Stoner Hill Is a Refuge for Young Homeless and an Eyesore for Neighbors

The regulars on Stoner Hill tell legends about the place.
They say the gentle mound’s grassy curve conceals garbage or haunted graves — maybe both. It’s the kind of spot discussed with some reverence in boxcars and squats across the country’s traveling circuits. Even Google Maps can pinpoint Stoner Hill — not an official name — at the crown of Commons Park, near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, in the new urban district that has risen from the old Union Station railroad yards over the past twenty years.

And the place does deserve some notoriety. It stands at the birthplace of Colorado and symbolizes this state’s modern quandaries: Today, Stoner Hill is a perpetual party, a misdemeanor micro-economy and a meeting ground for Denver’s youngest homeless and assorted travelers. The grassy hilltop is where a housing crisis meets legal cannabis, and it just happens to have a panoramic view of booming downtown Denver. This might seem to put the park in a precarious position, but the legends say the place can never be disturbed — because of the landfill, or the spirits.

Still, its neighbors have tried to make it disappear. For the past year, a super-sized homeowners’ association has campaigned to disperse the hilltop crowd. If the group’s vision for an “activated” park comes to fruition, Don Cohen, president of the Riverfront Park Association, says he expects that “our travelers would find somewhere else to be that is a little more off the grid, a little less visible.”

The city responded to residents’ complaints by fencing off a significant portion of the public Commons Park last spring. Six months later, at the start of the cold weather, the fence came down. At one point, Denver even planned to spend $200,000 to shave down part of the hill.
That idea has since been scrapped, but a longer-term redesign project is under way, guided by input from a resident-heavy committee. And Denver is now installing surveillance cameras, funded by Cohen’s RPA, that will allow police and prosecutors to see nearly everything that happens on the hill.

Changes are coming to Commons Park. Yet Stoner Hill, its young denizens insist, will never go away.

The land around Commons Park was first a commercial outpost,
then a blighted industrial outskirt, and is now a textbook case in residential redevelopment. But in the beginning, the Platte Valley was home to the Arapaho. The tribe established an expansive camp at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek centuries ago, following its migration from the East.

A white mining party’s arrival in 1858 changed everything. With the discovery of gold a few miles away, the area became the front door to Colorado’s gold rush, and the site of the new settlement of Auraria, then Denver. At first the nomadic Southern Arapaho welcomed their new neighbors — but they’d be driven out of the state entirely by 1870, hurried on by the Sand Creek Massacre.

By 1887, the riverfront was home to an amusement park, with a stone-turreted museum exactly where Stoner Hill is today. The promoters named it the Castle of Culture and Commerce — but it was industry that came to rule the area, as new rail lines and viaducts threaded the land behind Union Station.

The castle burned in 1951, and its bones soon disappeared into the industrial mire. East of Union Station, the warehouses of lower downtown would also deteriorate in the decades to come, with vacancy rates reaching nearly 40 percent, according to the Urban Land Institute. For a long time, the riverfront was home to no one but the homeless. A hulking abandoned flour mill nicknamed “The Silos” was the Platte Valley’s most notorious squat, rumored to be the site of deadly falls, a graveyard for abandoned infants, and the hideout of a mysterious millionaire.

The city had plans for the place, though. In the 1970s, a railroad company had envisoned a major residential community there, but those plans fell flat. So did wealthy wildcatter Marvin Davis’s idea of locating a new convention center there. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, then-mayor Federico Peña orchestrated a deal between developers and railroad officials. By demolishing warehouses and consolidating rail lines into a central channel, hundreds of acres would be opened for development in the Central Platte Valley. Most of the land along the South Platte became Riverfront Park, a development led by East West Partners — except for the twenty acres that the city bought for Commons Park.

“To a certain degree, they thought of the project as an urban resort,” the Urban Land Institute reported in a case study. The park and the first residential buildings opened in 2001. Pedestrian bridges across the rails and the river connected the new neighborhood to both the downtown boom and gentrifying Highland, as did links to the city’s network of cycling and walking paths.

