Street Dreams

Johnnie's Market is closed.
For the first time in over sixty years, Johnnie's is not open for business. "Closed because of illness," the sign on the door reads, although people walk right in anyway. They cannot imagine Larimer Street without Johnnie's.

Ed Maestas, who's owned Johnnie's for over two decades, is having some trouble imagining it, too. He's sitting inside the closed shop, at the only table left in what had been the market's deli--the best chorizo and green chile in town--surrounded by pieces of equipment awaiting pickup by their new owners. On the table is a copy of a poem whose words he lives by: "Courage must come from the soul within. The man must furnish the will to win."

Last month Ed was moving all of his stock, pushing back the shelves, getting ready to furnish his place with a new floor. But that was before he got a nosebleed that wouldn't stop, before the doctors diagnosed him with leukemia, before they told him to go home and "put my affairs in order." So he and his wife, Helen, have closed Johnnie's and are in the process of selling off its contents--a sink here, a meat counter there. "It's sad, seeing your whole life go out the door," Ed says.

But so much of his life lies just outside that door, on the street in the shadows of Coors Field.

Already the landlord is showing the former home of Johnnie's Market to prospective tenants, who might open a restaurant. After all, this is now a choice location. And it's a choice location thanks only to the efforts of Ed Maestas, the unofficial mayor of Larimer Street.

Ed isn't used to sitting around, even though the doctors have ordered him not to exert himself. "It drives me crazy," he says. "We'd work in the store, then go home and work in the yard till ten, eleven at night. We don't sit idle too long."

Now, when he can't stand sitting any longer, Ed gets up and walks down the street.

Larimer Street--his street.
"I've been on this street since I was twelve years old," he says. That was over fifty years ago, when his family--his parents and nine brothers and sisters--moved down from Leadville. Ed's father got a job at the Hungarian Flour Mill. His mother had a restaurant just a block away from where Ed is sitting today.

It was a Mexican restaurant, although it could just as easily have been a Polish restaurant, or a German restaurant, or a Japanese restaurant, or an Italian restaurant. Since Denver's earliest days, multiple cultures have intersected on Larimer Street.

The building at 2030 Larimer was once a Chinese laundry. But after its owner committed suicide--in his laundry--Johnnie Ricotta took over the place in 1935 and turned it into a grocery store. Decades later, Johnnie's expanded into the saddlery next door.

When he graduated from North High School, Ed went to work for the Ricotta brothers, who also owned Western Beef. He worked his way up from "shag boy" to deliveries to managing Western Beef. But when Johnnie Ricotta decided to retire in 1975, Ed was ready.

"The biggest moment was when I bought this store," he says of his long life on Larimer Street. "When it was finally mine."

At the time, Larimer Street was doing a good business. There were six grocery stores in the neighborhood--including a Safeway--and four clothing stores that Ed remembers. The urban "renewal" that had wiped out blocks of Victorian buildings, "the most beautiful buildings," Ed remembers, stopped just short of 20th Street. But the ill-conceived Skyline Project, which made much of downtown safe for parking lots, didn't spare the buildings it had left standing. Even as Ed's business grew--he added a line of spices and had five trucks delivering Patita's Mexican Food Products around the West--its home base deteriorated. The bums who'd been displaced when skid row was leveled moved up Larimer, and the customers moved out. "They drifted in here," Ed says. "The merchants didn't pay attention at first."

And by the time they did, it was almost too late. In 1985, when the Hispanic Educational Institute named Edward Joseph Maestas a "dynamic Hispanic role model," they also noted that he ran a shop in "one of the roughest parts of Denver."

Ed saw that his street was in trouble. He started organizing the owners of his neighboring businesses--no easy task, since many of the enterprises were now in the hands of second-generation owners who'd carried on their parents' grudges. And some of those owners hadn't even been to the neighborhood in ten years. But after years of meetings, "80 percent of them changed their way of thinking," Ed says. "And the rest are stubborn old men like me. It took two years to convince them the neighborhood was worth saving."

But salvation wasn't going to come easy. Ed's organization spent the first few years "cleaning up the area," getting rid of the drug dealers who caused the real problems with the homeless and the bums. "You have to sweep out the dirt before you put down the rug," he says.

Or cut a rug, which the neighborhood did when it created the annual Fiesta! Fiesta! celebration. That event, which brought people back to Larimer Street every September, was Ed's second-best moment.

The third was when the ballpark opened. But baseball also presented Larimer Street's unofficial mayor with his greatest challenge. For a time his parents had lived at 21st and Clay, near Mile High Stadium, and he knew that the neighborhood was more likely to wind up a sea of parking lots than an oasis of old-time charm. That's what 90 percent of the businesspeople around him assumed would happen, he says, and it took years and lots of sleepless nights to convince them otherwise. And it wasn't just his neighbors that he had to convince--there was also the city to contend with.

But with the help of freelance urban planner Karle Seydel, Ed fought, and fought hard. "We didn't want to see all this come down and become parking lots," he says. "That was our game plan." Slowly, the Ballpark Neighborhood group grew from seven people to 68 businesses. And today the storefronts of Larimer not only still stand, they stand taller, the beneficiaries of much-needed facelifts. Up at 21st Street, the Key Club and blue room are drawing another generation to Larimer; a deal's in the works for Hub Loans, across the street from Johnnie's; the corner at 20th occupied by the falling-down Elbow Room is set to be built back up. "It has taken us seven, eight years to get this off the ground," Ed says. "I believe we're at the peak."

He can see his vision taking shape. He can see the multicultural shopping area he always imagined, the string of small, family-owned businesses--places not unlike Johnnie's Market, where Ed and Helen and their two girls worked so hard. He can see the families coming down to eat and shop in a neighborhood as safe as any other in town. He can see this, even if the vision in his mind does not yet match the reality out the door.

"I'm real optimistic about everything going on," he says. "I see nothing but good for this area. I just hope God gives me enough time to see it through."

And Ed will be watching. Even though Johnnie's Market is closed--cerrado--he'll still be around. He wants to make sure the city builds something on that vacant lot across from Coors Field, rather than let it become a parking lot. "I'll fight that," he vows. After all, he'll be watching, hanging out on his street, keeping an eye on things. "I've got a lot of friends here," he says. "I know everybody--I even know the drunks and winos. I've been here so long, they respect me.

"I've made a good living off this street. This street has been good to me.


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