Denver Government

20th Street Gym Boxing Program at Rec Center Gets KO'd Once Again

The 20th Street Recreation Center.
The 20th Street Recreation Center.
For coach Robert Baca and his 20th Street Gym Boxing, the hits just keep coming.

After surviving a 2013 restructuring by Denver Parks & Recreation — which considers the nearly eighty-year-old program a “niche” program — this youth-oriented boxing tradition located inside the 20th Street Recreation Center nearly folded completely because of the pandemic, then fought its way back last year. But Baca and his students were forced to move out once again in mid-December, this time because the city needed the 20th Street building to serve as an intake center for the migrants who'd started arriving in October, with dozens landing in Denver every day by the end of the year. (On February 6, the city estimated that more than 4,500 migrants had come to Denver.)

The 20th Street Recreation Center has a long and storied past, from its start in 1908, when it was used as a bathhouse for people who didn’t have indoor plumbing, to its turn as a host for boxing matches with Muhammed Ali, Sonny Liston, Stevie Johnston and more. But most of its regulars are from the neighborhood.

“I get it: We needed to find migrants a place to live, and that’s important, those are human beings,” Baca says. “But what about our homeless, who still wander the streets and haven’t been able to be ‘processed’ and housed, or our kids, who need a place to go where they feel safe and welcome?”

According to Cynthia Karvaski, spokesperson for Parks & Rec, shutting down 20th Street — along with two other rec centers, Rude and Central Park — was a hard but necessary decision. “When we were seeing the rapid increase in the arrival of migrants, we had to do something, and as quickly as possible,” she says. “A lot of things have to go into the decision of which places to use, because there are fire codes, capacity issues, certain kinds of sprinkler systems that have to be in place. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we want it to be this one,’ because inspections have to happen and logistics need to be taken into consideration.”

The central location of 20th Street was also key to why it was chosen. “We needed something easily accessible to bring them in and figure out where they should go next,” Karvaski says. “We had migrants coming into the train station, by bus, getting dropped off in the heart of the city.”

But Baca, who has been running boxing programs in the city for more than forty years, notes that the center's location also made it ideal for young people. “Over the years, I’ve seen how much it helps these kids to have this, and it really was made easier for them because they were able to get here by bus or by walking,” he says. “Now they’re asking me, ‘Coach, when are we going back?’ And honestly, I don’t know what to tell them.”

Karvaski says that no decisions have been made yet about reopening 20th Street, which has been closed since December 13. Rude reopened on January 30; Central Park, which also closed December 13, reopened on February 13. “Cleaning these places after something like this can be time-consuming and involved,” she explains. “And we need to identify another good spot to serve as a welcome and processing center.”

In the meantime, Baca and his students have been relying on the kindness of other gyms to continue – although that kindness comes at a cost. “I can’t just use other gyms’ space for free,” Baca explains. “I was paying at 20th Street, and now I have to pay at these spots, too. But also, I can’t fit my entire team into these places, because they’re already full with their own programs.”

The biggest problem with using other gyms, though, is that they are much more difficult for students to reach. “Now their parents have to drive them, and you’re talking about people who already have to work more than one job and just don’t have a lot of extra time,” Baca says. “The 20th Street location is central, but if you have to go clear out to Aurora or down to south Denver, you’re talking about time and gas, and sometimes our people just don’t have either of those.”

The change has resulted in the program losing students. “I am down to just ten to fifteen students right now,” Baca says. “I’d been up to maybe thirty or forty, but after the pandemic, it just really dropped, and then it felt like we had battled back to being full again on a regular basis.” The 20th Street facilities didn't fully reopen until last February, when Baca and his team were able to return. “I just thought, ‘Okay, we can do this, and we’ll just make it happen,” Baca recalls.

“You have to understand, these are kids in our community who are getting bullied in school, who have problems following orders,” Baca says. “But they come into the gym, and it’s a family. We listen to them, and we understand them. And we offer a healthy way to work through some of those issues. When we’re not there, they have to find other options for blowing off steam and surviving.”

Although Baca’s 20th Street Gym Boxing program initially got to use the rec center space for free when it started there in 2004, it's had to pay for the past several years. Because of that, Baca now has to charge the students $50 a month, which he feels shows their serious commitment to being there. “These are not rich kids going to a fancy fitness club in the suburbs,” Baca says.

Baca has to scrape together the money to pay the city. “They charge me a pretty high price to rent it to run my team,” he adds, “and I had just paid rent, three months in advance for the first quarter, and then the day before it was going to close, they contacted me and said, 'You have to leave.'”

He says he had to raise “quite a fuss, I mean, actually a bunch of screaming” to get his money back, but he did, and now he's putting that toward renting gym space around the city. “They never offered any alternative options. That’s what is so difficult to accept,” he adds.

At first the city did not publicly announce which centers would be used for processing and housing the migrants. “We knew that it would put attention on those buildings, and some of it would not be positive,” Karvaski says.  “We didn’t want to put the staff or the people heading to those places at risk of being a target.”

But while officials “didn’t want the whole city to know," Karvaski adds, "we did tell the people who belonged to those centers within that zip code, and we did some signage on the buildings. And we told people, if you are a member of these places, you can go to any rec center you want. Some people weren’t happy about it, but they understood that we needed to make this happen.”

However, the city did not offer Baca's program any alternatives, and still hasn't — much less given Baca a date when he can return.

“The City of Denver is no longer housing migrants,” Karvaski explains. “But we do still need to have a place where people can come in and give their information and then find out where they can go next, because there are religious institutions and hotels where we can send them. And so we are hoping to return 20th Street to its original intent once we fully stop processing intakes there.”

That can’t come fast enough for Baca and his students: It’s boxing season, and they need to train for the Golden Gloves State Tournament in Denver starting March 6. But Baca is worried that by the time they move back into 20th Street or find a suitable space, they won't have time to get ready.

"To just have to tell these kids, 'Hey, I can’t help you anymore,' that’s what hurts me the most,” Baca says. “It really just breaks my heart.”

The nonprofit 20th Street Gym Boxing Club will host a fundraiser alongside its team awards on February 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. at La Fiesta (2340 Champa St.). Tickets are $30 per adults $15 for kids. To make a direct donation to the club, email [email protected]

This story has been updated to add the reopening date of the Central Park rec center.
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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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