Thousands of people have since moved into the Platte Valley, in a remarkable ballet of public and private development. In contrast, there’s Stoner Hill — a reminder that the riverfront was once a last resort, not an urban resort.

The first people to crest the hill each day are those who sleep under the highway bridges and railroad trestles that cross the South Platte. They’re the hill’s hardcore, young adults and kids as young as thirteen from Denver and everywhere else, lugging bungee-corded bags and heavy layers. They don’t sleep here, because Denver parks are off limits after 11 p.m.; they avoid downtown, too, because the city banned so-called urban camping in 2012, and it’s far easier to escape patrols in the urban wild along the river.

By noon the hilltop is a sunny bazaar, merry with talk of travel plans and survival tactics. Within a few hours, fifty or a hundred more people may have arrived by longboard and light rail. Someone turns on music, and a few people spin poi spheres on chains to the rhythm. Others lie with their dogs, read, craft jewelry or share a bong with friends.

A shallow crater at the summit gives sanctuary from public view. Visitors, including tourists and construction workers, can buy blowtorched rips of marijuana wax for a dollar. Their money partially powers a micro-economy on Stoner Hill, and a quick call of “six up” or “ranger danger” is enough warning to avoid most charges of public consumption or illegal sale. As the sun sets across the Platte, a line of silhouettes watches from the berm. On most nights, the crowd will stay here until ten or eleven.

The hill is the central gathering point for the city’s street youth — homeless or otherwise. That distinction used to belong to downtown’s Skyline Park, until the city demolished the once-prized design and reprogrammed the space. Today, it’s almost guaranteed that a young person new to Denver’s urban outdoors will end up at Stoner Hill.

“When I come to here, I didn’t find nobody. I didn’t have no friends. I didn’t know nobody,” says twenty-year-old Nachi, who moved from Belgium to Denver when he was seventeen. “I started coming downtown, I started seeing kids my age.”

And the hill is hard to beat, as chill spots go.

The people who have been here longest say that Stoner Hill is both a sanctuary and a temptation for young people on the streets. It’s a place to go for friends and for safety, but also for reminders of old habits. Some of its regulars say they love their lives — that they’re traveling a road of discovery, that they have no interest in the mainstream, in stability or a job. Just as many hope for stability, and at least have found community here.

In its one-night survey earlier this year, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative estimated that there might be 355 homeless people younger than 25 in the metro region. In 2013, though, the initiative reported a number higher than 900.

The hill itself might see anywhere from a couple dozen to a couple hundred young visitors per day, depending on the season. Groups like 180 Street Outreach and Dry Bones Denver frequent the park, too, aiming to connect the younger crowd with services and resources. Most of the regulars also stop by the downtown nonprofits Sox Place and Urban Peak; between the two, they can find daytime meals, laundry services, showers and a friendly ear. Urban Peak also has most of the city’s shelter beds for youth, and they’re almost always full.

Some on the hill collect food assistance, while others refuse public services, seeing themselves as independent because they ask for spare change instead. Others are waiting to get into transitional housing. Many in both camps have suffered tremendous losses and rejections; all live in some degree of danger.

“A lot of people have been fucking up, but you can’t help but love the people up here,” says DJ, a 21-year-old who has been coming to the hill for years, since his parents’ deaths. “You can’t help but love the land, and how holy this land is. This is sacred land.”

Twenty-two-year-old Kalan is one of the longest-tenured regulars on the hill: It has been his constant for a decade. His friends here have seen him through a year of homelessness, on to a job and a promotion at a sandwich shop. “A lot of us find it home,” he says. “It hurt us when we saw the fence. We all kind of didn’t want to come back up here. We all wanted to tear the fence down.”

