O, Barnum! An ode to Denver's least desirable neighborhood

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If you happen to find yourself in Barnum and you don't live there, chances are you're lost. And not just because it's not a neighborhood that lends itself to being found -- find one of two streets that make their way down through the gulch, around the curve, back up the hill and over Highway 6 and you're there -- but mostly because, if you don't live in Barnum, there is absolutely no reason to be there. It has no charming homes, no streets of old-growth manicured cottonwoods or boutique businesses selling handmade soaps. It has no out-of-the-way neighborhood bars or local-centric, trendy restaurants. All it really has is street after street of tiny, squat apartment-sized homes -- most poorly maintained -- and the cheapest rent you can get any reasonable distance from the city. But I love it anyway.

The neighborhood is named after P.T. Barnum, the circus showman who once famously said, "There's a sucker born every minute" -- which is indeed a pretty bad-ass legacy, except that Barnum never actually lived in or anywhere near Barnum. That he once owned the land the neighborhood is on -- after another developer's dream of turning the land into a fabulous suburb for the wealthy failed, he bought it for a song, parsed it out into subdivisions and unloaded it -- is true, but any claim that he ever lived on or even close to the land is false. And the land never quite became that rich suburb, either.

In fact, it sat mostly idle for decades longer, until during and after the second World War, when a now-defunct, war-related Denver Ordnance manufacturing plant moved in and tiny bungalows for the plant's workers cropped up like the weeds that now more or less stand in for lawns.

Because Barnum is and ever shall be a poor neighborhood. Unlike Highland or Sloan's Lake, its brethren neighborhoods to the north, Barnum will never gentrify; its streets are too unadorned and ugly, its houses too small and crappy. But that's the whole charm: As few as ten years ago, Highland and Barnum were demographically almost the same neighborhood. These days, because it had the potential to be charming, Highland is as white as a Prius with a Nader sticker on it, packed with storefronts that sell designer candles and whatnot.

Barnum, on the other hand, is exactly the same now as it was then. Conceived for the working class, it continues to cater to exactly that set, and it shows. Get rid of the cockroaches in your house and more will just move in; during the summer, they hang out on the corner like they're selling drugs. The alleys smell like trash to the point that they're nauseating to walk down, but take care when you're walking down the street, because when you live in a poor neighborhood, you apparently don't consistently need sidewalks (and what sidewalks there are are so bombed-out you might as well not bother).

Over at Newlon Elementary, near the 'hood's western border at Sheridan Boulevard, a gang of fourth-graders are playing soccer on an undeniably depressing dirt field (because poor kids don't need grass), and will call for you to kick that ball back over the fence when it lands in a neighbor's yard across the street. On summer weekends, the pool down at Barnum Rec Center (which the city has deemed a "Splash Pad") is so full you'd think every kid in the neighborhood was in there, and after Labor Day, they get resourceful; up the block from my house on Lowell, two girls play tetherball with a ball tied to a parking sign for hours every day. In the other direction, a group of middle-schoolers haul a basketball hoop out to the curb daily and play two-on-two in the middle of Second Avenue. A few houses down from that, heads of kale struggle of the soil of the community garden, which occupies two lots in the middle of the block and seems to be maintained by somebody, even though nobody's ever in there. Where 2nd Avenue ends at Lowell, kids on bikes pick up a surprisingly pretty trail that runs haltingly along an open drainage ditch, randomly ending near Bayaud and Raleigh at one end and letting out into Barnum Park -- which boasts one of Denver's most underrated views -- at the other. Beyond that is Federal Boulevard, Barnum's ramshackle, second-world-looking eastern border. There you'll find an assortment of grimy liquor stores and used-tire merchants, plus my favorite weird business combo in town, the Quick Stop Food Mart and Bail Bonds, so you can conveniently munch Cheetos and bail a loved one out of jail simultaneously, and the neighborhood's premier gentlemen's entertainment: Dandy Dan's. A little ways further in, at the small neighborhood square at 1st and Knox, Mi Pueblo Mercado sells cheap produce, a small selection of ornate cowboy boots and the best tortillas I've ever eaten. Next door, there's a garage sale every weekend run by an older gentleman whom I've never seen wear a shirt.

I don't like everything about Barnum. I could take or leave the jarringly loud muffler setup my fellow Barnum-ites seem to prefer, and I'm going to admit that, somewhere around the third week of Fourth of July celebrations, I got really sick of hearing fireworks. And if I never have to talk to my weird neighbor again about her creepily intimate relationship with her youngest son, it will be too soon, because I will never be able to scrape that from my memory.

But in the ramshackle squalor, there is also a certain truth, a sense that, in this neighborhood, what you see is very much what you get. It's a neighborhood without charm, but paradoxically, its charm is its lack of pretension. And I like that. And even if it means I will never completely get rid of the cockroaches, I wouldn't trade it for a million handmade organic soap shops, not no way, not no how.

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