Longform

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

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After the cleanup, everyone gathers near where the Molotov cocktails first ignited the blaze. Local officials speak of a bright future, and religious leaders say blessings in different languages. Many refer to the life-bringing properties of fire, how ancient proverbs speak of riches coming from ashes, how forest blazes lead to new seedlings. Then Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Mayan leader who helped end Guatemala's bloody civil war, performs a healing ceremony, talking about forgiveness and having the strength to rebuild.

Standing in the fiery heat, Roberts takes it all in. He looks around and sees not a 2.6-acre scar, but a blank canvas, one that will soon be filled by a host of Denver graffiti artists and local youth. In September, their creations will spread up the twelve steel pillars, emblazoning each with the words "Peace on Earth" in different languages and facing both east and west. There will be basketball courts, too, one bankrolled by Kroenke Sports Enterprises and one courtesy of Denver Parks and Recreation. In early October, the courts will be dedicated in a ceremony hosted by the Denver Nuggets. Most likely Billups will be there, on hand to help inspire some young, local baller destined to become the next King of the Hill.

After the mural is done, Roberts hopes to see its vivid colors proliferating in other parts of the neighborhood: reds and blues together spreading up and over walls scarred with bullet holes and spray-painted "CK" (Crip Killer) tags. "There are no murals around here," he says, "so we're getting into the mural game."

Roberts is scrambling to raise the $30,000 or so needed to make it all happen. He's also hard at work helping to plan a new peace march. On July 31, residents of Five Points will set out from Brother Jeff's Cultural Center at 2836 Welton Street, while their counterparts in northeast Park Hill will leave the Park Hill Community Center by the Holly. The two groups will meet in the middle, at 32nd Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, to take a stand against the gang violence that's been waged back and forth across town, calling for an end to the eye-for-an-eye mentality that recently took the life of one of the Holly's own assassins.

For Roberts, it doesn't matter that in a few years the ULC's redevelopment of the Holly will likely destroy much of the mural. Nor is he naive enough to think that such efforts alone can stop the cycle of violence, drugs and neglect that has long plagued the shopping center and its environs.

"If the Denver gang unit, with its sixty officers, can't solve the problem, if all the principals in the schools can't solve the problem, if all the parents and grandparents can't solve the problem, the Prodigal Son and the peace mural aren't going to solve the problem," he says. "But it's a step in the healing process. It will bring more pride to the community. Now, all of a sudden, you're inspiring a whole lot more people to stake a claim to the community, to help out and really be proud of the community."

For the first time in a long while, the neighbors won't be waiting around to see what happens next at the Holly. They're taking matters into their own hands.

"I admire Terrance's vision, because I didn't have that vision," says longtime activist Wheeler. "And now I see the excitement that has been generated, and I think if it works, it will be a wonderful thing. It's like the Bible quote, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' If anything, I see him preserving the people. He has the vision for today."

For more stories about the neighborhood around the Holly, go to the Latest Word blog. Read a previous story about former gang members at www.westword.com/2007-02-22/news/the-transformers/. Contact the author at [email protected].

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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