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Zooming in on Curtis Park

When you drive through the Curtis Park neighborhood, kids are the first sign of life you'll see. They're everywhere--all sizes, shapes and colors, running down the sidewalks, sharing bikes and bubble gum, hollering, laughing and watching over one another. It's a good sign. It means that there are families in the neighborhood just north of downtown, and with families, perhaps, comes a real community with solid roots.

Indeed, some of those families have been in the area for as long as half a century, living in classic Victorian homes--some majestic, others simple and modest--that are twice that old. It's a place where blue-collar workers live next door to college professors, and boarded-up houses lie in wait next door to impeccably restored painted ladies, a place ripe with untold stories. Photojournalist Tory Read is helping to bring those stories to life.

"I was fed up with the way media cover the inner city," she says. "I wanted to start a documentary project in a Denver neighborhood, one that was habitually one-dimensionally portrayed by the mainstream media. At the time, Curtis Park was the 'drive-by shooting du jour' capital of Denver; there were lots of stories being written about shootings and trouble spots. I started to wonder--how do people feel in that neighborhood about the way they're treated by the media?"

Read went door-to-door in Curtis Park for three months to drum up interest in her proposal. Spurred on by a good response, she shot the first leg of the project with help from the community. It was enough of a success, she says, that people wanted to become more involved--from there, she established a series of workshops where people of all ages learned to use cameras and began taking their own pictures and writing their own autobiographical text. They've already had a couple of exhibits; the latest opens this week at the Eastside Health Center.

A week before the show is to open, Read presides over a volunteer meeting at the Five Points/Curtis Park Weed and Seed. Folks there are in a gluing frenzy, affixing photos and text to stacks of black mounting board. You don't even notice the ethnic variations in this group, even though they're there--the group is so focused, it works in poetic unison. Read is the dynamo who pulls this incongruous group together, and it seems as though gears whir inside her head as she works on several levels at once: She's visualizing, organizing and orchestrating all in a single blink.

Spread out on a large table is a jumble of images--beautiful babies, exuberant playmates, contented elders, looming church facades, houses, a grizzled yard dog guarding its stoop, up-in-the-air shots of clouds and treetops, a cityscape, abstracted playground shapes and blurry portraits, all smiles. The volunteers are in a hurry--some are due at a neighborhood caucus meeting--but that doesn't keep them from bantering freely as they work. "Okay, who's going to do what?" Read shouts over the wisecracks, trying to direct attention to the upcoming reception. "I want to see Mayor Webb here. I want to see Hiawatha Davis here," she says. Voices chime in, "I can talk to Hiawatha." "I'll get to Webb."

Snippets of text, some gleaned from an exercise in which the photographers were to imagine becoming some object from one of their photos, hit the table and are ready for mounting. "I became a rock--the rock next to the pansy in my photograph," says Margaret Stannard, a Curtis Park resident for the past six years. "That pansy was misnamed; it lasted all winter. It should be called a toughie and not pansy." It's a fitting metaphor for the neighborhood's spirit.

Everyday objects captured more than one imagination. Middle-schooler Vincent Gutierrez imagined life from his sneakers' point of view: "I am Vincent's shoes. It's pretty nice to be his shoes, but at recess, man, it's hectic." And Ana Marie Sandoval chose to be her own house, a bit worse for wear but in the family for 55 years: "I am a large, old Victorian house--a Queen Anne style, if you please. My exterior is now a faded yucky green." Who could possibly know those worn clapboards better than Ana Marie?

The kids' photos--lots of portraits and shots of unexpected things--are perhaps the most adventurous. Ten-year-old Terry Davis lies down on the floor to demonstrate. "I took a picture like this of the moon," he says, pointing upward. His group didn't do the personification exercise, but Terry says he wished he had. "I would like to be the sky," he says, "because I'd get to see all the world. I think it'd be fun to be the sky." His friend, Kasacha Gaines, eleven,, is more down-to-earth--she'd just like to be like her mom.

Are there any rising stars in the show? Each participant, in his or her own way, seems to have something poignant to say. Then again, there's Javier Ramos. A Mexican national in his twenties, Ramos is shy about his English and doesn't say much, but behind his silent choirboy veneer, you can see there's an artist at work. His photographs--there's one of immigrants looming near a row of Mexican tour buses in a parking lot and another of an overturned shopping cart against a brick wall--are eloquent observations of his immediate world. Read also praises Kasacha's sense of color, ten-year-old Kendra Cooper's unique eye, and the independent way many older participants planned their shoots.

"The seniors really showed me that they're not passive, over-the-hill people to be stowed away," Read says. "They'd tell me that the best time in life is right now. I respected that. It blew away my stereotypes about old people. I'm even psyched to get there myself for the first time."


Curtis Park Photo/Story Project, Eastside Health Center, 501 28th St., through April 24. Opening reception April 16, 4-7 p.m.


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