Neighborhood Botch

Denver police officer Tyrone Campbell is a familiar face in north Denver's Cole neighborhood. He's one of the few Denver cops who carries a personal pager for calls from residents and has a souped-up, bass-thumping CD player wired into his cruiser.

As he makes his rounds through the neighborhood, kids on bikes wave to him and shop owners chat with him about food and travel. And the many in Cole who congregate in front of known drug houses regard him with a wary respect.

Campbell's a black officer, which is to say he feels that he's in a no-win situation. Black kids often respond to him and sometimes expect he'll cut them a break. Hispanics, who make up the majority of Cole residents, would rather deal with the Hispanic cops on the beat.

Campbell's upbeat, though; he says life in Cole is getting better. Crime is down overall, he insists, though the statistics don't back him up on that point. Crack and heroin are still a major problem. Many drug houses remain; while he shows them to a reporter, suspicious forms peer back at him from behind the curtains.

The cop's salary is paid for by the federally funded Weed and Seed program, which was designed to root out crime with "community based" policing, the kind of hands-on contact Campbell practices. Funding runs out in 1997; Campbell doesn't know where he'll be then, or whether the city will even continue community policing, although officials say they're committed to it. He's also not sure what these changes could mean for Cole, some of whose residents have struggled through the years to keep the place from becoming a total slum.

At 38th and Humboldt, on what Campbell calls a low-key day, the squad car ducks into an alley lined with crooked fences. Campbell stops and gets out, slipping into a backyard that stands between a white one-story house and detached garage. Two men in their late thirties are loitering around the garage. Both look not-quite-there, and one has scabs up and down his arm, a sure sign of heroin abuse.

Inside the dim garage are a sofa, a bed, some chairs and everything one needs to get lit: propane burners, spoons, hydrogen peroxide, needles, baking soda, Bunsen burners, Brillo-pad filters and a crack pipe decorated with a carefully airbrushed skull. Campbell smashes the crack pipe with his foot.

As Campbell grills the two men, another officer, Fred Ybarra, arrives, and the suspects calmly try to talk themselves out of trouble. Campbell knocks on the back door of the house; he's looking for a known drug dealer who lives there with his mother. The dealer's not home, but his wheelchair-bound mom is. Campbell asks her if she knows the two men who are trespassing in her yard. There seems to be recognition in her eyes, but she shakes her head no.

One of the loiterers is handcuffed for trespassing, but the woman doesn't want to file a complaint, so he's released with a stern warning not to come back. The other man, it turns out, is wanted on a drug charge in Adams County, and he's taken back to the District 2 police station on Colorado Boulevard and put in a holding cell. Campbell fills out his paperwork, but he knows what will likely happen next: A police van will take the suspect to headquarters. If he doesn't post bond there, Adams County officers will pick him up and give him a court date, which he'll ignore. And he'll be right back in the neighborhood.

And one smashed crack pipe won't shut down the dealer's garage. "The cops raided the place last summer," one neighbor says, and the dealer was hauled away. "That same evening they brought him back, and he's been there ever since."

Which seems symptomatic of Cole: Everyone knows what the problems are, but solutions that are more than temporary are tough to come by.

One of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, Cole is also one of the city's most frequently used social laboratories, where experimental programs to help the disenfranchised are dreamed up and highly publicized, and new ways of spending--and misspending--federal, state and city money are conducted by government officials and a few neighborhood residents alike.

More than $6 million has been pumped into Cole since the late Eighties; a good portion has passed through the hands of a nonprofit organization called the Cole Coalition. The coalition was created as an umbrella organization to unite people and nonprofit groups concerned about the neighborhood's future. But the coalition today bears little resemblance to that vision, having taken some severe political blows--and Cole is still one of Denver's grimmest neighborhoods.

Cole is home to just over 4,000 people, more than a third of whom live below the poverty line, according to the 1990 federal census. Lacking the notoriety of nearby Five Points, Cole simply is, an often invisible place where a small but not insubstantial piece of Denver's working-class and ethnic history has played out, where the city's railyards once set up shop and where ethnic groups of practically every color have staked out constantly shifting pieces of turf for most of the century.

