Billups will be there, on hand to help inspire some young, local baller destined to become the next King of the Hill.
After the mural is done, Roberts hopes to see its vivid colors proliferating in other parts of the neighborhood: reds and blues together spreading up and over walls scarred with bullet holes and spray-painted "CK" (Crip Killer) tags. "There are no murals around here," he says, "so we're getting into the mural game."
Roberts is scrambling to raise the $30,000 or so needed to make it all happen. He's also hard at work helping to plan a new peace march. On July 31, residents of Five Points will set out from Brother Jeff's Cultural Center at 2836 Welton Street, while their counterparts in northeast Park Hill will leave the Park Hill Community Center by the Holly. The two groups will meet in the middle, at 32nd Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, to take a stand against the gang violence that's been waged back and forth across town, calling for an end to the eye-for-an-eye mentality that recently took the life of one of the Holly's own assassins.
For Roberts, it doesn't matter that in a few years the ULC's redevelopment of the Holly will likely destroy much of the mural. Nor is he naive enough to think that such efforts alone can stop the cycle of violence, drugs and neglect that has long plagued the shopping center and its environs.
"If the Denver gang unit, with its sixty officers, can't solve the problem, if all the principals in the schools can't solve the problem, if all the parents and grandparents can't solve the problem, the Prodigal Son and the peace mural aren't going to solve the problem," he says. "But it's a step in the healing process. It will bring more pride to the community. Now, all of a sudden, you're inspiring a whole lot more people to stake a claim to the community, to help out and really be proud of the community."
For the first time in a long while, the neighbors won't be waiting around to see what happens next at the Holly. They're taking matters into their own hands.
"I admire Terrance's vision, because I didn't have that vision," says longtime activist Wheeler. "And now I see the excitement that has been generated, and I think if it works, it will be a wonderful thing. It's like the Bible quote, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' If anything, I see him preserving the people. He has the vision for today."
For more stories about the neighborhood around the Holly, go to the Latest Word blog. Read a previous story about former gang members at www.westword.com/2007-02-22/news/the-transformers/. Contact the author at email@example.com.
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