Shape Up Or Ship Out
Friday, May 3, 7:15 p.m.,
13th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street
Six men and six women are gathered across the street from a coffee shop, listening to Denver police officer Stacey Goss lay the ground rules for the night. "If I have to take my gun out, get behind me," she tells the group of civilians. Should she get into an exchange of gunfire, she wants the criminal to aim at her, not them. "If you decide to leave early, tell the rest so they don't look around and wonder why someone's missing."
Everyone in the group is eager to get going. Each spring for the past decade, the Unsinkables community organization has hit the streets in an effort to take back their neighborhood from the drug dealers, prostitutes and drunks who are as much a part of Capitol Hill as the mostly middle-aged professionals who would like to see it cleaned up.
The portion of Capitol Hill they call home sits between Logan and Clarkson streets and 11th and Colfax avenues; from May through October, members of the Unsinkables patrol these blocks every Friday or Saturday night with Goss, a uniformed, off-duty cop whom they pay $35 an hour to escort them.
Daniel Anthony is ready for the first walk of the year. In his wallet, he keeps a handwritten copy of the state statute that allows private citizens to make arrests. "It's to remind cops that I have the right to arrest people," says Anthony, whose overzealous policing last year earned him a lecture from District 6 Sergeant John Spezze. One of the Unsinkables' walks turned into a chase when Anthony, who is vice president of the group as well as a Guardian Angel, ran after a fleeing drug dealer. He ordered the man to drop to the ground and then pinned him down until police arrived.
He's hoping for another big catch tonight.
In addition to looking for crime, the group's members also rip fliers off light poles and pick up trash -- empty beer cans, used condoms, old shoes -- and as they march down Pennsylvania Street, heading north toward Colfax, each has a garbage bag in hand.
In a parking lot between Pennsylvania and Pearl streets that used to be a hangout for crack users, the Unsinkables stop to watch two men and a woman walk by. "This place is on the trespass list," Goss explains. Because of pervasive loitering on Capitol Hill, numerous property owners who encourage arresting trespassers on their properties have placed their addresses on a Denver Police Department list that lets cops know. Since the three walkers keep moving, Goss leaves them alone.
The neighbors cut across the parking lot to Pearl Street, where Goss pauses to look over a bulletin she keeps in her pocket; it bears the likenesses of several wanted criminals. "This one's pretty violent," she says, pointing to a man who violated his parole. She checks the bulletin against a string of people walking past, but there's no match.
As they head south down Pearl -- down what the Unsinkables believe is the neighborhood's most troubled street -- Mark Nachtigal, who works for an oil company downtown, recounts how he recently was approached seven times to buy crack along this street. "I walked from 13th to 16th, and I saw two people smoking crack in front of an apartment building," he adds. "And it was eight at night!"
By 7:50 p.m., two more neighbors have joined the group, and the Unsinkables pause outside Bonanza Liquors, where a homeless man named Mike has set up camp. They all know and like Mike, a man of indistinct age -- older than forty and younger than sixty -- who used to cut hair in better days. Goss inquires about his health, and the man says he's taking his pills; he pulls a bottle of seizure medication out of his pocket to show her. Goss tells him his buzz cut looks nice, which makes him happy.
After saying goodbye to Mike, the neighbors turn down an alley and continue on into the night.
Despite this periodic brigade, drug dealing has increased in Capitol Hill in recent years, and some of the Unsinkables have begun to wonder whether their neighborhood will ever be the kind of place they want it to be.
The answer to that question may lie in the past.
Since the turn of the last century -- around the time that the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown was living at 1340 Pennsylvania -- Capitol Hill has suffered from an identity crisis. In the early 1900s, what was originally a neighborhood for oil barons, mine operators, railroad magnates and newspaper moguls began to include people of lesser means -- as owners of vacant lots realized they could make a quick fortune by erecting apartment buildings.
