It's mid-afternoon on an unseasonably warm October day, and Taz is rubbing Rebecca's back. They're hanging out on the steps at downtown's Skyline Park. Teens and young adults periodically stop by to bum a cigarette, chat or share some fries. Swells of laughter mix with the soft thwacking sound of Hacky Sacks hitting canvas sneakers, and everyone seems to be in a good mood.
That is, until the peaceful setting is ripped apart by the roar of two motorcycles driving through the park, synchronized and carrying members of the Mall Motorcycle Unit, Denver police officers whose duty it is to protect the public using the park and the 16th Street Mall perpendicular to it.
But a planned strip of private outdoor seating in Skyline Park's public space for Palomino Euro Bistro--an upscale chain restaurant under construction in the Park Central building adjoining the park at 16th and Arapahoe streets--has the kids and one of their self-appointed advocates, Dave DeForest-Stalls, wondering whether the "public" includes, as DeForest-Stalls puts it, "filthy street kids, homeless youth and so-called gutter punks."
Just whose interests will be served by the restaurant's expansion into public park space?
"The cops are already trying to hassle us out of here," Taz says, and most of the thirty or so youths hanging out around him nod in agreement. "They put in some kind of outdoor seating, and you don't think they're going to let these people eat their fine meals with us dirty animals hanging around, do you?"
DeForest-Stalls doesn't think so, either, which is why the 42-year-old director of The Spot, an urban youth center eight blocks from Skyline Park, has appealed to Mayor Wellington Webb and Denver Parks and Recreation to ensure that no one forces the kids to leave when the proposed outdoor cafe seating goes in. "I know these aren't your Izod-clad prep-school kids we're talking about," says DeForest-Stalls, a former Denver parks manager. "But public is public, and I find it hard to believe that anyone's going to let these kids hang around people sitting around drinking their $10 glasses of chardonnay. At some point, there's going to be some effort to push the kids out of the park."
Palomino general manager Jeff Martin swears it's not going to be him or anyone from the eatery's Seattle-based parent company, Restaurants Unlimited. "We're talking about a fairly large space there at the park," Martin says. "Our patio is only going to take up a small portion of it, and as long as the kids aren't pestering patrons or causing trouble for patrons, then I won't have any problem with them. We knew there was a city park there when we negotiated the site, and our understanding of a city park is that it's everyone's civic right to use it.
"In the evening, when there are obviously transient adults in the park, I've actually witnessed drug transactions. But the kids have been pretty cool, and I think as long as everyone uses common sense and treats each other decently, then we won't have any problems."
But not everyone thinks that the young people who have made Skyline Park their home-away-from-home--sometimes it's the only home they know--are capable of reasonable behavior. One downtown worker, who asks that her name not be used because "those kids won't hesitate to try to find out who I am and harass me," says she dreads her daily walks from her office to her home near Embassy Suites Hotel. "They're just garbage, those kids who hang around there," she says. "Sometimes they ask for money, and they'll tell you to F-off if you don't give it to them. 'Hey, lady, do you have a quarter or a cigarette?' all the time. In the summer they sleep on the grates, and their leftover food garbage, and sometimes blood and beer bottles, are all over the place. You can't even find a bare space to walk through."
Scott Hoyt, who works in a nearby office building, says the kids have taken over the park between 16th and Arapahoe to the point that others are afraid to use it. "Who wants to walk past these obnoxious kids who spit on the ground and leave their garbage all over the place?" says Hoyt, a 27-year-old computer programmer. "They're always trying to get me to give them money, and one girl started screaming at me that I was a 'fucking bastard,' right out in front of other people, when I wouldn't give her a buck. My girlfriend works in the same building I do, and we don't even feel comfortable eating lunch there, so we have to walk over to the next block."
Skyline Park stretches along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets. Parks and Rec refers to the portion bordering Park Central as Block 1, the area where most of the kids hang out; Block 2 sits alongside the Tabor Center and sports an outdoor dining section outside the Palm restaurant similar to, but smaller than, the one intended for Palomino.
