One day last month an army of bulldozers and house-movers showed up, and there went Irene Redfern's neighborhood. But not Irene Redfern.
For the past six decades Redfern's life has revolved around the intersection of Downing and Evans. When Safeway decided to zap more than a dozen houses on her block in order to build a new store, the 84-year-old widow wondered, "Why would I want to leave my home?" Instead, she cut a deal that allows her to stay in her home for as long as she lives.
Relaxing in her living room while workers outside her window busily push around dirt where her neighbors used to live, Redfern recalls an earlier visit by "that nice young man" from Safeway's real estate department: "He said anyone who's lived here for sixty years shouldn't have to move out." She pauses to grin and adds, "I agreed with him."
It would take a lot to uproot Redfern from that south-side neighborhood just west of the University of Denver. After all, she weathered a real calamity there after her husband, Harry, died 34 years ago. "I had married at eighteen and I hadn't worked," she says. She tried selling Avon products and worked briefly at J.C. Penney and a motel. Then, thanks to a friend, she found herself a new career at age fifty: tending bar at the Silver Spruce Lounge, a watering hole practically across the street from her house.
She stayed for twenty years, working 6 p.m. till closing.
"I hadn't been the type to hang out in a bar, but everyone wound up thinking I owned the place," says Redfern. "It was a very interesting place to work. It was a corner bar, and there was a university clinic with hospital technicians nearby. There were lots of hockey players from Canada, and professors would come in late at night."
Redfern marvels at the fact that DU frat boys asked her to become their housemother; one customer wanted her to move to Breckenridge to work at a place there and live rent-free. But there was a reason for her popularity, although she's too modest to make the connection: Redfern apparently wasn't the type of bartender to serve 'em and leave 'em. And in a tough situation, she didn't--and doesn't--panic.
"Oh, there were all types there, and there were some good people," she recalls of her days at the defunct Silver Spruce (Fagan's Restaurant now sits on the site). "There was Butch, from Canada. I remember one night, there he was in a booth, soused. I said to him, `Butch, you can't walk. The cops would pick you up in nothing flat.' So I called a cab, but the cabdriver wouldn't take him. And I said, `Darn you, Butch, how are you going to get home?' I wound up driving him, but first he treated me to steak and eggs at Denny's."
Memories of her bartending years at the Silver Spruce--and a briefer stint after that at the nearby Kentucky Inn--stick in Redfern's mind like randomly thrown darts: the certain people who would leave their lettuce and tomatoes slopped onto their tables; the drunken mathematician; the girl in the bathroom trying to hang herself with the towel machine while Irene stood outside shouting, "Donna, let me in there! Donna, let me in there!"
It's not hard to imagine sitting across a bar from Redfern and saying, "Hey, Irene. How about another one?" Easygoing, with a warm, crinkly smile, she must have been a natural as a bartender, despite her lack of experience. She recalls the job with a tickle.
"I had customers who wouldn't let anybody fix them a Bloody Mary but me," she says. "But it was something I never tasted."
Until Safeway came along, Redfern had never been pressured to leave her home, either, but she handled that situation pretty well, too.
In 1992 the supermarket chain announced plans to replace its store at 1222 East Evans Avenue. Originally, eighteen houses south of Evans along Downing and Marion streets were to be demolished and the current store closed before construction started. But protests from the neighborhood, including opposition by the West University Community Association, led Safeway to promise last summer that the old store would remain open while the new one was being built.
Safeway won over the association--although not all of its members--by making several concessions. Last October Denver City Council unanimously approved rezoning for the project, despite strong protests by some residents. "The people closest to it still have reservations," says association president Jim Zavist, "and I think justifiably so." In the end, the company spared three houses along Warren, on the south edge of the project, and put them back on the market. And it saved Irene Redfern's house on the north side of the site.
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The trim little house was built back in 1927--before there was even an old Safeway in the neighborhood. Harry and Irene Redfern purchased it a few years later for $2,800 and raised their son there. Although the company originally offered her $50,000, she wound up with more lettuce than that, as well as a proviso that even though Safeway owned her property, it would allow her to stay there and maintain the home for the rest of her life.
Redfern acknowledges that the outcome might have been different if her house had stood in the middle of the block where Safeway wanted to build.
"I really got kind of a sweetheart deal out of it," she says. "But I have to laugh. I know I'm sick. I'm on dialysis three days a week because I've got kidney failure. But who knows? I may live to be a hundred.