An absence of zoning laws allowed apartments and businesses to rise up alongside stately Queen Anne, Neoclassical and Georgian Revival mansions. In 1901, 59 building permits had already been issued for multi-unit residences in Denver. Newspapers at the time fueled fears about the city becoming a "Gotham of tenements and slums." One article suggested that the good citizens of Capitol Hill buy vacant lots, place construction restrictions on them and then not sell any to people of "bad character," according to Denver: The City Beautiful, by Tom Noel and Barbara Norgren.
Hoping to capitalize on those fears, Warwick Downing, a Denver park commissioner, platted a Park Hill subdivision between Forest Street and Monaco Parkway and Colfax and Montview Boulevard known as Downington. "All over Capitol Hill there are instances of fine homes absolutely ruined by stores, apartments, etc.," he wrote in a prospectus designed to scare residents away from central Denver and into his development, where such types of "property assault" would not be allowed. He further wooed prospective buyers by promising that children living in this new suburb would be "free from the contaminating influence of downtown city streets," where "their delicate moral fibres are tarnished by evil associations," Noel notes in another book, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis.
The fear-mongering worked, and in the 1910s, wealthy residents began moving to Park Hill and other pastoral locations such as Cheesman Park and the Country Club district. Capitol Hill underwent further changes in the 1930s and '40s, when the Great Depression and wartime rationing of building materials forced remaining inhabitants of single-family homes to convert their huge domiciles into boardinghouses or apartments.
There was no such thing as historic preservation back then, so many of those old homes disappeared entirely in the 1950s and '60s, when mansions were bulldozed to make way for high-rises and parking lots.
Finally, in 1967, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission was formed, and three years later, Historic Denver Inc. was created to save the Molly Brown House from the fate of some of its neighbors. Brown's home is now a museum that contains many of her furnishings. At the moment, the lot next door is a dirt pile that will soon be transformed into the Bartholomew, a building of six "elegant flats" ranging in price from $389,000 to $421,500.
When they created their neighborhood organization, the Capitol Hill activists wanted to commemorate Brown, the famous Titanic survivor. But they also chose the name "Unsinkables" because they consider themselves to be unsinkable. After all, they return year after year to fight what might be a losing battle against crime.
14th Avenue and Washington Street
The group stops in front of an apartment building to wait for some stragglers. There's a man on the steps talking on a cell phone, and he isn't sure what to make of all these people standing around with a cop. "I don't know what the hell is going on," he tells the person on the other end. "Oh, maybe it's the Cinco de Mayo thing."
The "Cinco de Mayo thing" may explain why it's unusually quiet. At this hour, the drug dealing and trick turning normally start to heat up. Or maybe, as Goss speculates, things are calm because it's early in the warm season.
Once the Unsinkables are together again, they continue down Washington, where a man Goss saw huddled suspiciously with a group of people earlier in the evening passes by, brushing up against a bush. She shines her flashlight into the bush but doesn't find anything.
Unsinkables president Kathi Anderson and neighbor Beth Ostlund, who'd been walking farther back, catch up with the others. They start talking about Bonanza Liquors, an establishment the group would like to see shut down. "You should buy it and turn it into a wine-and-cheese shop," Anderson tells Ostlund.
As the neighbors make their way down the street, Guardian Angel Anthony points out a first-floor apartment; a man used to peer in at the girls who lived there. "There are zillions of them," he says of the Peeping Toms in Capitol Hill. He once caught a man looking through the window of one of the apartment buildings he manages in the neighborhood. "Every building has a story."
Every person has a story, too. Like Kenneth Marion. The first time the Unsinkables saw him two years ago, he was wearing a flashy, green leather suit with no shirt underneath, matching pants and cowboy boots. The one thing he wasn't flamboyant about was drug dealing.
"I called the police once a week to say that Kenneth was out in front of my house. Everyone in the neighborhood knew who he was," Nachtigal recalls. "But I never saw him actually sell drugs."
"He was very arrogant and defiant," Anderson adds. "He was like, 'Yeah, you're not going to catch me.' He would say 'Hi' to us when we were out walking."
After tracking Marion for almost a year, the police set up a sting in May 2001, and Marion fell for the trap. "He told the cops he could take them somewhere to buy drugs," Nachtigal says.
