Two city crews descended on the triangular park bounded by Broadway, 22nd and Lawrence just after 6 a.m., the eight workers gingerly picking up the trash — bags and bags of trash, stuffed with everything from human feces to used syringes — before the park started filling again. But it was like bailing the Titanic with a teacup. The shelters had already opened their doors, and people were pouring out onto the sidewalks. Those who hadn't found a bed indoors — there's always a shortage, even on warmer days — were emerging from the nooks and crannies where they'd spent the night, claiming their bit of sidewalk or park for the day.
A block away, at the corner of 23rd and Larimer, a cadre of cops was holding up a man who was having a tough time holding up his pants.
Decades ago, the building behind them was a popular dance hall, where Eddie Maestas met his future wife, Helen. Eddie, his nine brothers and sisters and his parents had moved from Leadville to Denver when Eddie was twelve. His father got a job at the Hungarian Flour Mill down by the train yards; his mother ran a Mexican joint on Larimer, where German and Italian and Irish restaurants had come and gone before. Eddie practically grew up on this melting pot of a street. He worked as a shoeshine boy and, after graduating from North High School, got a job with the Ricotta brothers, who owned Western Beef, at 2048 Larimer. Johnnie Ricotta also had a grocery store at 2030 Larimer — in a storefront that had once housed a Chinese laundry — and when he decided to retire in 1975, after forty years in the business, Eddie bought the place
Eddie Maestas Park
But Eddie didn't just run the store. He wound up running the entire neighborhood. By then, the redevelopment of Larimer Square six blocks away had pushed the city's skid row up into this area, and Eddie fought hard to stop the slide. He helped set up the Larimer Square North Merchants' Association back when the most prosperous merchants were all pawnshops, and in the process earned the unofficial title "Mayor of Larimer Street."
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"I'm real optimistic about everything going on," Eddie told me back in 1997, shortly after he'd been diagnosed with leukemia and closed his store. "I see nothing but good for this area. I just hope God gives me enough time to see it through."
God had given him enough time to see Coors Field open just a few blocks away in 1995; although far more powerful backers had pushed two other proposed sites downtown, the old warehouse district was a hit with Denver's major-league team and its fans. Enough time to see Larimer Street become a vital part of the new Ballpark neighborhood, complete with a historic designation that prevented developers from tearing down the Victorian storefronts and turn-of-the-last-century warehouses and replacing them with parking lots. Enough time to see those developers instead start filling those buildings with loft projects and swanky offices and nice bars and restaurants. Johnny's Market went full circle and became an Irish bar, Scruffy Murphy's, where many hipsters now end their nights.
The dance hall where Eddie Maestas met Helen is today the home of Snooze, where those same hipsters start their days.
But Eddie passed away before he could see the culmination of all those changes, as this stretch of Larimer came to embody where Denver is going as well as where it came from. He didn't get to see Edward J. "Eddie" Maestas Park dedicated on November 2006, after Denver City Council approved one of the longest ordinances ever presented to that body, penned by urban planner Karle Seydel, the first director of the Larimer Square North Merchants' Association. Seydel, who'd pushed so hard to bring the ballpark to this part of town, didn't live long enough to see those changes, either; he passed away last spring, shortly after the start of his beloved baseball season.
Which means that neither of them was there to witness the sad day last summer when the "Eddie Maestas Park" sign was taken down at the request of family members dismayed by what was happening at what's now been unofficially dubbed the "Bumuda triangle."
One of five triangular traffic islands created when the Broadway corridor cut through downtown almost a century ago — part of Mayor Robert Speer's City Beautiful project — by the early 2000s the park was an ugly patch of dirt and asphalt sprouting nothing but despair. The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation came up with a $300,000 plan to renovate the spot, making it much more attractive to look at — but with its prickly groundcover, much less attractive to loitering. Or so city officials thought. But trouble quickly took root.
"Poor policy decisions now intersect there," says Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero, who is working with city and neighborhood groups to dismantle the plan she helped create six years ago and come up with a more realistic proposal. "Everybody just deserves better."
By last year, Eddie Maestas's relatives weren't the only ones concerned about the condition of the park. Patrons heading to twelve, to Snooze, to Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, to the resurrected Star Bar, didn't appreciate getting panhandled. Even the homeless complained that they were being preyed on by drug dealers and other predators while they sat in the park, waiting for the shelters to reopen for the night.
The Denver Rescue Mission, which had moved to its corner of 22nd and Lawrence in 1970, back when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority bought its original home on Larimer, had sat in on some of the original discussions for Eddie Maestas Park, but didn't approve of the direction those talks took. "It was our belief that this could become a huge problem if this area was redeveloped into a nicer park," remembers Brad Meuli, president/CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission. "Now that it has become a problem, we want to help redevelop it into a place where homeless people can be outside and safe while transitioning from one facility to another."
Some of those facilities are run by the Denver Rescue Mission, which has four long-term programs beyond the shelter that are designed to help the homeless transition off the streets. Others are run by the non-profit providers that followed the Denver Rescue Mission's lead and moved into the area decades ago, before it became one of the hottest parts of town. Although rumors periodically crop up suggesting that the shelters will move again, they're not going anywhere. "We've been in the neighborhood since 1892, providing emergency services for folks who are part of our community," says Greta Walker, director of communications for the Denver Rescue Mission. "We will continue to take care of their needs."
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And now the Rescue Mission wants to do it with the blessing of the city. For the past six months, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation — which is responsible for the triangle parks — and the Department of Human Services have been meeting with neighbors, local businesses and the providers to come up with another fix for the park that would keep it as city property but allow the Denver Rescue Mission to act as "steward": running, maintaining and, above all, monitoring it.
As outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the Denver Rescue Mission, a new metropolitan district will raise the funds necessary to redesign the park, again. "This was not really the way it was envisioned," admits Gordon Robertson, Denver Parks planner. And while that money is being raised, the city will continue to hold meetings with stakeholders to discuss the new design proposals. Two weeks ago, the idea was outlined at a meeting of the Ballpark Neighborhood Association, the successor to the Larimer Square North Merchants' Association. Last week, Councilwoman Montero and the parks department hosted a public meeting at the Lobby, the restaurant located in the historic Paris Hotel that's experienced some of the very modern problems flowing out of the park. The Denver Police Department stepped up enforcement in this area late last year, and as one officer noted at the meeting, the situation is "like toothpaste — we squeeze, and they pop up in other areas."
But not in Eddie Maestas Park. Not anymore, not if the city can help it. The property will remain part of Denver Parks, and although the Denver Rescue Mission will use it as a gathering area, "it will not restrict or inhibit public use and enjoyment of the park for all park patrons, including the homeless and indigent," according to the memorandum. And despite the fact that the Rescue Mission is marked by a "Jesus Saves" sign, it has agreed to keep any proselytizing out of the park. "We're trying to be the best neighbor that we can," Meuli told the assembled neighbors.
Eddie Maestas saw nothing but good ahead for this area. Someday, the triangular patch of land bounded by Broadway, 22nd and Larimer may actually deserve his name.