Palomino has applied for a concessionaire agreement--which will have to be approved by the city council--that would enable it to line the outside of the building with tables in exchange for "an appropriate number of public events equal to what we believe the space is worth," according to Rod Lister, deputy manager for planning at Parks and Rec. "Say we think that the use of that space is worth $10,000. Then Palomino will have to host $10,000 worth of free-to-the-public events. That's why we pursued this agreement in the first place, because we wanted to enhance the park's usefulness to the public."
But DeForest-Stalls, Taz, Rebecca, seventeen-year-old Ade Williams and fifteen-year-old Red say they know they won't be welcome at those events. "They're just going to keep putting in things that appeal to the yuppies," says Williams, a senior at Denver's North High School. "They're saying they want to do things for the public at this park, but the truth is that they only want to do things for their kind of public."
The city has promised to put in two basketball half-courts on Block 3, between 17th and 18th streets. But DeForest-Stalls says that proposal won't be carried out until "the kids hanging there today are grandparents." He adds, "They have no funding for it, so Palomino will get its outdoor seating and the kids will get nothing."
Several other amenities are planned, but as Mark Upshaw, the manager of the Skyline Park project, admits, "These probably are a long time coming." He adds, "I know Dave wants to see public seating go in at the same time as the Palomino seating, but unfortunately, that isn't going to happen. We plan to implement the park improvements like benches in increments, but we still need to find the money to get it done. It'll be a while."
In the meantime, the kids are gearing up for a fight. "We get tickets all the time as it is now," says Bob, a 23-year-old who says he plans to study pre-law. "A lot of us are just normal people--we're students or we hold down jobs, and we just like to be here. We're not all drug dealers and homeless people. The cops treat us all like dirt, though, and we get tickets for the most insane things. They just like to force us to deal with going to court and paying the $25 in court costs. They think that'll get rid of us. Not likely."
Some of the kids at the park are homeless, though, and some are transients. "I'm from Omaha, and if it wasn't for meeting the people down here, I'd have been in big trouble," says Angela Slater, 23, one of the few willing to give a full name. "It makes me mad that anyone has a problem with us being here, but we're not going to leave just because some restaurant's gonna have people eating where they can watch us like we're in the zoo or something."
Taz laughs at that and makes monkey noises. "They think we're all on drugs anyway," he says, "so I'll just play right up to their expectations."
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A fair amount of drugs do go through Skyline, according to Lieutenant Mike Battista, who's in charge of the ten-officer Mall Motorcycle Unit. He estimates that an average of twenty marijuana-related arrests are made in the mall's vicinity every week. "Twice a month we do a mall sweep, where we put officers in plainclothes--and on those days, we tend to come up with a significant number of marijuana arrests, and about half of those are at Skyline Park," Battista says. "But Skyline isn't where you're going to find the crack or the heroin. These don't tend to be hardcore kids around there."
More of a concern, Battista says, is skateboarding--banned in the park because of "public safety issues"--and destruction of park property and the nearby buildings. "We have these monthly meetings--the officers, the business owners and people from the Downtown Denver Partnership--and the purpose of these meetings is to find out what problems we're having in the area," he explains. "Business owners were catching the kids etching into the glass on their buildings--do you know how much that costs to fix?--and engraving graffiti into everything. So for a while we stepped up our enforcement of the rules, like littering and destruction."
He adds, "We're not against the kids; we're against the illegal behavior."
16th Street Mall Outreach coordinator Doug Gradisar, who works with the kids, disagrees. "Let's just say there's a level of selective enforcement," says Gradisar, whose job, funded by the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative of the Colorado Trust, is to help the kids on the mall get condoms, meals, bleach kits (to clean needles) and other help. "The police will let an adult or older person get away with things they won't let the kids do. And when this restaurant opens up next spring, the first thing the cops are going to do is step up efforts to move them along, even though they have just as much right to be there as anyone else.