Marion pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and was sentenced to twelve years in prison in December. His prosecution was a proud moment for the Unsinkables. "The thing that helped put him away was pressure from the neighbors," Goss says. "By writing letters to the judge saying, 'Look, this guy is a menace to our neighborhood,' they got the court's attention."
But there are a lot more Kenneth Marions out there. And it was because of people like him that residents in Capitol Hill banded together in the first place. Tom Shockcor didn't know just how bad things were when he bought an old home on the 1200 block of Pearl in February 1989. "As a real-estate broker, I'm supposed to know about location, location, location," he says. "But I seemed to have missed the boat on that."
Shockcor learned what a difference a few blocks can make in Capitol Hill; before moving to Pearl, he had lived just four streets away, on the other side of Colfax. "I didn't know about the crime over there, but by spring I realized what I'd gotten into," he says. "There was drug dealing and prostitution in front of, on the side of and in back of my house. And there was a 42-unit apartment building down the block that was nothing but a terror."
Residents like Shockcor, afraid to walk around the neighborhood, felt like prisoners in their own homes, so in late 1990, several of them contacted Cathy Donahue, their city councilwoman at the time, and planned a meeting. "I was shocked at how many people showed up," Shockcor says of the approximately one hundred residents who attended.
The Denver police chief came, as did vice cops, zoning and health-department officials and a representative from Mayor Federico Peña's office. After the meeting, Shockcor got a call from Ed Thomas, then a Denver policeman, who wanted to help. Thomas and the neighbors started formulating ideas to combat crime in Capitol Hill. "The plan was to organize, and we knew we'd have to continue this through generations of new property owners; otherwise, it would fail," Shockcor says.
A few months later, in March 1991, the Unsinkables formed. With a core group of neighbors who have been involved since the beginning and new residents joining all the time, the sixty-member organization is still going strong. The Unsinkables raised the money to pay for Goss -- who has been accompanying the group on its patrols for five years -- by soliciting donations from home- and business-owners; before Goss, other officers took turns. "Some years we've averaged twelve arrests per night; other times, we're lucky to put a couple of people in detox," Anderson says.
There is no other neighborhood group in Denver quite like the Unsinkables, and no other neighborhood quite like Capitol Hill. "They're probably the most dedicated group I've worked with," says Thomas, now a city councilman who represents the area. "They will not let that neighborhood go. It's been a struggle, but they're winning."
Or are they? Crime statistics suggest that Thomas's pronouncement is only partly true. While the number of homicides, robberies, sex assaults and aggravated assaults in the Unsinkables' neighborhood have decreased over the last decade, drug dealing has shot up in the last three years, breaking a long period of relative calm.
"A few years ago, one guy commented that we were just picking up a lot of trash; that's because we didn't have much else to do," says Nachtigal. "But this past summer, Pearl Street was the worst it's ever been."
"We can't figure out what it is," Anderson says.
David Quiñones, a police lieutenant assigned to south Capitol Hill, doesn't know what to make of the recent crime spurt, either. "We've put a lot more resources out there, so that's probably why there are more arrests, but for some reason we had an increase last year in the crack trade, and it took hold of that little area," he says.
In 2000, there were 220 drug-related arrests in the area between Colfax and 11th avenues and Logan and Clarkson streets; last year there were 341. In 1999, 373 drug arrests were made, and in 1998, there were 304, but in the years prior, there were far fewer. In 1992, the Unsinkables' first full year of existence, there were only 51 drug-related arrests. Liquor-law violations have also increased since the Unsinkables formed, from 153 arrests in 1992 to 435 last year. And Capitol Hill as a whole is still one of the highest-crime areas in Denver; it ranked 19th in overall offenses last year out of 72 Denver neighborhoods, according to the police department.
Police have acknowledged that prostitution has also increased on Colfax, even if the number of prostitution arrests in the Unsinkables' community has actually decreased, peaking in 1994 at 41 arrests and dropping to just 15 in 2001 ("Tricks of the Trade," May 2). This issue has taken on new urgency, however, and Mayor Wellington Webb recently announced that he would like to run in local newspapers pictures of "johns" who are arrested; in addition, two recent prostitution stings in Capitol Hill resulted in dozens of arrests and filled the city jail to overflowing.
Rather than giving credit to the Unsinkables for the reduction of certain types of crime, critics in the neighborhood doubt that the group has had much of an impact. In fact, some people contend that instead of deterring criminals, the Unsinkables have simply forced them to get smarter.
"The crack dealers know when their walks are," says Tom Oberbroeckling, owner of the Snake Pit, a 13th Avenue dance club. He considers the Unsinkables "completely ineffective."
Oberbroeckling also takes issue with the group's demographics. "They're a bunch of upper-middle-class white people in a neighborhood of diversity. There's not one black member. They call themselves a neighborhood group, but if you think they're representative of Capitol Hill, you're insane," says Oberbroeckling, who is white. "This section of Capitol Hill has several buffet apartments, and I bet no one from their group lives in one. They're a bunch of bored, lonely people trying to cause trouble by attacking businesses that cater to people they don't like."
At one time, one of those businesses was his. When Oberbroeckling applied for a cabaret license seven years ago, the Unsinkables spoke out against it at a public hearing. Although the neighbors were unsuccessful, and Oberbroeckling hasn't had any run-ins with them since, he still resents them. He admits that he donates money to the organization, though, in an effort to keep the peace.
Anderson, who manages several apartment buildings in Capitol Hill but actually lives in Congress Park, insists that the group is representative of the neighborhood. "We try to invite everyone in. We hand out fliers on all of our walks," she says. "Racially, we do what we can. We don't collect dues; anyone who's on our e-mail list or comes to our meetings is considered a member."
And she says the Unsinkables do appreciate Capitol Hill's unusual blend of citizens: "The people who rent from me want that diversity, but they also want to feel like they can walk places safely. And they should be able to get out of their doorways without stepping over or removing people who are passed out. As one neighbor told me, 'I shouldn't have to see someone urinating in front of me.' I don't think that's a lot to ask. Colfax is Colfax and people love it, but that's not to say that people should settle for drug dealing and public drunkenness."
13th Avenue and Pearl Street
"There's Charles. Quick, hide me," officer Goss says, stepping behind several of the neighbors and nodding across the street at a man in a purple hooded sweatshirt. Charles is walking south with two other men, and Goss is pretty sure he's looking to score.
The men pass without seeing Goss -- but she and her friend, Lisa Calcamuggio, an emergency medical technician who recently graduated from the police academy and often accompanies the Unsinkables, keep their eyes on them. When they reach the south end of Pearl, Charles and his companions turn around, notice Goss and start running. The two women take off after them. Goss radios for backup, and by the time they reach 13th, four other police officers have already caught and cuffed Charles and one of his buddies. Squinting against the bright lights of the two patrol cars, Charles tries to focus on Goss as she asks him some questions.
"Have you been smoking crack?" she inquires.
"No," he answers.
"You ever smoke crack?" Goss asks.
"Yes," he says.
"So you've stopped? You don't smoke it anymore?"
"Yes," he affirms.
"When's the last time you smoked crack?" she continues.
"Last week," he confesses.
"But you've stopped; you're not smoking crack anymore?" she asks, as another officer frisks him.
"Yes," says Charles, whose eyes are glazed and empty-looking.
"How long have you been smoking crack?" she pushes.
"Since the '90s," he says, turning to tell the other cop that he isn't carrying any crack pipes or weapons.
Charles is telling the truth about this. The officer who searched him instructs Charles to have a seat on the curb while the other cops question his friend.
The Unsinkables have finally caught up and formed a line behind Charles. After his buddy turns up clean and satisfies the officers' questions, the cops ask Charles where the third guy went, but he says he doesn't know.
The officers finally release Charles, who hurries down the sidewalk, away from the curious stares of passersby.
Hell hath no fury like pissed-off neighbors. When the Unsinkables are happy, they're a jolly lot, joking and laughing. But when they're mad -- watch out. They're organized and resourceful, persistent and thorough. They know how to make allies and present a unified front. So when it comes time to do battle, enemies be damned.
