Historian Phil Goodstein on knowing the past and shaping the present in Denver

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From swanky neon signs to the obvious remnants of an old cow town -- including our awesome and never confusing two-grid street system -- Denver's past shows through her shiny exterior. But Denver is a city of transplants, and all too easily, much of that history gets lost.

Phil Goodstein, author of North Side Story: Denver's Most Intriguing Neighborhood, has been in the business of teaching Denverites their history for years, giving walking tours of the city's neighborhoods and filling residents in on all the "dirt" -- crimes, love stories and the interactions between ethnic groups within the city limits.

Tonight, Goodstein will be presenting and signing his book at the Tattered Cover on Colfax. In advance, Goodstein answered some of our questions about history, crime and his upcoming event.

Westword?Would you define "North Denver"?

Phil Goodstein:It's the area from the Platt River and West Colfax to the city's northern and western boundaries. It was where Denver once went to plight, including at places like Lakeside, Elitch's and Sloan's Lake. A wide array of people settled in the area, often ethnic immigrants. It has been the home of the people of Ireland, Italy and Latin America -- Jews from Eastern Europe once dominated the West Colfax corridor. It has also been the site of bizarre crimes.

What do you mean by "bizarre crimes"?

There's two ways you can define the bizarre crimes. There was once a very active mafia in North Denver, so there was once a number of shootings and bombings -- fairly shady activity. It was also the site of Denver's Spider-Man.


Denver's Spider-Man was Theo Coneys, who holes up in the attic of a friend, descends from the attic at night and eats the food in the house before he murders the occupant of the house. He remains in hiding up in the attic for more than six months before the police figure out what's going on.

Why did you decide to write a book?

I've been giving walkng tours in North Denver since the 1980s, and I figured I was going to compile my tour notes. The area needed a new treatment and perspectve and I was looking at about 500 pages of tour notes.

Why did you start giving tours?

Total frustration with how bad the existing tours were. Lifeless, dull, ignorant tour guides. Basically the tours were an officious history. None of the scandal, none of the humanity of the people. Just something you would get from the public relations brochure, touted by the Chamber of Commerce.

Do you think a lot of people who live in Denver do not know the history of their neighborhoods?

They don't even come close to knowing the history. North Denver is where North Denver is, and copyeditors always want to call it "West Denver." One of the purposes of my wiritng is to share my knowledge, and to give a direction of the city's history and relevance as apposed to this instant redevelopment that is always going on.

What is "Instant redevelopment?"

Instant history, where people know nothing and try and reshape the history, tear it apart and claim that they are the pioneers. I want to help create a feeling of how this area developed, so people have an understanding of what the place is about, what they can accomplish and what they can achieve. By understanding the past, you understand how the present got shaped out of the past, and by so doing that you can plot your future by understanding the forces that have shaped the present.

Have you worked with Tattered Cover before?

Oh, yes. In fact, when they moved to the new location they invited me over to give a talk about the history and the building they were moving into there on Colfax, and about the neighborhoods, so they would have an understanding about where they were moving.

What's your favorite part of a book reading?

Seeing how what I'm saying resonates with the public at large, and sharing their memories of the area, as well. In fact, I've had North Denver residents who are eager to correct me because I made a couple of genealogical errors in the book.

Anything else you would like to add?

If people look forward to a dull, typical reading they should stay away. I try and be quite lively and extemporaneous in my performance.

Goodstein's reading and signing starts tonight at 7:30, at the Colfax Tattered Cover.

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