Holleman watched as nearby homes were practically given away. One family sold their house, only to build an almost exact replica in a neighborhood to the south. "Some of the things I've seen, all you can do is laugh at it," he says. "I guess they moved out of fear. I guess they thought bad things were going to happen."
Bad things did start to happen — not just in northeast Park Hill, but across the country. For decades, African-Americans had been migrating from the South to urban areas in search of better opportunities — but instead they'd found economic and social segregation. By the late 1960s, tensions were at a breaking point. There were race riots in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit, and when anger bubbled up in Park Hill, it spilled over into the heart of the community.
On the night of July 31, 1967, angry youths took to the streets in Denver — and ended up clashing with police at the Park Hill Shopping Center. Helmeted officers dodged rocks and bottles and waded into the mob with riot sticks. The Horizon and other businesses were looted and vandalized. In an editorial the next day titled "What the Negro Wants," the Rocky Mountain News opined: "The youngsters are readily victimized by the demigods and criminals on the insane fringe of the civil rights movement. They swell the mobs. Education and job training should revive hope among them, and lessen the menace of disorder."
In March 1968, a Molotov cocktail sailed though the window of Handy Ace Hardware and Paint in the shopping center, touching off a blaze that damaged many of the surrounding stores. Then, on the evening of June 23, another skirmish in the parking lot ended with a cop bleeding from a gunshot wound and nineteen-year-old Nathan Jones lying in a pool of blood, shot in the stomach and throat by police. Cops claimed Jones had fired first, hitting the officer in the head, but locals, familiar with police brutality, were reluctant to accept the story.
State riot police were called in to patrol the tense neighborhood as Jones lay in critical condition at Denver General. Denver mayor Thomas Currigan and Colorado governor John Love went on television to plead with residents to keep children at home. While the rioting appeared to be quelled, leaders warned that worse would be coming unless the city took active steps to help the struggling African-American community. "The time has come that talk has lost its effectiveness in the black community," said NAACP Chairman W. Gene Howell at a meeting at the organization's northeast Denver headquarters. "Action must be made to alleviate and remove racial inequities that in turn are the fundamental base for violence. Denver can be spared the violence that seems to be in the making in most major American cities."
Borrowing a dollar to buy a box of Star Crunch at the Holly's candy store, then eating all twelve fudgy cookies and having your stomach pay for it the rest of the day. Chatting up girls at Fast Eddie's skating rink at the Dahlia, then going to the arcade where the machines were busted open to reveal the little red buttons that, when pressed, yielded unending free games. Breakdancing crews spreading cardboard across the pavement, kids gathering at the local park for a game of Smear the Queer.
These are the things Terrance Roberts remembers about growing up in northeast Park Hill in the late '70s and early '80s, when hundreds of kids would trot back and forth between the former Park Hill Shopping Center, now renamed Holly Square, and the Dahlia, the two magnetic poles of their adolescent existence.
Granted, the shopping centers had seen better days. The turmoil of the late '60s had taken a toll, as had competition from regional malls and jumbo discount stores. Marge Gilbert, the longtime Park Hill resident, remembers food quality going down and prices going up at the two neighborhood grocery stores — the Safeway at the Holly and King Soopers at the Dahlia — before they closed in the 1970s. Still, there was life at both spots: A 1982 market study done for the city found the neighborhood was stable enough and market support strong enough for commercial revitalization at both malls.
Gang clashes at the centers weren't uncommon, usually with the Park Hill Boyz facing down such outsiders as the Brick City crew from the Arapahoe projects to the west. But for the most part, these skirmishes were relatively mild; fighters wielded bricks and chains but never guns. For neighborhood kids, it was like watching a kung fu movie. After all, this was their home; nothing bad was going to happen.