The liquor store at 1300 Pearl Street has been the source of the Unsinkables' wrath since the early 1990s, when it was known as Howerd Liquors. The owner had been cited more than once for selling to minors and intoxicated customers. The neighbors didn't appreciate the broken beer bottles that littered the surrounding sidewalks and felt that the shabby building was an eyesore. When the store's liquor license was nearing expiration in 1996, residents told the owner that they wouldn't oppose the renewal if he agreed to hire a security guard to patrol the premises, to refuse to sell to minors and drunks, to repaint the interior and exterior of the store and to pick up trash outside four days a week.
The owner consented and his license was renewed. For a while, things improved. But two months later, the new security guard was caught selling alcohol to a minor. The owner was fined and had to close the store for several days.
Three months after that, the store was cited again for the same thing. This time, the owner entered into an agreement with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses to close his store for fifteen days and have his liquor license suspended for 36 days if he sold his business by January 8, 1997. If the business was not sold by then, the department decided, the owner would have to close his store for an additional nine days.
The neighbors were outraged at what they saw as a slap on the wrist -- they wanted Howerd's license revoked entirely -- so they appealed to Ed Thomas, their councilman, as well as to councilwoman-at-large Susan Barnes-Gelt, who wrote a letter to the excise and licenses director on their behalf.
On April 1, 1997, the liquor store was sold to Kyung Lee, who renamed it Bonanza Liquors. (She's never installed a sign outside to indicate the store's new moniker, however.) Despite the change in ownership, problems persisted. On March 7, 2000, Bonanza was cited for selling to minors; after a police sting on October 21, 2000, it received another citation for the same infraction. The store has since been cited twice more for selling to underage customers -- on December 7, 2001, and on January 26, 2002.
Not only have the neighbors had enough of Bonanza's legal problems, they also dislike the unsavory crowd that the store draws. "They sell the forties, the airline shooters and the fortified wines, like Mad Dog," Anderson says. "It attracts the transients and the drug dealers, who wander around the neighborhood drunk."
Snake Pit's Oberbroeckling, however, characterizes the dispute with Bonanza as another example of elitist residents going after a business because they don't want certain types of people in their neighborhood. "I'm not going to defend Bonanza Liquors; it's been a mess over there for years," he says. "But these people just don't like their neighbors -- they're against the neighborhood they claim to represent. I mean, do you think any of Bonanza's customers drive to this little liquor store in Capitol Hill from somewhere else in Denver? No, it's the people who live here who buy there."
Peter Yoon, a friend and spokesman for Lee, who doesn't speak English, says the Unsinkables are using Bonanza Liquors as a scapegoat for societal problems that a group of neighbors just can't fix. "We feel it's unfair. We've agreed to almost their whole list of changes, and yet they're still not happy. We're at their beck and call. We have to play by their rules," Yoon says. "Unless you move all of those people out of the area, there's no way to solve these problems."
For each of its legal violations, Bonanza has had to pay a fine or undergo a temporary suspension of its liquor license; in the past, the neighbors agreed not to create a stink if Lee would try to resolve the problems. At an April meeting with the Unsinkables, she offered to make some concessions, such as hiring a security guard and not selling malt liquor, single cans of beer, forty-ounce bottles of beer or fortified wine. But since Lee wouldn't agree to close at 10 p.m., the neighbors voted unanimously to pressure the city to revoke Lee's liquor license.
Even so, Lee stopped selling the low-end alcohol, and she posted a sign on the counter informing customers of the change; profits have dropped by 30 percent as a result, Yoon says. Lee was willing to suffer that loss in order to appease the neighbors, he explains, but she wasn't willing to close at 10 p.m. "About 20 percent of our business comes between 10 p.m. and midnight," Yoon says. "If we change our hours, we might as well close."
That's exactly what the neighbors would like.
"If Bonanza catered to people in the neighborhood, we'd support them," Anderson says. "Most people I've talked to in the neighborhood don't drink forties or airline shooters."
