"Anyone know what happened at Franklin and 35th?" asked a member of a page devoted to Denver's Cole neighborhood this past weekend. "Crime scene tape...."
"They shot up the house across the street from us, I was outside when it happened," another member reported. "Police are waiting for the crime lab now, my car was shot."
This incident hardly made big news. The drive-by went unreported by the local media until this post — and when asked if that surprises him, Reverend Leon Kelly, the man behind Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, who's spent decades fighting gang violence in Cole and other Denver neighborhoods, offers a humorless laugh. He clearly would have been much more surprised if the shooting had been reported.
"We're dealing with assaults and threats that are going on almost daily," Kelly says. "Drive-bys, too. But until something major happens, it doesn't become newsworthy. And we've been blessed that nobody has been killed."
That wasn't the case last year, when multiple homicides took place in the Cole and Park Hill neighborhoods in the short span of just a couple of weeks or so. They included the April 13 murder of Abdul Muhammad; the April 25 slaying of Nolan Ware prior to the scheduled funeral for Muhammad, one of Ware's relatives; and a pair of April 28 shootings that left two men badly injured and another dead.
Afterward, Kelly came in for criticism when he said, "Whites are contributing to the element of change in these neighborhoods," even though he stressed that he wasn't blaming new arrivals for creating a scenario that generated violence. "I'm just stating the reality of the situation from my perspective," he says.
Since then, the pace of gentrification in RiNo and other areas near Cole has remained steady or perhaps even accelerated — and Kelly sees its ripple effects on the neighborhood.
"We've been trying to squash a lot of things over this year," he says. "And a feud between the Hispanic groups and the black groups has been an issue because of the consolidation of space. The two groups used to coexist at one point in time, but the gentrification that's been coming has compressed the space, causing tension between certain groups. And some of the people who are still there have ill feelings about things that happened last year. There's been shooting back and forth, words being said, those kinds of things."
For Kelly, a location where the dynamic plays out most vividly is Fuller Park, the setting for "I don't know how many assaults and shootings and even deaths over the decades. It was notorious for gang violence back in the day. But now they're trying to revitalize it. They put a dog park over there."
If the dog park was created in an effort to get different groups to mingle and blend, however, Kelly hasn't seen it happen much. "I may have seen one black person with a dog over there," he notes. "The blacks congregate on the other side, over on the basketball courts. So right there, you're going from the old ’hood to the new ’hood."
Such a juxtaposition may sound like a recipe for resentment and all that flows from it. But Kelly says the park is a safer place than it once was, thanks in part to "the efforts of all of us working together to address this situation: us, the city, GRID [Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver]. The feds have come in, too: the ATF, the DEA. We've all been putting a lot of energy and effort into suppression in this new ’hood, and it's made a dent."
Among Kelly's efforts has been "Flippin' the Script," a program funded by the Colorado Department of Corrections that focuses on helping parolees get a fresh start. Earlier this week, a group of graduates celebrated their success during a ceremony at Jake's Sports and Spirits, a brewpub at 3800 Walnut Street — the sort of business that was once exceedingly rare in the vicinity of Cole. "We're working with all these different groups trying to do something positive," Kelly says. "Efforts like these transcend what's happening in the streets."
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Still, shootings like the one that took place near 35th and Franklin serve as a reminder that Cole can still be a volatile place.
"Bullets have no names on them, and the difference between life and death can be inches," Kelly points out. "I'd like to think our efforts are helping to eliminate that, but unfortunately, it's like putting a thumb in a dam. You can only do so much."