Since the late 1980s, a combination of city, state and federal money has flooded the neighborhood, targeting everything from job training and rehabilitation centers to law enforcement programs and cops' salaries to housing renovations and street beautification projects. Yet the drama that has taken place in Cole this decade has been one of well-intentioned but often inexperienced leaders acquiring funds and then losing them because of mismanagement and political bickering.

Cole seems habitually to get the short end of the stick. This is where Denver's drug-gang problems were born and where anti-tax fanatic Douglas Bruce was found guilty of being a slumlord. The neighborhood used to be home to a prestigious Montessori program until it was moved from Mitchell Elementary School to southwest Denver. Similarly, the Denver School for the Arts was booted out of Cole Middle School this past fall in favor of a Washington Park location.

To some, the departure of these institutions is a sign, despite the influx of money, of an overall indifference to the neighborhood's fate--except when a public-relations point about "helping the poor" can be manufactured.

"You've got one of the poorest neighborhoods in the community being exploited," says a city official who asks not to be identified. "You have poor people who are not particularly sophisticated, and to be excluding them is huge. The city is allowing this to happen."

In a city known for its neighborhoods, Cole is an amorphous area. Officials say it's contained within eighty or so square blocks, from Downing Street east to York Street and from Martin Luther King Boulevard (32nd Street) north to 40th Street. Unlike Curtis Park, to the west, Cole is not being gentrified by yuppies. Unlike nearby Five Points, which is built around active Welton Street, Cole isn't built around anything; it's built between. Bruce Randolph Avenue (named after the late barbecue owner and philanthropist) is Cole's central street, but it's a business and social hub only in fits and starts.

Some other neighborhoods, like Baker or Highlands, have sharper boundaries. Cole, by contrast, stretches. The large grounds of Cole Middle School and Mitchell Elementary, across the street from each other, lend the neighborhood visual elbow room. Huge abandoned buildings break up the area into an airy collection of bungalows, liquor stores, groceries, churches and California-style row houses. Only on the east side of Cole, around High Street, do you see the neat, uniformed residential blocks so common in many other Denver neighborhoods. The more valuable property is closer to York, and the most long-standing ethnic group in Cole lives there: These days, that means African-Americans. Most of the rest of Cole is Hispanic.

Cole started as a working-class neighborhood, home to smelters, foundries, factories, railyards and the men and women who worked them. At its northern edge are the remains of its industrial heritage: large, abandoned factories and unused rail lines that snake across the asphalt, disappearing into gravelly fields littered with weeds and glass.

The area first became populated in the 1860s, as Denver grew to the northeast from downtown. Cole was originally platted as "Eastside" and then subdivided into additions: Hyde Park and then, in 1868, Ford's Addition. The neighborhood was later renamed for Carlos M. Cole, a superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

The neighborhood's initial lure lay in the appeal of Ford Park, a park and racetrack laid out between Race and Downing and from 36th to 38th, but when railroad tracks supplanted the park in 1870, Cole's working-class status was confirmed. It became part of the city in 1874.

The junction of the Kansas Pacific and Denver Pacific rail lines was at 40th and Walnut Streets, in the northwest corner of the neighborhood. Many railroad workers lived near the yards east of Downing. The still-standing Annunciation Church at 36th and Lafayette got its start as a church for Irish railroad workers.

Railroad jobs necessitated temporary housing, and the hub of Cole took shape in the 1890s with the construction of the Franklin Hotel at what is now Bruce Randolph and Franklin. It still stands today, an impressive three-story building with shops and apartments that gives Cole its strongest neighborhood feel.