A week after the Unsinkables voted in favor of revocation, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN), the organization representing all of Capitol Hill -- whose boundaries span the central core of Denver, from First to 22nd Avenues and Broadway to Colorado Boulevard -- voted unanimously to support the revocation of Bonanza's license. Together, CHUN and the Unsinkables solicited the support of councilman Thomas and Erin Lange, an advocate on the Capitol Hill Community Justice Council, which was established by the Denver District Attorney's office three years ago to address neighborhood issues.
All of them attended an April 25 "show cause" hearing in which penalties for the January violation were to be discussed. As the hearing started, Bonanza's attorney, Steve Lee (no relation to Kyung Lee), and assistant city attorney Kory Nelson introduced a stipulation that both parties had agreed to. The deal proposed that, for the January infraction, Bonanza be granted a one-year reprieve so long as it didn't commit any further violations during that time, hired a security guard, didn't sell certain kinds of alcohol, provided training for employees, installed video cameras and didn't open before 9 a.m. (The store normally opens at 8 a.m.) If Bonanza failed to honor any of those conditions in the next year, Lee would agree to close her store for sixty days.
The stipulation blindsided the neighbors, who'd made it clear that those terms were unacceptable. Usually, the public isn't allowed to provide input at show-cause hearings (unlike hearings for new liquor-license applicants or renewal hearings for existing license holders), but the group persuaded hearing officer Terry Tomsick to allow its testimony. It's even more unorthodox for a city councilmember to speak, but Thomas did so anyway.
"I am very pro-business. I'm in no mood to run some businessperson out of business," Thomas testified. "But I'm very pro-neighborhood as well. The neighbors did not agree to these stipulations. These stipulations were in place last time, but they were not adhered to then, which is why we're here again."
Being open from 9 a.m. until midnight "is not appropriate. A lot of the street trouble involves liquor stores, and a lot of it starts after 10 p.m.," he continued. "Ten a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week, is reasonable, and if that's not stipulated, the only thing is revocation."
Although Tomsick had allowed the public testimony, she later determined that it was improper. In her recommendation to excise-and-licenses director Helen Gonzales, she let the stipulation between Lee and the city attorney stand, but instead of agreeing to suspend Bonanza's license for sixty days in the event of future violations, Tomsick recommended revoking the store's license if Lee breaks any of the terms during the next year.
The city attorney's office and Bonanza each filed objections to this recommendation, which Gonzales rejected. A new hearing is scheduled for June 20.
On May 25, Bonanza was cited yet again for selling alcohol to an intoxicated person, and the Unsinkables are hoping this latest infraction will finally convince the city to shut the door on the store. If its liquor license is eventually revoked, it could be the Unsinkables' biggest victory yet.
13th Avenue and Pearl Street
After they fail to bust Charles, the group heads down 13th Avenue. When they reach Bonanza Liquors, they find Mike slumped against the wall in an unnatural-looking position. His eyes are open and he appears to be conscious, but he can't seem to move.
"He's probably had a seizure," Calcamuggio tells the group. "He may have hit his head."
She bends down and rolls him over into what she explains is a recovery position. His bleeding elbow confirms her suspicion that he fell during the seizure.
Calcamuggio soothes Mike until an ambulance arrives. "You're a good boy," she says, in the tone usually reserved for the very young, the very old and pets. "Mike's a good boy."
13th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street
The Unsinkables are leaving Penn Street Perk, where they've taken a brief coffee break. A few of them choose to call it a night, while the remaining members decide to check out the scene on Colfax. Along the way, they see a familiar face: Carol, who is Kenneth Marion's girlfriend. She's been arrested numerous times in the past for possessing drugs, and now she's sitting on the steps between two apartment buildings with a man named Victor. One of the buildings is on the trespass list, and Goss knows Carol and her friend have no good reason for being there.
"You're not smoking crack, are you?" Goss asks her.
"No," Carol says, and adds, to no one in particular, "Oh, she knows me; she knows I smoke crack."
"When's the last time you smoked crack?" Goss asks.
"Earlier," says Carol, whose voice is startling in its sweetness.
"Earlier today?" Goss presses.
