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Between Rock and a Hard Place

Scott Laumann

The dope man never saw it coming.

Long-haired, pale-skinned and heavily tattooed, he sat in the champagne-colored leather back seat of his silver luxury sedan, watching his driver trot across the 2700 block of Downing Street to deliver a package to a crackhouse.

Ten feet away, Mary calmly leveled her weapon. Standing in the front yard of her Five Points duplex, the 53-year-old drew a bead on the back of the dope man's head. Then she pulled the trigger.

A blast of water shot from the garden hose in Mary's hand and through the half-open rear window of the parked car, splattering the dope man, his female companion and his expensive ride's plush interior.

"I'm gonna beat your ass, bitch!" he bellowed at Mary, storming from the car.

Mary dropped the hose, jogged up her front steps, went inside, locked the deadbolt behind her and called the police.

"Yes, this is Mary again, and I just had an altercation right outside my house with one of the drug dealers on my block, and he's threatening to harm me."

Mary was quiet for a moment, listening.

"That's all I ask," she said, then hung up.

"The dispatcher told me they'd do the best they can," she reported.

Ten minutes later, the dope man and his silver sedan were nowhere to be seen -- and neither were the police. Crackheads and drug dealers were swarming, though.

This summer, Downing between 27th and 28th avenues has turned into an open-air drug market in which crack cocaine is bought, sold and smoked in broad daylight. The block is also a staging area where customers in cars pick up addicts who guide the buyers to drug houses on nearby streets.

For crack dealers and smokers, the 2700 block of Downing is strategically located on a thoroughfare that divides two neighborhoods, Five Points and Whittier, as well as two police districts. One side of the street falls into the Denver Police Department's District 2; the other side is in District 6.

"If you're trying to make a bust and they run from one side of that street to the other, you have a different animal on your hands," says District 6 neighborhood officer Jim Cortez, who has patrolled Five Points since 1988. "If you call in on your radio and say, 'I have a foot chase going into District 2,' dispatch has to patch 2 and 6 together, and then you're interfering with other people's calls. It gets complicated in a hurry."

The crackhouses are concentrated on the western, District 6 side of the street, behind which lies a warren of old sheds and narrow, littered alleyways. Mary lives on the eastern, District 2 side of the block, where a dozen or so law-abiding residents -- black, white and Mexican -- have been terrorized in recent weeks by crack-addicted thugs threatening to kill them and rape their children if they call the police or speak to reporters.

"They've threatened them with guns, threatened them with bodily harm," says Cortez, who has been working undercover on the block this summer. "It's about 50 percent Mexican families on that block, and it's especially frustrating for them, because they have a communication problem in reporting the crimes they see and the threats made against them."

Among those who dwell on the eastern side of 2700 Downing, Mary alone agreed to be interviewed for this article, asking only that her last name not be used.

"I'm just tried of being squeamish about this shit," she says. "It's an insane asylum turned inside out."


Outside Mary's living-room window on a summer Sunday afternoon, the scene was this:

Across the street, a heavyset, ponytailed man dressed in a shiny blue track suit looked out from his chair behind a set of iron bars guarding the front window of a squat brick building. Constructed in 1887, it was once a hairdressing salon. Painted beside the bars is the word "Beauty."

A teenage girl in a black miniskirt sauntered past the window and, with a no-look flick of her wrist, palmed a bundle of plastic vials and tiny bags passed through the bars by the man known on the block as "Mo," whose legal name is Morris Ayers.

The girl in the miniskirt then worked the block, peeling the vials and bags free of a large rubber band and distributing them among five thickly muscled young men pacing the sidewalk. They, in turn, exchanged the vials one by one with the shuffling, wild-haired, candy-bar-gobbling crackheads who converged on the block from all directions.

Several of the cocaine smokers bypassed the sidewalk dealers and approached Ayers directly, bending at the waist to talk to him through the window. After a few words, he either waved them off or got up to peel back the soiled blanket hanging over the old beauty parlor's entrance and opened the door.