More than a century ago the neighborhood was dominated by Irish and German immigrants, though some Eastern Europeans--Russians, Poles, Hungarians--as well as Scandinavians also settled there. Many blacks had settled around Five Points, but segregated housing and real estate practices kept them west of Downing until the 1930s. Even so, Cole was home to Bradford Turner, owner of the first black-owned laundry in Denver, who purchased a home at 3525 Gilpin Street in 1919 and lived there until 1979.

"Even as late as 1950," local historian Wallace Yvonne McNair writes in a survey of the neighborhood, "the Cole population was overwhelmingly white. Of the 6,883 residents at that time, only 6.6 percent were non-white." In the next decade, a steady migration of blacks eastward toward Stapleton Airport and Montbello left the neighborhood with a population of 7,259, nearly evenly split among Anglos, blacks and Hispanics.

Since 1960, white flight and then black flight have left Cole with about half its peak number of residents, most of whom are Hispanic. An increasing number of Mexican nationals, many of whom are believed to be illegal immigrants, have settled into the northwest corner of Cole. African-Americans tend to live farther east and south.

Once the railroad jobs left, a lot of industries located in north Denver followed suit, and new businesses never materialized to take their place. A neighborhood that used to be self-contained--with retail shops, the old Alpine Theatre, clothing stores, grocery stores--disintegrated.

Several years ago Father Mark Pranaitis started Neighborhood Partners, a house-renovation project in Cole that has managed to buy, renovate and sell fifteen houses to low-income families. The project, though successful, didn't create "a strong internal economy," says Pranaitis. "The neighborhood imports everything and exports nothing but labor," which, he points out, goes to companies not based in the neighborhood.

By the mid-Eighties the neighborhood had bottomed out. "It wasn't located right next to downtown," says ex-city official Billie Bramhall. "It wasn't like Curtis Park, where you had beautiful old historic homes and some of it might be gentrified. It was small brick houses that were quite old. It didn't have an exciting shopping street, and the people were poor." Gangs had settled in, crime was soaring, and most anyone with the money to leave was doing so. The stage was set for the many players who in the 1990s would attempt Cole's resurrection.

In 1989 city officials and neighborhood leaders slowly came together (each group claiming credit for the initial idea) to address the problems of Cole.

That year the city council appropriated $665,000 (from the Capital Improvement Budget, an unprecedented move), which would be followed by appropriations of $1 million in each of the next two years. On February 17, 1990, Mayor Federico Pena presented a symbolic check for the $665,000 to the Cole Coalition--which at that point was not an incorporated nonprofit but rather a collective of residents. Pena reportedly promised the neighbors that they, not the city, would control how the money was spent.

"At the very beginning, it was very idealistic," former longtime resident Rae McDowell recalls. "It was put together by people working in the neighborhood a long time." There was little hierarchy and plenty of support. Meetings drew anywhere from thirty to a hundred people, she says. (These days, a Weed and Seed meeting that draws a dozen people is viewed as encouraging.)

In the early going, egos seemed subdued, enthusiasm remarkably high. The residents voted to have a fifteen-person board, comprising business leaders, officials of nonprofits, city officials and residents. The Central Bank of Denver earmarked $300,000 for the neighborhood, which it gave directly to the coalition. The work in Cole focused primarily on housing rehab and beautification efforts. The latter included landscaping, tree planting, trash pickup and improved lights, signs and sewers. Residents were eligible to receive $5,000 to rehab the exteriors of their homes. A later program offered residents low-interest loans of $7,000 to renovate interiors.

Coalition leaders estimate that between 300 and 400 homes in the neighborhood were worked on, and between that and an improved real estate market, the rate of home ownership increased to 60 percent in 1992. The renovations, says McDowell, allowed many "to stay comfortably in the neighborhood for another five or ten years."

Then, in 1991, everything changed. Pena didn't run for re-election, and Wellington Webb became mayor, which meant a whole host of new city officials. "Every new administration wants to do things differently," says Billie Bramhall, whose former department, the Community Development Agency, helped oversee the administering of the money. "It always takes a year to get your feet wet and figure out what you want to continue and what you don't."