"Yeah," Carol says. "You know I drink and smoke crack. I been drinking all day."
The breathy smell of liquor can be detected from several feet away. Goss pats Carol down and tells her to empty her pockets. Out comes a piece of copper Brillo, which is used as a filter in crack pipes. But there's no rock on her and no pipe. Goss asks to see both Carol's and Victor's IDs, and she calls dispatch. While Goss waits to learn whether either of them are wanted for anything, she, Calcamuggio and Anthony take turns asking Carol about Marion. Carol tells them she doesn't want to talk about her "husband."
"Do you know when he'll get out?" Goss asks.
"You should know," Carol says, her cotton-candy voice betraying the nastiness she means to convey. "You put him there."
"No, he put himself there," Calcamuggio corrects.
"I asked you politely not to talk about him. Please. I told you, it makes me upset," Carol says.
Finally, word comes back from dispatch: There are no warrants out for either Carol or Victor.
Goss tells them to go, but Carol says she's waiting for her friend -- who she insists is sleeping in one of the apartments -- to wake up and let her in. Goss has heard the story before: Somehow all of the crack addicts in Capitol Hill find themselves waiting outside their friends' or relatives' apartment buildings.
"I don't want to keep walking around. What do you do? I'm between a rock and a hard place," Carol says. "What are you gonna do?"
"What you do is get off crack," Goss replies.
"Like crack has anything to do with me not getting inside -- c'mon," Carol says.
Goss has had enough bullshit. "Crack doesn't have anything to do with the fact that you have nowhere to go?" she asks. "You're in denial."
Realizing that she's losing this game, Carol leaves, taking Victor with her. But Goss stays put; she has to fill out a "citizen contact datasheet."
Last summer, to guard against racial profiling, the Denver Police Department started requiring officers to note the ethnicity, gender and age of every person they have "reasonable suspicion or probable cause" to stop. Calcamuggio shines a flashlight on the card while Goss fills in the bubbles. Carol: Black. Victor: Hispanic.
For the Unsinkables, "cleaning up the neighborhood" isn't just a figurative term, it's a literal one.
On a chilly spring morning, Daniel Anthony, Kathi Anderson and Mark Nachtigal stood on the corner of 11th and Pennsylvania, watching tow trucks haul away cars. During the first week of April every year, the Unsinkables, with permission from the city, have cars in their neighborhood towed so that street sweepers can thoroughly clean the roads.
Then they have them towed back, usually to a place that is as close as possible to the original spot, but sometimes a little farther away. (Elsewhere in Denver, cars parked illegally on street-sweeping days get $20 tickets and the city just cleans around them, but in the Unsinkables' neighborhood, drivers get $60 tickets to help cover the towing cost.) This creates a great deal of confusion for people returning to their cars, and as Anderson was chuckling at memories of angry people trying to find their cars in years past, one very irate woman hopped out of the passenger side of an SUV and plucked a ticket off her parked car. She then marched up to one of two bicycle cops who were ticketing the cars as they were towed back into place, and started yelling -- to no avail.
Jennifer, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, had parked on Pennsylvania the day before. Although she lives at Sixth Avenue and Williams Street, she parks in Capitol Hill so that she can catch a bus downtown, where she works and takes classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. After working late the night before, she got off the bus and couldn't find her car. "I walked around for thirty minutes," she said. "At first I thought that I just couldn't remember where I'd parked. Then I thought it had been stolen."
Since she didn't feel safe walking home at 11:30 p.m., Jennifer called a taxi. In hopes of finding her car in the daylight, she had her mom drive her around the neighborhood on this morning. "It seems like a total waste to tow cars and then move them back just to sweep the street for one day," she says. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen."
Comments like these roll right off Anderson's back; it's not like people weren't warned. Bright yellow pieces of paper had been posted throughout the neighborhood, advising car owners of the potential for towing. The Unsinkables also posted notices in apartment-building lobbies.
The group estimates that between 120 and 140 cars are moved each year during the street-cleaning effort. The reason they go to such extremes, Anderson explains, is that the streets are so dirty that simply sweeping around cars doesn't accomplish anything. "This is the only time of year that the streets of Capitol Hill really get clean," she says.