The chain-link fence landed just before 4/20, the stoner holiday in April,
when the crowd was at a party in another public park. Workers with the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation ran the fence around the base of the hill, past the trees on its shoulders, and on around the huge sculpture in the field to the northeast, at a cost of about $12,000.

Eric Jackson, one of the oldest of the hill regulars, saw it happen.

“I was watching the snow coming down and them unloading the fences from the truck,” he recalls. A transplant from New Jersey who hit the road after the economy ate his pizza shop, Jackson had come to Denver ten months earlier and had quickly become a kind of advisor to the Stoner Hill community. To him, the objective of the new fence seemed obvious.

“The attempt was to push us out of the park in its entirety,” Jackson says.

City officials gave other reasons for the park’s closure. The simplest was physical repairs: There are no permanent paths to the top of the hill, so foot and government-vehicle traffic wear tracks through the grass. And someone had stripped the irrigation system of parts.

Beyond making said repairs, the parks department wanted to reduce illegal and forbidden activity in the park, including littering, public drug use and vandalism.

And some residents had deeper concerns about the Stoner Hill crowd itself. “It seems to be a benign group of people. Of course, when you have youth and you have drugs — legal or illegal — involved, there is a sense of unpredictability,” says RPA president Cohen. “But probably where the queasiness happens for most park users — it’s that sense of gathering. That can be intimidating, and it does make people uncomfortable.

“We walk an important line about First Amendment rights. People can be where they want to be — I get that. But there’s also the concept of quiet enjoyment.”

The Riverfront Park Association began pushing for changes
at Commons Park in 2014, and by this past spring, it was working hand in hand with the parks department.

“We are very anxious for the closing of the hill,” one member wrote in a March 24 e-mail to Scott Gilmore, the deputy director of Parks and Recreation, on March 24, a few weeks before the fence appeared.

The RPA is a private organization that was formed in 2001 for the 4,000 people who would one day live in East West Partners’ massive development project along the river. Today it has a yearly budget of about $1 million, which it gets from special assessments on businesses and landowners within its borders. The RPA fulfills some of the same roles as a business-improvement district — such as the Downtown Denver BID, which oversees the 16th Street Mall. The RPA, however, is defined as a homeowners’ association, meaning it has less city oversight and fewer powers.

The organization is governed by a board of landowners; some members represent the companies that own residential buildings in the area, while others, like Cohen, own individual condominiums. The group spends its budget largely on maintenance for common areas within the neighborhood, and paying for a constant patrol of off-duty Denver police officers. Those off-duty officers are primarily tasked with patrolling the neighborhood in a “defensive” routine, Cohen says, but they spend a significant amount of their RPA-funded time in Commons Park.
The association can’t order the off-duty officers to make arrests or take any particular action against Stoner Hill — Cohen says arrests wouldn’t help, anyway — but it certainly can encourage its part-time hires to supervise the hill.

“I think that is the best that can be done, since it’s not illegal to be a deadhead dropout,” the president of one building’s HOA wrote of this “babysitting” in an e-mail to the city.

The RPA is also associated with the Riverfront Park Community Foundation, which sends several hundred thousand dollars of the special assessments to nonprofits and public arts projects each year. Some of its grants go to groups that work with at-risk youth.

After the fence was installed, the denizens of Stoner Hill moved their gathering
a few hundred yards away: It was to be the summer of Stoner Flats. But the crowd stayed in Commons Park, largely undiminished.

As a result, by August the parks department was hearing requests from residents to open up the hill. Once again, the city was caught between competing demands.

“I want to pull the fence down, but they’ll go right back to the top of the hill,” Scott Gilmore told the Denver Post.

He was right. When the fence came down in October, a round of citations and a few arrests did little to slow the return to Stoner Hill. For street kids, this was still the best spot in town: Easy access to transit, a beautiful setting and a friendly crowd.