Webb, who grew up in Cole, presented the coalition its third symbolic check in 1992, but some say the new administration was less interested in Cole; at the same time, the first wave of volunteers who had put the coalition together was burning out. It was time for some fresh faces, and into the wake stepped an unknown to the neighborhood, a black woman named Barbara Semien.

Semien, a former bank employee, had moved into Cole five years earlier and decided she wanted to get involved. She joined the coalition and within a year ran for president.

"Barbara was elected as a compromise between competing factions," says Denver City Councilman Hiawatha Davis. "She was an unknown, and she ended up being a real terror."

As many neighborhood insiders tell it, the day Semien showed up was the day the coalition started to fall apart. Semien is, her critics charge, defensive, distrustful, paranoid and hard to get along with. "She had her own agenda that never got shared with a lot of folks," says McDowell. "She's very bright, knows how to do her homework--but she can be quite acerbic. It got to be you asked a question and she said, 'It's none of your business.' There was a lot of fallout, bad feelings, accusations."

Semien has her supporters, but not many. "To me, personally, her heart was in the right place," says Chuck Phillips, who owns a vocational-training center in north-central Cole. "She's a fighter. There's always somebody who doesn't like you for the way you walk or talk."

While critics paint her as a coalition-wrecker, Semien says the organization was running into trouble long before she got there. "I believe there is no organization that in one day turns into something else," she says. "The whole organization has a history of problems that existed long before I came along."

The hard feelings in Cole cannot easily be boiled down, but near the root is the question of whether the substantial dollars earmarked for the neighborhood were to be controlled by the city or the coalition.

"This was supposed to be a historical project--the first time a poor neighborhood was given the means by which to improve itself," says Semien. "It was dependent on the community. All the city was supposed to do was advising."

According to court documents, the city contracted several times with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority--and not the coalition--to actually implement various programs in the neighborhood. The coalition, according to the documents, had only advisory roles in "implementing guidelines" and determining "the appropriate reuse of targeted property."

Still, most agree it was the coalition and not DURA making the decisions as to how the money was spent, and many in the neighborhood felt, as did Semien, that the money belonged to the coalition. "Dealing with the government--information just wasn't very easy to get," says McDowell. "There was a certain frustration that we weren't getting information, we weren't getting the truth."

The problems between the city and the coalition--and within the coalition itself--started brewing over a giant, derelict Victorian house, probably the largest in the neighborhood. It was bought by the coalition from the city for $5,000 in order to be renovated and used as a job-training or educational center. The coalition, with the city's approval, had set aside $400,000 to be used for economic-development projects, money that would have renovated the Victorian.

The house at 3806 Gilpin had been identified early on by coalition block captains as a site worth saving. At various meetings, the community voted overwhelmingly to rehab the property, even though the specifics of the project were at that time vague.

"I felt pressured to get answers," Semien says. "How, in three years, if there was money and the community wanted to do it--how come it hasn't happened? That's what the big discontent was."

What's worse, she says, the neighborhood's activists were splitting into two factions. One group thought the funds for the project were a done deal and wanted things to get rolling. Another group thought that the $400,000 in economic-development money that would have funded the renovation was the final chunk of money the neighborhood could expect and wanted to look into other options for spending it. "Nobody could ever get it together to turn in a business plan, and I don't know why," says Tony Tichy, a former coalition leader.

Soon the coalition turned to Hiawatha Davis for help. "The staff of the Community Development Agency--they were asking for bureaucratic justification, which frustrated the coalition," Davis says. "All the maneuvering was transferred to me. They felt I should just go and cut through the red tape for them. I wasn't ready to try and cut through the bureaucratic mess at CDA."

Which, he says, made him a convenient target for the coalition--a symbol of an ineffective city trying to control "funds they felt they had exclusive rights to," as he puts it.

Then the situation became even more inflamed. In May 1995, on the eve of city council elections, Semien and the coalition distributed fliers campaigning against Davis. The only problem was, they used volunteers from Americorps, the federal domestic version of the Peace Corps, to pass them out.