The Unsinkables have also planted trees and flowers, installed additional lights and trash cans, and improved bus stops. (Grants from CHUN, the city and the Regional Transportation District have made those projects possible.) One of the group's next goals is to remove the pay phones outside Cafe Netherworld, at 13th and Pennsylvania.
Sheila Weisenborn, general manager of the cyber cafe, would like the same thing: The phones attract drug dealers and others who are bad for business. "There are always five or more people milling around the phones, and when other people walk over to 7-Eleven, they get harassed. It's Hey baby,' or some kind of threat," she says.
But according to Weisenborn, the building's owner refuses to remove the phones, because they bring in a lot of revenue. (The owner declined to comment.) She's hoping the Unsinkables will circulate petitions about the pay phones; if they can show the city that enough people don't want the phones there, maybe the owner will be pressured to remove them.
"The Unsinkables are great," Weisenborn says. "They keep our sidewalks clean, they clean graffiti off our building and they walk the neighborhood. I've never heard anything but good things about them."
13th Avenue, between Pennsylvania and Pearl streets
The neighbors are teasing Larry Dickinson about his stuffed dog, Admiral. They've decided they don't look very threatening with Admiral as their mascot, so they tell him he can't bring his toy on the walks anymore.
"Well, if I can't bring him, I'm going to start wearing a dress," says Dickinson, a self-described right-wing drag queen. He tells everyone that he's working on Governor Bill Owens's re-election campaign and that he has political aspirations of his own. "I'm going to run for city council," he says.
As the group nears the alley between Pearl and Pennsylvania, Dickinson announces that he must go home and put Admiral to bed. As the group turns down the alley, Goss points out the back of a boardinghouse where drug dealers once hid in the shadows and bushes; after the Unsinkables asked the owner to fix up the place, he removed the foliage and installed lights. Now the alley is eerily quiet -- so quiet that Calcamuggio says, "Someone needs to commit a crime."
Minutes later, her wish comes true. She and Goss spot two men walking along Pearl, and one of them is drinking a beer. But since he apologizes and hands Goss his can of Coors Light, she lets him go with just a warning.
A half hour passes with little activity, and then, as the group approaches a parking lot near the Office Depot on Colfax, a man jumps out of the back seat of a car, hops in the driver's seat and speeds away. The top of a woman's head can be seen as he takes off. "Looks like they just finished doing...something," Goss says, shaking her head. She's disappointed that she didn't catch the john.
After walking along Colfax for 35 minutes without incident, the group turns down Washington, where they find a homeless man passed out behind a fence. Goss and Calcamuggio rouse him and call Denver CARES. He manages to stand up, and despite their instructions for him to remain seated, walks toward them and almost falls right into Calcamuggio. After they get him to sit back down and receive word that the CARES van is on its way, the Unsinkables move on.
By 11:55 p.m., the group is down to Goss and three neighbors: Anderson, Nachtigal and Mary Stollenwerk, who joined them late in the evening. Once again, they find themselves in front of Bonanza Liquors. A young man is standing against the building with his hands in his pockets, looking around nervously. Just as another man is about to enter the store, the young man approaches him and tells him he forgot his ID; he asks the man to buy him a beer. Glancing sideways at Goss, the older customer chooses his words carefully. "I'm sorry, but without seeing your driver's license, I can't buy you any beer."
Goss, who shakes her head in disbelief during the exchange, turns to face the young man and asks him what he's thinking. "Didn't you see me standing here?"
The young man says he's sorry and leaves. Quickly. For the next couple of minutes, the neighbors stand at the corner. They seem a bit restless, as if they can't decide what to do next. They watch the people walking up and down 13th. There are college-aged kids heading toward the Snake Pit, a midget waiting to cross the street, a man walking his dog, all of them minding their own business.
The Unsinkables marvel at how quiet the night has been. Nachtigal yawns. Anderson says she's tired. Her companions are, too, so they decide to call it quits. Right at midnight they say goodbye and walk off in separate directions, hoping for better luck next time.
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