A Lot of Change
Two modest houses are for sale on University Boulevard between Third and Fourth avenues -- an area so rife with upscaling that these rundown dwellings may be the last of an endangered species. Driving south toward Cherry Creek -- on your way, say, to Saks or Whole Foods -- you might miss the first one. But 348 University is unmistakable. Huddled behind ten-foot sunflowers, built of cinder blocks, crammed onto an extra-small lot and festooned with animal cages, it can accurately be described as a one-of-a-kind property.
Because of the lot's proximity to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, real estate agent Barbara Mickelson gets at least one inquiry on it every two days. Yet she's only shown it once. Perhaps the $369,000 price tag has something to do with that. Or the fact that it's being sold in what she calls "as is" condition. But to Bill Cameron, who's lived in this house most of his life, "as is" means "as it should be."
"I need the money to get out of debt," he says, "but my parents built this house, and they died here. I promised to care for them, and I did. I quit work and everything. It ruined my life, but I did it because nursing homes are bullshit. Your parents are your people. Think about it."
Bill has answered the door after five rings and three knocks, dressed in nothing but holey bike shorts, a bit bleary. He's been napping, he explains. Inside, the Cameron house smells of cat pee and is packed with the accumulation of decades: a vacuum cleaner stalled in its tracks, the wooden high chair Bill sat in over fifty years ago, jars of garden seeds, piles of tools, collectible dolls, hand-tinted photographs of his mother and father, and a TV so barricaded by stuff that it appears to be there for audio purposes only.
"Those there are antiques," Bill explains, waving an arm at shelves of dainty china, souvenir tins of Uncle Ben's rice and plastic flowers.
It's impossible to imagine a formal house-showing here. Or even a casual one, if Bill's around.
"How was my childhood?" Bill asks, then answers, "Great. A little school, little brick houses all up and down the street, kids playing in the alleys. We did whatever we wanted. We stole golf balls at the Denver Country Club. There was a dump where the Cherry Creek Shopping Center is now, and we rode our bikes there."
Bill's father was a sign painter, his mother a beautician, and he was an only child. He seemed destined for a regular sort of life. Then came the '60s.
"My swim coach at East High told me to cut my hair, and I said no, and I was off the team," he recalls. "This was when the Beatles were coming out, and that was my hair, damn it. And instead of deciding what to be, I became a hippie, went to San Francisco, didn't even really finish high school for quite a while. My mother and father loved me anyway."
Bill hung out at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, eating, sleeping and buzzing for free. "I met Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix," he says. "We always thought of him as that nigger with the guitar who could play it upside down and backward."
"Well, yeah. In '69, I went to Greenwich Village and I...shit, I don't remember. I had to leave there and I...I got stuck in Woodstock. Hell's Angels came in and did security. It's been so long ago. They didn't bother nobody," he decides. "Just a little bit of violence. We ran out of water, though, and there was bad acid going around."
After years of free food, free love and plenty of drugs, Bill ended up back in Denver, painting signs as his father had. When his parents needed care, he moved back into the house on University.
"It was getting to be a nice neighborhood because of the Denver Country Club," he remembers. "It changed -- oh, yes -- from nice people to yuppie pricks."
Serious tensions developed between Bill and a new breed of residents who kept calling code enforcement on his yard; between Bill and the Cherry Creek Psychic next door who'd rather not discuss him; between Bill and even the few neighbors who'd been there since the old days.
"A lot of things keep coming down," he says. "I'm bipolar, and I can't work too well, and my mom died three years ago."
His common-law wife, the woman who helped him build the garden, has moved out, and he considers it a full-time job to win her back. But between the sad state of things and the meds, Bill sometimes sleeps all day.
What could a buyer do with Bill Cameron's house? "Gut it," suggests Barbara Mickelson. "Put a little office in there. Or a coffeeshop. Either way, someone's got to really want it. Bill's not coming down in price, and it's a hard market for everyone."
The days when a buyer would invest in two small lots, scrape off the houses and cram a million-dollar trophy home onto the resulting bit of land are almost gone, Mickelson says, although their rarefied standards remain.
"I get calls complaining about Bill all the time," she explains, "but the enforcement people never bust him, because his yard is actually tended. I feel protective of him. If it bugs you so much, I say, why don't you buy it? Sorry if he's not your foo-foo Cherry Creek guy."
Bill may stay a non-foo-foo Cherry Creek guy for some time. Not only is his house expensive, but its 23-by-25-foot lot is impossible. Carl Baker, the homeowner just north of Bill, doesn't appear interested in putting his modest house on the market. Shirley Metherd, who owns the house north of Baker, hired Mickelson to list her old family place for $449,000 -- but without the middle house, the two properties don't add up to enough land for either a smallish development or a biggish trophy house.
"They'll scrape my place," Metherd says. "I grew up there, and my mother lived there until she passed away a few years ago, and it will be sad. The neighborhood has changed so much. But I understand the people who complain about Bill. I almost dropped my teeth when I saw that artistic situation in his yard."
Shirley's known Bill since he was three, she says, and considers him a good kid who "took some paths he maybe shouldn't have." But she wishes him well -- almost as much as she wishes both their houses would sell.
"Oh, and they will," Mickelson says hopefully. "No matter what they are, you can't beat the location."
When the doorbell rings this time, Bill hears it. In walk Arlen and Arleta. Arlen wears a muscle T-shirt and Ray-Bans, as well as a Vietnam-era tattoo. He kneels down next to Bill. "What happened, buddy?" he asks gently. "You're really selling?"
After a while, Bill gets out the photo album documenting the character he played for years at the Renaissance Festival -- a hairy creature known as the Bear Man, who lived in a hide-covered tent, dyed his entire body black and made a living having his picture taken with children.
"I was a Celtic warrior, see," he says. "All they wore when they went into battle was a crescent moon on a chain."
"And a lot of swords," Arlen adds.
"I don't work there anymore," Bill says. "Apparently they want to turn it into strictly a family ordeal."
Arlen and Arleta having paid their respects, Bill goes out to his garden, walking on stone paths between squash, cucumbers, catnip, chocolate mint, red runner beans and three little ponds complete with koi and waterfalls. The green thickness muffles the cars on University.
"And it's all gonna go when I sell," he says. "My roses, my sculptures -- all of it. I feel bad about the roses, because I used to spread petals on the water when my wife wanted to take a bath. But I might just take them with me."
He might even take the whole house. "I got a piece of vacant land," he points out. "I might take it off its foundations."
Even that afterthought of a room off the alley where Bill was born, on a day 55 years ago when his mother's water broke before she could get to a hospital.
It won't be an easy job. The cinder-block structure may look ramshackle, but it's a rock-solid home. And in its own way, it's part of the neighborhood.
In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.