Semien says that the coalition never did any campaigning and that the fliers were merely announcing a forum for city council candidates for the purpose of trying to get answers from a recalcitrant city government. But that July, the Governor's Commission on National and Community Service concluded that the coalition had inappropriately gotten involved in the election, and it stripped the coalition of a $1.2 million Americorps grant.

To this day, Semien denies any wrongdoing. "We watched our labor go down the drain," Semien says. "And the questions we wanted answered, we never got answered. We were just trying to get answers from the city why the funds were not being released."

On the heels of the Americorps fiasco, the city withheld from the coalition the remaining chunk of the promised $2.7 million--about $815,000. It offered the money up for bid to other nonprofits in the neighborhood. Some of the funds came from $360,000 in housing-rehab money that DURA was holding on to but that had never been spent. Most of the rest was the $400,000 the coalition had set aside to rehab 3806 Gilpin.

At the time, the city argued that the coalition just didn't have its act together, but coalition leaders took the city to court, saying the coalition was a third-party beneficiary all along, that it was essentially controlling where the money was spent, even if DURA was actually holding some of the funds. The coalition's request for a freeze on the money was denied, though Judge Edward Simmons did write that the city, in withholding funds, was getting back at the coalition for distributing the fliers against Davis. "Political retribution against plaintiff is the only reasonable inference which can be drawn from the actions of [the city]," Simmons wrote in his finding.

Now the city and the coalition are in the process of settling the dispute, for a reported $125,000, but nothing is officially on the table.

It's a far cry from the warm fuzzies everyone talked about in the early Nineties. Some feel the problems stem from a combination of the coalition's belligerence and the city's growing lack of interest in Cole. When asked whether this administration cares less about Cole than Pena's troops did, CDA's housing manager, Ernest Hughes, hedges. "The environment is different, the time is different," he says. "Because of Pena's focus on Cole, now there can be less focus, or a different focus. It's probably a little harder to work in Cole because the coalition is more adversarial now." And the neighborhood, despite some visible improvements, continues as a high-crime area where most residents struggle merely to survive while their "leaders" squabble over government funds.

The Cole Coalition's troubles didn't end with Americorps. In 1994 it received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to plan a YouthBuild program that takes 24 young people between the ages of 16 and 24, gets them through high school or its equivalent and trains them in the construction trade. The goal was to have four homes in the neighborhood renovated by the end of the program. In 1995 the Coalition received more than $800,000 to implement it.

A year later the program is barely off the ground. (The coalition had spent $153,000 of its funds as of the end of October.) A companion program in Aurora that received funding at the same time is doing well, by all accounts. Because of the disparity in the two programs' productivity, the federal government is auditing the Cole-based YouthBuild.

"Rocky Mountain Mutual Housing in Aurora has been very successful," says Guadalupe Herrera, director of the regional Housing and Urban Development office. "They've really run with that. They've hired 24 young people, and they've been very successful in coming together with the Aurora schools to get them their GED training."

And the Cole version? "What's the holdup?" asks Herrera. "What they started out to do was an awesome undertaking. I'm sorry they haven't been able to administer it correctly."

As with so many tussles about money, control is the issue. Officials of Denver Area Youth Services, a citywide nonprofit organization, say applying for the HUD grant was their idea, and that they approached the Cole Coalition because they wanted to work with a nonprofit within the neighborhood. But DAYS executive director Tony Perea says he allowed the coalition to control the money, and the coalition soon sent Perea a letter saying his services were no longer needed.

"We couldn't muster any real enthusiasm in bringing our interests together," says Perea, who adds that the coalition pretty much disregarded his group's opinion on every decision about how to run the program.

Semien and the coalition's general counsel, Frank Vigil, deny this is the case. They're reluctant to admit to any delays at all. Any problems, they say, were due to bickering with DAYS.

Semien insists that YouthBuild--a grant several years in the making--is what will allow the coalition to transcend politics and continue its efforts to help the neighborhood. But that may be merely bravado. Many people in Cole don't even know the coalition still exists, largely because the group rarely holds public meetings these days.