“It’s always going to be within a certain distance of where they can survive, which is downtown. They need to be close to downtown. They need each other. It’s unavoidable,” says Jordan Robinson, co-founder of Sox Place, the nonprofit at 2017 Lawrence Street where many from Stoner Hill stop to refuel and recharge during the day.

“When I come to here, I didn't find nobody. I didn't have no friends. I didn't know nobody.”

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Soon, though, the hill crowd noticed that something had changed while they were away: A camera was now staring at the hill — part of a half-built new system that will observe the park in exacting detail. The homeowners paid for the system through the Riverfront Park Association, but only the Denver police and the courts will have access to it.

Still, the surveillance did not pose a particular concern to the hill’s hardcore, and the reason for that cuts to the heart of this situation.
The most common crime on Stoner Hill is consuming marijuana in public. Public consumption is a petty offense, a class of criminal offense that can seem less than consequential for people with little to lose. Many on the hill don’t have identification, much less a bank account or résumé to be threatened.

Even the black-market reselling of weed doesn’t amount to a particularly serious crime. The cannabis generally comes from dispensaries, usually in small enough quantities to remain a misdemeanor. And most on the hill feel justified in flouting the law: They argue that the prohibition on public smoking is biased against the homeless, who enjoy a good buzz as much as anyone.

The police, then, can do relatively little to interfere with the gathering. In fact, police and park employees can be more of an asset than a threat to the young people on Stoner Hill, Jackson says. The patrols, like the community itself, represent protection from people addicted to harder drugs, and from the sexual predators who seek out the youngest people on the streets.

At the urging of Riverfront neighbors, the city has considered the expensive option of simply remodeling the hill.

As laid out in a parks-department budget proposal, the plan would have put $200,000 largely toward removing the depression that hides the top of the hill from sight. The department expected to pay for the project with funds it had set aside for improvements along the Platte River, but the effort was indefinitely delayed in favor of other projects, according to deputy director Gilmore. “That project will not move forward,” he says. “Right now we’re just trying to engage with the community and come up with some other possible solutions without having to do major renovations to the park at this time.”

In its place, the bureaucratic gears of the next plan are already turning. Fencing and landscaping having failed to change much, landowners and the city now want to redesign the park to attract new users.

“We’d really like to activate it more. We’d like to make it more family-friendly,” says Gilmore. “We’d like to just enliven it and invigorate it.” Those same words described the changes in Skyline Park; today the city and other organizations are also looking to “activate” the 16th Street Mall.

“You can't help but love the land, and how holy this land is. This is sacred land.”

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Cohen hopes that an influx of children and their parents would persuade the Stoner Hill crowd to move on; he doubts that a new park design could persuade the group to engage positively with neighbors. “I’d love to see it, but I take a thin view of it,” he says. “I think, for the level of trash that we see and just diminishment of facilities — they don’t respect it as I think they should.... Honestly, if they took a higher degree of civic ownership there, I could see a path to, you know, a very reasonable co-existence.

“But in the main, they’re more anti-societal,” he continues. “There’s definitely a bristling at authority; it’s like, ‘Well, this is my constitutional right.’ You know, when anybody gets their chest puffed up about that, already there’s a sense of aggression and not ownership. It’s the difference between ownership and entitlement. As a resident, we take ownership of wanting to keep our park well. These people, they feel they’re entitled to it.”

There have, however, been signs of cooperation since the fence came down. Those on Stoner Hill don’t generally jeer when police officers and park rangers come around, says one officer. The worst they do is poke a little fun. “Our parks staff has learned to work with them and be respectful of them. It seems that mostly, a majority of the time, that respect goes both ways,” Gilmore says.

When Stoner Hill asked for trash cans, Gilmore delivered. When the park bathrooms shut down for the season, he provided a portable toilet. Gilmore describes these moves as logical concessions that minimize the group’s impact on public land.

In turn, some of the regulars have made a habit of picking up the clothing and garbage that spreads across the summit. “Pick up your damn trash!” a kid called Nobody shouts to everyone one day. City workers also clean the hill, though it seems like nothing can stop the constant flow of cigarette butts to the ground.
Cohen has even asked whether the city could capitalize on its relationship with the people of the hill. Almost all of his group’s efforts to date, from the fence to police presence, have attempted to affect the group’s behavior “externally,” he noted in an e-mail to Gilmore. “So, what about the reverse?” Cohen continued. “My thought would be to create a pilot program where someone non-threatening approached some of the group and offered part-time work at $10 an hour for park cleanup. If we had a few take us up on that offer, I would hope that they might take on a little ownership.”

This already happens, on a very limited and individual basis. One Stoner Hill regular says he was offered a part-time job by a downtown maintenance employee who saw him collecting garbage. But the idea of a formal program ran into city concerns about liability, funding and supervision, according to Cohen.

And even if the program were offered, many on the hill might refuse the offer. Twenty-five-year-old Jacob Adams says that it’s not simple for many of his friends to just rejoin society. There’s a “fear,” he says, “to go back into that system — the system, the routine — all of that.

Because once you’re out here, you’re not judged. We all have been through our things. We don’t really judge each other, because we all know what we’ve suffered through. But society out there, they don’t understand it, or they choose not to. They turn a blind eye — and that’s why we have invisible children.”

About the only thing guaranteed to clear Stoner Hill is bad weather. The summer’s travelers peel off for California and Florida as the seasons turn. The high-school kids leave earlier each night.

And when a blizzard finally hits the weather forecast, the reality of each individual’s situation becomes rapidly apparent. Almost anyone with a friendly place to stay lays claim to it. People with money pool resources for motel rooms. A few ask aloud why they’re still in Denver. And a young woman named Sapphire asks why this is happening again.

“I have 475 friends on Facebook, and, like, not a single person could help me out,” she says before this season’s second storm hits. “And I was offering money. It’s not like, ‘Please give me this. Give me this.’”

The forecast is a heavy reminder of how isolating life on the streets can be. Sapphire has been in and out of temporary housing since she was fifteen, when she started clashing with the strict religious rules that govern her grandmother’s home in a Denver suburb.

“As a resident, we take ownership of wanting to keep our park well. These people, they feel they’re entitled to it.”

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“It was bad. I ruined everything in my life, but I’ve successfully been two years clean,” she says. She has a good job at an upscale eatery.
She and her boyfriend could even afford rent, but they can’t put together the extra $700 for the deposit. Rising housing costs have made it far more difficult to find a place, she explains. And a place to stay is the first step toward getting her high-school diploma — she once was on track to graduate early — and move on up. “I’ve always wanted to go to college, since I was little, little,” Sapphire says.

First, though, she has to deal with the storm. Like most young people, she and her boyfriend avoid the regular shelters. The nonprofit Urban Peak runs a forty-bed youth shelter, but it doesn’t accept people over the age of twenty and can’t legally take on overflow crowds.

So Sapphire and Nachi prepare for a night outside. The key will be to stay dry through the rain, so that wind and snow don’t freeze them later. They figure they’ll head to one of a few places where they know they won’t be bothered — along the river, or maybe in a downtown doorway.

This uncertainty is a fact of life on Stoner Hill. It’s often impossible to know where your friends have gone, or if they’re safe, on any given night.

“It’s really terrifying,” seventeen-year-old Lyllée says as the storm approaches. She lives with her mother and frequents the hill, where she tries to help her friends close the emotional gaps that can form during a life on the streets. “For the people I’ve come to create an actual emotional connection with — I don’t know if they’re going to be alive tomorrow,” she says.

Fortunately, a friend offers to share a motel room (and its bill) with Nachi and Sapphire. They’ll pay their share the day after the storm, when Sapphire’s paycheck clears. It will be a place to stay for a few more days — but it can’t delay winter and the trials ahead.
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