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Crips burned down the Holly in Bloods territory, but can peace emerge from the ashes in northeast Park Hill?

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Roberts remembers the day it changed. It was 1987, and he was eleven years old. He and a buddy were tossing around a Nerf football when some older kids in red rolled up on bikes. One of them gestured to the blue shorts that Roberts's friend was wearing and asked if they were Crips.

When they said no, the older kid told them, "If you were Crips, we would have to do something to you," and then pulled up his shirt to show a .22 revolver. "This is what time it is, man."

Roberts and his friends heeded the warning. For them, it became a point of pride to not wear blue, the color of the Crips, and only sport the reds and maroons of the Bloods. They did so knowing they were outnumbered by Crips five to one, that their northeast Park Hill outpost wasn't just under attack by Crips from Five Points to the west, but also contingents in Montbello and Aurora.

"Park Hill was like the elite of the Bloods in Colorado, period," says Tito Mercado, a longtime gang member who's now moved on, with a family and a career. "It was never a fair fight, as far as numbers went. We would go places no other Bloods would go — to Five Points, to Juneteenth Festival, to the Black Arts Festival. Nobody would say, 'Those are the Crenshaw Mafia Bloods.' They'd just say, 'Those are the Park Hill Bloods.'"

And the Holly became home base for the Park Hill Bloods. "The Holly was basically the heart of the neighborhood," remembers Mike Sanders, who hung out there from the age of ten until he quit the Bloods seventeen years later. "If you rode through the Holly, one of us would be there, from one in the morning to ten at night. Since we didn't have cell phones, we'd decide, 'I'm going to go to the Holly to see who's up there.' If no one was there, we'd just sit there, and five or ten minutes later everyone would start coming."

They'd gather there and discuss who got shot the night before, who was going to come after them that day, and which crackheads they should get to buy them more bullets. They'd sell $20 worth of crack to the drug zombies who at night turned the shopping center into something out of Thriller, then spend $18 of it buying licorice at the candy store. When someone called the cops, they had a routine: At the first sign of a cruiser, gangbangers would scatter to the alley across the street, the Skyland Rec Center across the way or nearby Skyland Park, then resume operations once the coast was clear.

Soon bullet holes scarred the walls of the businesses. Every now and then a body would be found on the blacktop, killed over a turf battle, a dice game or just a bit of crack.

Not everything went to pot around the Holly, however; not everyone was sucked into the gang. "My memories are all good, man," says Chauncey Billups, who was growing up a block from the Holly in the late 1980s and early '90s, then went on to become an NBA All-Star who now plays for the Denver Nuggets. "The Holly and Park Hill was really the heartbeat of the city. It was everything for me. Those were the streets and blocks that raised me. My mom and dad would go to work and they would drop me off at the Skyland Rec Center across from the Holly, and I'd never need a babysitter. I felt like, outside of my mom and dad, the rec center and the Holly raised me."

Yes, gangs were all around him when he'd take a break from practice and grab a bite to eat at Kapre Chicken in the Holly, but Billups was too busy chasing his dream to bother with such distractions. "I was able to stay away from it," he says of the gang life.

But most kids didn't have the outlet that Billups did, and most didn't have authority figures to show them a better way. Most kids were like Roberts, whose dad wasn't around to lecture him when the honor student started running guns for older Bloods and then took $100 he got from his grandmother to buy a .25 caliber pistol, his first gun.

That little pistol was soon replaced by a .380 pistol, then a Mac-11 with a clip as long as his forearm. Finally, he was packing a 12-gauge or an AK-47. Getting ambushed and shot in the back around the corner from the Holly in 1993 just pushed Roberts, by then a runaway known as Showbiz, deeper into the game — and the next year, the then-eighteen-year-old was sent to prison for robbery.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner