Barnum, the Beautiful: Learning to Love a Neighborhood by Being a Part of It
Now home to the non-profit Savio House, this structure on King Street is one of the few (if only) mansions left in the otherwise small and simple neighborhood of Barnum.
Since I moved into a beautiful house in the Barnum neighborhood almost five years ago, my car has been hit four times while parked out front on Knox Court. A few months ago, it was completely totaled — hit so hard by the other driver that my car was pushed out into the street and the police had to tow it away. When I got home that night from being out with my family, there was nothing left of my car but a pile of glass. I thought it had been stolen.
I don't park on Knox Court anymore; I park in the alley behind my house. I don't even walk down Knox Court much these days, either. It is a dangerous thoroughfare where the car is king and pedestrians and cyclists do not have the benefit of safety. Ask anyone on my block: Doing something as trivial as exiting your parked car, crossing the street in the crosswalk or riding your bicycle on the road can put you in harm's way. It is a very frustrating and sad situation for the neighborhood — I know I am lucky to have a car, but many of my neighbors and roommates have to brave the treacherous street daily to grab the number one bus or just, you know, take a walk down their own block.
This is one of the few qualms I've had since moving into this part of the city. Before settling into my first adult-like home/witchy commune on Knox Court, I had never really been to Barnum. I grew up in the southeast Denver area known to a few as Virginia Village. Barnum and Virginia Village are actually very similar — at least they used to be, before the neighborhood I grew up in became a hot property; it's now in the midst of this decade's latest version of the Denver boom. Yes, before people began flipping the modest '50s shoebox homes in Virginia Village and selling them for lots of money, it was just like Barnum. Older residents who had purchased their homes brand-new shared blocks with working-class families and college kids. Like Barnum, Virginia Village was equal parts rented and owned, a mix of immaculate yards and driveways stacked with broken cars and tire-less bicycles. My family home was often the one with the most immobile automobiles, with Volkswagens parked on our side lawn where my dad and uncles would stand around and smoke cigarettes.
When I came to Barnum in 2010, it was because a friend had purchased a lovely little house and was looking for roommates. She was a great potential roommate/landlord and it was a more-than-ideal situation financially. Though the location was across town from where I saw myself living, it was still just a quick drive to any other part of the city: I-25 and Sixth Avenue are both nearby and Colfax is just a few blocks away. Barnum is as central as a neighborhood gets in Denver.
The dangers of Knox Court itself was the biggest drawback to living in Barnum — but I soon realized that it wasn't always this way. Like many neighborhoods in Denver that have been ripped apart by automobile-based progress, Barnum was sliced up as Sixth Avenue cut right through the once-quiet neighborhood, leaving few opportunities to cross over the highway today. Knox Court is one of those few north-to-south pathways, meaning it is a street people commute and therefore speed along, just like Sheridan or Federal. I can only imagine how nice Knox was before this Sixth Avenue expansion — it was probably a really pleasant street.
Also, Barnum has a serious trash situation; I actually wonder if people bring their trash from other neighborhoods and dump it in our alleys — because our alleys are disgusting. (My friend and former Westword collegue Jef Otte shared his thoughts on our trash problem, too.) I thought Capitol Hill's alleys caked in dog poop and human piss and lined with dead couches were bad, but Barnum's are beyond anything I've seen. Trash cans overflow with dirty diapers, old produce and other kinds of unidentifiable rotting garbage (including the ribcage of a large animal that sat next our back fence for several weeks). People throw away full bags of clothes, perfectly good furniture, toys and beds; this past holiday season, someone stuck a whole Christmas tree — still fully dressed in ornaments and lights — upside down in a garbage can.
Recently, Barnum switched from dumpsters to plastic, city-provided rolling garbage cans. A letter from Councilman Paul López praised this change as a way to clean up the alleys. But they are actually worse now — people just dump stuff directly on the ground, instead of next to (or, if we're lucky, into) a dumpster. The trash in our front yard is equally atrocious, as the nearby bus stop just seems to collect garbage around the bench that then sets sail across our grass. I call springtime trash-tree trimming season, because it is when the empty Cheetos bags and packs of cigarettes are really in full bloom.
I realize this is one of the perils of living on any busy street in Denver: More traffic equals more trash.
But Barnum, much like the Virginia Village neighborhood where I grew up, is beautiful once you look past that initial layer of trash and traffic. Though residents to one side have a rooster that crows regardless of the sun's position and tenants to the other side keep their poor dog out in the elements 24 hours a day, it was a neighbor across the street who told me what had happened to my car. Mickey saw the woman who smashed my poor Subaru: She apparently tried to flee the scene and he called the police. And the dudes who work at the 7-Eleven on our block are always friendly, even though I know, as at any other 7-Eleven, they deal with a constant stream of drama. We also have a great Denver Public Library branch and a restaurant on the corner, Los Molcajetes, which serves delicious breakfast burritos and always has excellent service. Barnum is pretty cool.
The thing that changed my mind the most about Barnum, though? Finding our regular neighborhood meeting, put on by the Concerned Citizens for Barnum. Tuesday night, my roommate and I walked up the street to the Barnum Rec Center for our first meeting. There we met people who had been in the neighborhood for a few months and others who had been here for decades. We talked about potential neighborhood clean-up projects, a cabaret licensing issue with a local bar and the traffic situation on Knox Court. It was nice to connect with these humans with whom I share a neighborhood, and know that we are concerned about a lot of the same stuff.
Though I was not pleased our councilperson's representative tried to convince me that adding bike lanes to Knox Court would "slow the traffic down" (I think putting cyclists in danger is not the answer — maybe add speed bumps or flashing speed signs first, then the bike lanes), I was overjoyed to have a place to share my thoughts. After living here for almost half a decade, I was excited to hear from others how I could take part in making Barnum better.
A born-and-raised Denverite who has lived in Virginia Village, Holly Ridge, Cheesman Park, Capitol Hill and now Barnum, I'd never before made an active effort to be a part of my neighborhood association. It sounds crazy to me as I type this, but until now, it never dawned on me that I could be a part of a larger effort to make the city better in any real way. Denver is growing and as it does, some of us are feeling its growing pains — which is why I now realize it's important to get involved with the people around us. I did a simple google search and found the Concerned Citizens for Barnum, a non-profit that began way back in 1974. If you aren't already a part of a neighborhood group, I suggest finding where yours meets and get there.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
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