Before he stepped aside to let them in, Ayers cast a calculating glance up and down the street that was half predator, half prey.

Not all of the crackhouse patrons arrived on foot, and not all were black. Every five or ten minutes, a car with a white face behind the wheel turned onto the block and drove slowly until the driver and a dealer on the sidewalk exchanged "crack nods," a slight raising of the chin and eyebrows that is both inquiry and response. The driver -- usually male, middle-aged and alone, or male, in his early twenties and with a carload of friends -- then pulled to the curb. The dealer leaned in the window for a few words and then got in the car and rode with the driver off the block.

Down the street from the derelict beauty parlor, a trio of crackheads squatted on the stoop of a green rowhouse, openly smoking their glass pipes, reeling back and grinning like evil clowns with each full-lunged hit. One of them stood up, tucked his pipe away, unzipped his fly and urinated on a nearby wall.

Next door, four more crackheads lined up at the back door of a yellow three-story Victorian, where a dealer wearing sunglasses and dreadlocks doled out his wares as if the addicts had just rung his doorbell and cried, "Trick or treat!"

"It's so sad and dysfunctional, all the screaming and whistling and tweaking and pissing and ass-scratching," said Mary, sitting on her front steps to survey the dozens of dirty deals going down. "Humans are supposedly sentient beings, but if this is sentience, it's sentience gone horribly awry."

Just then, a gaunt man wearing overalls stumbled out of the beauty parlor clutching a super-sized bag of cheese puffs, his fingers and mouth stained bright orange with junk-food dust. A raw-boned woman with graveyard eyes approached him and tried to reach into the bag. He slapped her hand, howled "Bitch, you trippin'!" and shoved her away.

Mary has lived on the 2700 block of Downing since October 2000. It wasn't nearly as bad then. "A lot of the buildings on the other side of the street looked a little run-down, maybe abandoned, but they weren't crackhouses. I've been around the block enough to recognize the signs, and this definitely wasn't a heavy-duty crack-dealing street until just a few months ago," she says.

A former waitress at the Mercury Cafe, Mary now runs her own house-cleaning company. She moved to Five Points because she was sick of living in Lowry and because the price was right: She bought her 1,500-square-foot abode for less than $100,000, which seemed like a sweet deal in Denver's boomed housing market.

"I love diversity, and I wasn't crazy about living around only white people anymore. I believe in living in the inner city, and it seemed like a pretty good investment," she says. "What can I say? I took a chance."

Mary wasn't the only one.

Most of the other residents on her side of the block have lived there less than two years. Like Mary, they are first-time home buyers who gambled on a rough-and-tumble street in an up-and-coming historic neighborhood, and saw potential in the two-story Victorians and Craftsman-style bungalows mixed in with the block's empty storefronts.

"We call these people 'urban pioneers,' where they come in and find some really nice, old houses for cheap, and they think they're going to be able to just settle down and fix up the house. They realize too late what's going on across the street, and they're naturally a little upset," says Officer Cortez. "They generate a lot of complaints, where, on the other hand, the people on the street who have lived in the area for several generations, they've seen it before. They know these things have a rhythm of their own, where a street will be hot for a while, then go cold, then get hot again. If we hit the dealers and smokers hard in one place, they all move a few blocks, and some time passes and then we hit 'em hard again. That's just the nature of the beast."

It wasn't always that way in Five Points, one of Denver's oldest and formerly most vivacious neighborhoods. Founded in the 1860s as one of the young town's first residential suburbs, the area ultimately took its name from the five streets that intersect at its heart. (Denver's tramway company came up with the nickname because its streetcar signs weren't large enough to list all of the thoroughfares at this end-of-the-line stop.) Five Points blossomed and became the black cultural center of the West, a title it held from the jazz age through the post-World War II era. In 1951, Beat writer Jack Kerouac immortalized the heyday of the area in On the Road: "I walked among the lights of 27th and Welton in Denver's colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best of the white world is not enough."

Three years later, the Colorado Fair Housing Act was passed, and thousands of the neighborhood's residents flocked to other parts of the city. Five Points went into a slow spiral of decline. Now, as they often have in the recent past, the neighborhood's optimistic backers say Five Points is primed for a renaissance.

The 2700 block of Downing is four blocks from the African-American Research Library that's slated to open next spring and only three from The Point, a $12.5 million retail and residential development that broke ground last September at 26th Avenue and Washington Street. "Development is the catalyst for positive change," says Marva Coleman, executive director of the Five Points Business Association and one of The Point's principal investors. "I wasn't aware of the problems they were having there on Downing, but I'm sure they will eventually go away, and this project will help that to happen."

Cortez says he has been following construction of The Point with interest and agrees it will more than likely have an impact on his department's enforcement priorities. "Hopefully, there's going to be a lot of people who will move in there, and I'm sure they'll complain a lot if they have crack dealers down the street," he says. "When a lot of complaints come in from a lot of different people, we get the orders to hit 'em, and we put the word out on the street. I'll tell the dealers straight up: 'You see that building over there? That's a multimillion-dollar building. You think they want you selling crack out here? We're going to hit you hard, man.' That's what I'll tell them. It takes a while for that sort of word to spread, but once it does, the area around a new building like that will improve."

The only construction project on Mary's block this summer was a tree fort made of plywood and bedspreads erected by homeless crackheads beneath the limbs of an overgrown elm on the south end of the street. "We couldn't figure it out for a long time," says Cortez. "We'd be watching someone who just made a buy down on that end of the street, and we'd turn our heads for a second and they'd be gone. Then we realized they were going into the tree. They had a little house in there. They had a little stereo and everything."

Last month, officers cut off most of the tree's limbs. Mary wishes they would similarly prune the crack dealers off her block. She estimates that she has called the police more than fifty times since early May, when the crackhouses across the street first opened for business.

"I used to have a limit where if there were more than five or six crack dealers on the block, then I'd call. If there were less, I wouldn't," she says. "Now I usually just call if there's a fight on the street or if I'm threatened.

"It's hard for me to call the cops. Over the course of my life, most of the time I didn't want the cops around. They were always on the wrong side from me. But now it's different."

At first, it was also hard for Mary to figure out exactly which cops she was supposed to call. "When all this drug shit started happening, I felt like I was trying to solve some sort of bizarre logic puzzle," Mary remembers. "I'd call District 2 and tell them there were a bunch of dope dealers across the street, and they'd tell me to call District 6, because the dealers were on the District 6 side of the street. So then I'd call District 6, and they'd ask me where I live, and then they'd say, 'Oh, well, you're in District 2; you need to call them.'"

"I was like, 'I don't care what number is on their badge. Just please send some cops to bust these guys, because they're doing this shit right out in the open.'"

Busts have been made.

DPD Sergeant Mark Fall, who oversees drug-house complaints for District 2's six-officer IMPACT team, reports that since June 1, his team has made more than twenty arrests for drug dealing and possession on the 2700 block of Downing.

District 6 undercover operations have netted sixteen arrests during the same time period.

"We're aware of the problem, and we're trying to address it as best we can," says Fall. "District 6 is running undercover, and what we've been doing with our [District 2] team is, basically, when we see a dope deal occur on that street, we'll try to contact the individuals involved for probable cause.

"We have been able to make arrests using that method, even though when you're dealing a few little rocks in these low-level sales, it's pretty hard to catch them. They're always looking out for the cops, and it's easy for them to just swallow the narcotics."

The get-high-crash-get-high-again cycle of crack cocaine is wickedly compressed. Many addicts smoke a rock every fifteen or thirty minutes. As a result, foot traffic to and from crackhouses is often a nonstop freak parade. One crackhouse on your street -- let alone three or more, as is the case on the 2700 block of Downing -- is a more flagrant nuisance than one clandestine methamphetamine lab, which tends to be obvious only when it blows up.

But meth labs and designer drugs have quickly outpaced crackhouses in the media's coverage of the never-ending War on Drugs, probably because methamphetamine and Ecstasy are both new millennial and sexy, while crack is so very Reagan-era.

On the meaner streets of Denver, though, crack's siren song has never quieted.

"We have a major, major problem with crack addiction right now," says Fall. "All along the East Colfax corridor is bad; the Holly Shopping Center is really bad; and if you go further up in the Cole neighborhood, from the 2700 block up to 34th, around Franklin, Marion, there's crack everywhere up there.

"And it's pretty bad over there on Downing, no doubt about it."

The 2700 block of Downing enjoyed one brief respite from badness following the late-June arrest of Morris Ayers, who runs the crackhouse in the abandoned beauty parlor -- owned by his 87-year-old grandmother, who lives next door.

Ayers, 42, was busted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute after he physically barred a City of Denver zoning inspector from entering the property without a search warrant.

Unlike police officers, zoning inspectors do not need a search warrant to legally enter a property as long as there are documented complaints regarding its habitability. Since city law deems crackhouses "inherently uninhabitable," one way for the DPD to get a look inside a suspected drug house is to refer complaints about it to Neighborhood Inspection Services, which is what police did in this case.

When Ayers blocked her way, the zoning inspector retreated a safe distance and watched as Ayers blatantly conducted several apparent drug transactions. She then called the cops on the police radio in her car; within minutes, Ayers was in handcuffs.

"It was pretty quiet after that," remembers Mary. "Then about two weeks after they took him away, Mr. Shithead came back, and the whole block revved up again."

The charges against Ayers hadn't stuck. It turned out that most of the supposed crack he had on him when he was arrested was fake stuff, or "woo," made of soap and dried breadcrumbs.

Now shorn of his ponytail, Ayers was a near-daily presence throughout most of August at his usual post behind the beauty-parlor window.

"We're watching him," Neighborhood Inspection Services police liaison John Cohen said in late August. "We know he is back in that building and some other buildings and is dealing out of there and the other buildings on that block, and we're taking steps to solve that problem."

The department was "negotiating a solution" with Ayers's grandmother. "We're going to get the grandmother to give us permission to declare the building vacant," Cohen added. "That way, we can board it up and legally post it as vacant, and if we find that guy in there again, we can have him arrested for violating the vacant-and-derelict properties ordinance."

In the mid-1990s, Mayor Wellington Webb began pushing Denver City Council to pass a nuisance-abatement ordinance that would allow the city to seize a crackhouse and shutter it for up to three years, with or without the owner's permission. In 1998, that ordinance finally passed.

After dealing with the beauty-parlor crackhouse, Cohen said, his department planned to focus on "two or three other problems" on the western side of 2700 Downing, including the yellow Victorian.

"You have to document a series of violations before you can move toward a nuisance-abatement order," he explained. "We're moving on it. There's an investigation under way."

Just before Labor Day weekend, police officers hammered a nuisance-abatement order to the front door of the beauty parlor, announcing that the property had been confiscated by the city.

In the weeks since his arrest, Ayers had done his best to make a nuisance of himself to those he suspected of bringing down the heat. Shortly after he was released from jail in early July, Ayers rode in the passenger seat of a maroon station wagon that cruised ominously in front of Mary's house.

When she came outside, Ayers spat out: "Whore!"

"Same to you, bitch!" she fired back. The station wagon sped away.

"Mary's a sassy lady, and I respect her for that," says Sergeant Fall. "But I tell her she needs to be careful and not get too sassy, because you never know how desperate these people are or how they're going to react."

The owner of the only legal business on Mary's block is Julian Leevee, who has operated a nameless laundromat on the western side of the street since 1982. Asked to comment for this article, Leevee says only this: "It can get pretty rough down here. They'll burn you down. They don't give a damn about anything. So as far I'm concerned, there's nothing going on down here. I don't see anyone selling anything. The cops are doing a good job. Let's just drop the whole story."

Denver software engineer Michael Schreiber is more forthcoming. Schreiber owns a two-story apartment building on the eastern side of the block. It's up for sale. He can't seem to find a buyer.

"People come to look at it, and they're afraid to get out of their cars," he says. "I had one woman who had an appointment for me to show her the property, and as soon as she got out of her car, she was approached by a drug dealer asking her if she needed anything. She said, 'I'm not even going to go inside,' and left.

"I can't even keep tenants in there, because the drug dealers scare them off," he continues. "They're just so brazen about it. It's wrong to let it go on like that, but it seems like the people who live on that block, they're either involved in the drugs themselves, or their attitude is 'We leave them alone, they leave us alone.'"


Mary is the exception. She's a pissed-off lady with a garden hose.

All day long -- and she works long days -- Mary cleans other people's houses. When she returns to her own in the evening, she likes to unwind in her back yard by tending her garden. One night in late June, she was doing just that when her peace was disturbed by a bunch of crackheads smoking out in the alley behind her fence. They were giggling and shouting and turning the air over Mary's garden sickly sweet with the exhaust fumes of burning cocaine paste.

Mary turned the pressure up on the water coursing through her hose, calibrated angle and distance, and then unleashed a high arc of water over the fence, raking her fire back and forth like a helicopter gunner strafing a tree line.

"Get the fuck out of here, you zombies," she shouted.

She has only sprayed a drug dealer once -- the tattooed dope man in the silver car -- and she says she probably won't do it again.

That afternoon, twenty minutes after Mary called non-emergency dispatch, she was sitting on her steps, still waiting for the cops.

"They're getting pretty cavalier about me calling," she said.

Children rode past her yard on bicycles and Big Wheels. Mary greeted them by name.

A beat-to-hell blue station wagon pulled up outside the derelict beauty parlor, and the woman driving it got out and went inside. "That car's always coming around," Mary said. "Check out the signs on the side."

Attached to the car's exterior were placards that read "Funtastic Fun Family Fun Center."

According to Funtastic Fun owner Nathan Elinoff, when the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post raised their joint advertising rates last year, he pulled his ads and devised a new promotional scheme for his indoor amusement park.

"I found a way to advertise, like with bus advertising and taxi-cab advertising. What I do is, if you put our signs on your car, I give you ten free admissions every month," Elinoff says. "I have 350-plus Funtastic Fun cars on the road."

Informed that one of those cars was making frequent stops at a soon-to-be notorious crackhouse, Elinoff replies, "Holy canoli!" He then asks for the car's license-plate number. "I'll be terminating their contract immediately," he says. "That's not cool."

Mary wouldn't describe anything about her block's drug houses as cool, except maybe their turn-of-the-last-century architecture. But then, she had no love for living in Lowry, either. "I wouldn't trade my place now for the dump I was living in out in Lowry, or the fake people out there," she says. "Lowry is where America is hiding its head in the sand. It's all petunias and white people mowing grass. It's not real. At least my block's real."

Sometimes too real.

As Mary waited for the cops, an obese woman wearing nothing above her waist except a grimy, overloaded bra jiggled down the sidewalk like a kid chasing an ice cream truck. "I got five on that," she yelled after a dealer.

"I do go off a bit about the social veneer of our society," Mary said. "But when you don't even have a little veneer, it can be an ugly thing."

More than a half hour after Mary reported the dope man's threat to beat her ass, a lone patrol car turned a corner onto the south end of her street, proceeded by three young boys on bicycles, whistling and yelling an alarm. "5-0! 5-0!"

The children have been hired by the crack slingers to ride patrols around surrounding blocks, racing back to conduct their little Paul Revere rides anytime they see a blue-and-white on its way to Downing.

"By the time we roll through in a police car, nothing obvious is going on," Sergeant Fall says. "They know we're coming long before we get there. Even our undercover cars are pretty well-known, unfortunately."

The police car drove the length of the street once, the officer behind the wheel staring straight ahead. Mary watched him go.

"I understand that crack is like a roach problem," she says. "The cops know if they fumigate this block, the roaches will just reappear somewhere else and continue to multiply.

"But at this point, I don't give a shit. I'm feeling selfish, and I'm ready for the roaches to be off my block."