Better Block Project comes to Five Points: Don't fence us in!

The Better Block Project comes to Five Points tomorrow, when it will focus on sprucing up the block of Welton Street that's home to the legendary Sonny Lawson Park -- and its ballfield. Neighborhood groups have been meeting for over a year to discuss what to do with this parcel of land; at one of those meetings, a resident wondered why the ballfield was separated from the rest of the park by a high, and locked, fence. The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation rep at the meeting didn't know the answer.

Here it is:

Baseball has always been big in this part of Five Points; in On the Road, Jack Kerouac describes going to a game on Welton Street one night, among "all humanity, the lot."

The park at 24th and Welton streets was the first ballfield in Denver to host Negro League games. And on August 9, 1972, it became the first park in the city dedicated to an African American: Sonny Lawson. Lawson was a Denver native who started the Radio Pharmacy at 2601 Welton Street and ran it for more than fifty years; he was also the district executive for the Democratic Party in east Denver for more than two dozen years.

But by the mid-'80s, the area around the park had gone downhill, and a game there always had unexpected hazards. Players would warm up on the sidewalks, which were usually littered with broken glass. And for spectators, the action off the field was usually more interesting than the game itself. "It was a crazy place to play because it was the only place I've ever played softball where you were panhandled almost every time you arrived to warm up," recalls Joe Rassenfoss, then an editor at the Rocky Mountain News, who played on a team with other journalists and some politicos. "The joke was we would go over there for the ceremonial throwing out of the first bum."

A low fence separated the ballpark from the basketball court just past the left-field fence, a popular place for neighbors to gather. And one night, the basketball players got tired of baseballs landing on their court, and accosted the ballplayers.

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The ballplayers pointed out that they weren't good enough athletes to actually aim their hits at the basketball court. Any home runs were clearly accidents, they insisted. And that "sort of calmed everything down," one player remembers.

Long enough, at least, for some of the politically connected players to call then-Mayor Federico Pena's office and, within a few days, a twenty-foot fence, complete with padlock, had been erected to separate the ballfield from the rest of the park -- and the neighborhood.

The group that's been meeting to talk about the future of the neighborhood wants to remove any barriers to its continued improvement. These days, the area around Sonny Lawson Park has million-dollar homes as well as tiny bungalows; the park is deemed safe enough to host City Wide Sports softball league games five nights a week. But the fence remained -- until the ballfield itself with ripped up for an update earlier this year.

Will the fence come back when the ballfield renovation is done? That doesn't seem like a good way to build a Better Block.

From the "Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Sonny Lawson Park: Welcome to the neighborhood."

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