Still, while the Cole Coalition licks its wounds and tries to repair its image, other organizations are filling the void. Local activist Bert Weston recently formed yet another umbrella organization, the Cole Neighborhood Consortium, whose goals she describes as "inclusive" and "collaborative." Yet she can't even say whether members of the Cole Coalition, the most visible organization in the community, were even contacted about joining. "I don't think this decision was driven by any motivation for or against the coalition," she says.

Cole's factions make it practically unique, says the CDA's Hughes. "Denver's communities of color are so small that generally you have one main organization meeting the needs of the community," he says. "But a large part of one has to die before another takes its place."

And the Cole Neighborhood Consortium appears to be gaining ground. It managed to acquire nearly half of the $800,000 the city withheld from Semien and the coalition.

While this dispute rages, life in Cole slogs along. Its days as a highly publicized social laboratory for civic improvement may be winding down. "Nobody cares about the Cole neighborhood anymore," says the city official who asked not to be identified. "So they let the whole thing go to hell in a handbasket. Nobody was watching, and it was allowed to escalate. It appears we care about Cole, but nobody really cares about the neighborhood."

Except for some of the people who live there. At night things can get a little out of control. Longtime resident Henry Garcia protects his alley trash runs with a shotgun, and Sam Gomez has had to duck for cover in his own kitchen while gangbangers--who are, thankfully, poor marksmen, he points out--have turned his block into a war zone. Everyone talks about gang intimidation, broken car windows and slashed tires.

Cole's underworld culture seems to live in the wide alleyways, which alternately function as either scenes of loud late-night parties or highly organized routes by which gangs ply their drug trade and evade the cops.

Rae McDowell, who left Cole in the early Nineties because of gang violence and still misses her big Victorian in north Cole, remembers a time when Cole had a strong neighborhood identity, when there were even block parties that didn't revolve around illegal drugs.

Edward Hendrix, who owns the only black grocery store in Cole and has lived in the neighborhood for 53 years, remembers when it was safer. "People cared back in the day," he says. "You could leave your house open and nobody fucked with it. Now, you can lock your door and somebody'll still fuck with it, while your neighbor next door says, 'I ain't seen nothin'.'"

The buzz in Cole these days--among its residents who care about its future--isn't over the coalition or the consortium. It's over the long-vacant Wyatt School, which was recently approved by the Denver school board as the site for Denver's first Edison Project charter elementary school, a for-profit venture.

Luring Edison to Cole was the brainchild of Chuck Phillips, who bought the Denver Tramway Company car barn several years ago and converted part of it into a vocational center for the Community College of Denver. Inside the huge building, which also houses his daughter's appliance supply business and a vehicle storage company, are enormous hangar-like rooms. Wyatt sits across the street, and Phillips hopes to convert some of his space to accommodate the charter school.

The only catch now is the $3 million to $4 million his New Cole Economic Development Corporation must raise in two years to refurbish the 1889 school building. He's optimistic.

"Cole has grown and bloomed in the last three years," Phillips says. "It has made a tremendous turnaround. I have no idea of seeing this neighborhood fail."

But many of the people in Cole who care about such things believe that the future of the neighborhood is in economic development--only 8 percent of the neighborhood is commercial. Cole Coalition leaders argue that they've been trying to focus on that all along. And others admit that economic development is going to be quite difficult. "The part that's been done was the easiest part," says Father Mark Pranaitis. "Economic development is a whole lot harder."

Pranaitis and others wonder if Cole can get over the hump and if all the changes--largely cosmetic--are the first step in luring homeowners and businesses or merely a facade for a neighborhood going nowhere fast.

"Cole was a factory town," says Pranaitis. "That was a history of the neighborhood, and you can't escape your history. Neighborhoods are what they are. It's very difficult to take Cole and make it Curtis Park. It never was."

Visit to read related Westword stories.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >