"I'm real optimistic about everything going on," Eddie Maestas said, gazing out the window of Johnnie's Market at the changing landscape of Larimer Street. "I see nothing but good for this area. I just hope God gives me enough time to see it through."
By then, in the fall of 1997, when he learned that he had leukemia and closed his store, Eddie had already seen so much. His family -- including nine brothers and sisters -- had moved from Leadville down to Denver when he was twelve. His father got a job at the Hungarian Flour Mill, his mother ran a Mexican restaurant on Larimer (where German and Italian and Irish restaurants had gone before), and Eddie practically grew up on this melting pot of a street. He worked as a shoeshine boy, and after graduating from North High School went to work for the Ricotta brothers, who owned Western Beef, at 2048 Larimer. Johnnie Ricotta also had a grocery store at 2030 Larimer -- in a Victorian storefront that was once a Chinese laundry -- and when he decided to retire in 1975, after forty years in business, Maestas took over. "The biggest moment was when I bought this store," he remembered. "When it was finally mine."
But Eddie didn't just run the store. He wound up running the entire neighborhood. By 1975, this stretch of Larimer was sliding into the city's skid row; before Eddie was done, it had become home to Coors Field, winning out over two far more likely contenders. And now the man who carried the unofficial title of "Mayor of Larimer Street" will be officially honored when Edward J. "Eddie" Maestas Park is dedicated on Saturday, November 18.
While controversy over Broadway's other park is grabbing all the attention, the renovation of this slice of ground at the intersection of Broadway, Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street has been remarkably smooth. One of five triangular traffic islands created when the Broadway corridor cut through downtown more than eighty years ago -- like Civic Center, it was an outgrowth of Mayor Robert Speer's City Beautiful concept -- over the years it had become just an ugly patch of dirt that sprouted nothing but the homeless. Finally, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation decided to make the space over, working with councilwomen Elbra Wedgeworth and Judy Montero and holding meetings with local businesses and residents -- both those who occupy the pricey lofts springing up in the Ballpark Neighborhood and those who sleep in the nearby shelters. "The park is for everybody," says Mark Upshaw, planner/project manager with the department. "We realize the homeless are going to use it, and that they have a right to be there." So early notions of creating public restrooms were quickly -- and wisely -- ditched in favor of a large plaza with seating, shade, lighting and hardy (very) plants. And then donors led by Brent Snyder stepped in to supplement the $275,000 budget with benches and a fan-shaped trellis.
"I've been doing this for 35 years, and it's one of my top six or eight projects," Upshaw says. And not just because of the unprecedented level of cooperation and community spirit, but "because of what this place means to the city."
By August, with plans approved and construction under way, all that was missing was a name for the park. That's when a call went out to Karle Seydel, a developer who was the first director of the Larimer Square North Merchants' Association (now the Ballpark Neighborhood Association), and an expert on the area's history. For Seydel, the answer was obvious: The park should be named for Eddie Maestas, the man who'd hired Seydel to help bring back the neighborhood. "It was something that would give hope," Seydel explains. He even provided the wording of the ordinance that Denver City Council approved in October, making the park title official -- and breaking precedent with the inclusion of Maestas's nickname, "Eddie." It may have been the longest ordinance ever presented to council, with fourteen whereases extolling Maestas's contributions to the city, not the least among them his green chile and award-winning Italian sausage. But then, Seydel had a lot to work with. Even though Eddie never ventured far from Larimer Street, his influence was boundless.
"Eddie was the appropriate name for this park," Upshaw says. "He was the right person to acknowledge." And so a plaque installed at Edward J. "Eddie" Maestas Park will conclude with this: "For his selfless service and community work, respect for all, engaging manner, inspiration, charm and generosity..."
A week before the grand-opening ceremony, the park was still ringed with chain-link fence, with another ring -- this one of the homeless in their sleeping bags and bedrolls -- on the sidewalk in front of the fence. But Eddie's spirit was already in place.
Across the street, at the Denver Rescue Mission, which has held down this particular corner for more than thirty years and was one of the stakeholders that helped in the park-planning process, Ray Maestas, Eddie's great-nephew, was talking to the people in front of the shelter, suggesting places to eat, asking if he could help. Ray grew up in the neighborhood and hung out at Johnnie's Market when he was just a kid. "Eddie was a really great role model," he remembers. "I followed my own path, but he was such a tremendous influence in my own education, plus my professional growth."
Growth that led him to a job working with the homeless. "Eddie had a heart for the homeless people," Ray says. "They would come by for handouts, and they would ask if there was any work they could do. He wouldn't hold back any food, but he would make them work, maybe sweep the walks."
Even when Larimer Street was at its worst, Johnnie's Market always looked its best. Eddie "led by example by always maintaining a clean and nice looking store with flower pots hanging from its awnings, even when other storefronts looked as sad and as harsh as the folks who loitered in front of them," reads one of the whereases in the city ordinance.
"It was a wonderful little gathering place for the community," Ray says. "He had time and food for anybody."
And now he's inspired a place for anybody. Eddie died a few months after he closed his shop, and he didn't get to see everything that's happened on Larimer --both the good and the bad. Many of the mom-and-pop businesses he fought to help found their salvation in selling out to developers; there's a parking lot where La Casa de Manuel and the Elbow Room once stood. But so much of the neighborhood was saved, thanks to Eddie's efforts and a winning pitch for Coors Field. "We didn't want to see all this come down and become parking lots," Eddie explained. "That was our game plan."
The old Johnnie's deli area has been resurrected as Scruffy Murphy's, an Irish homage to this melting pot of a street. Just up Larimer, a new market will open at the start of the new year. Up at 23rd, Snooze fills the former dance hall where Eddie met his wife, Helen. And a block away, there's now a park dedicated to the man who saw what was possible and made it possible. Eddie Maestas gave his heart to the Larimer Street neighborhood. Now the heart of the neighborhood bears his name.
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