Longform

Shape Up Or Ship Out

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An absence of zoning laws allowed apartments and businesses to rise up alongside stately Queen Anne, Neoclassical and Georgian Revival mansions. In 1901, 59 building permits had already been issued for multi-unit residences in Denver. Newspapers at the time fueled fears about the city becoming a "Gotham of tenements and slums." One article suggested that the good citizens of Capitol Hill buy vacant lots, place construction restrictions on them and then not sell any to people of "bad character," according to Denver: The City Beautiful, by Tom Noel and Barbara Norgren.

Hoping to capitalize on those fears, Warwick Downing, a Denver park commissioner, platted a Park Hill subdivision between Forest Street and Monaco Parkway and Colfax and Montview Boulevard known as Downington. "All over Capitol Hill there are instances of fine homes absolutely ruined by stores, apartments, etc.," he wrote in a prospectus designed to scare residents away from central Denver and into his development, where such types of "property assault" would not be allowed. He further wooed prospective buyers by promising that children living in this new suburb would be "free from the contaminating influence of downtown city streets," where "their delicate moral fibres are tarnished by evil associations," Noel notes in another book, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis.

The fear-mongering worked, and in the 1910s, wealthy residents began moving to Park Hill and other pastoral locations such as Cheesman Park and the Country Club district. Capitol Hill underwent further changes in the 1930s and '40s, when the Great Depression and wartime rationing of building materials forced remaining inhabitants of single-family homes to convert their huge domiciles into boardinghouses or apartments.

There was no such thing as historic preservation back then, so many of those old homes disappeared entirely in the 1950s and '60s, when mansions were bulldozed to make way for high-rises and parking lots.

Finally, in 1967, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission was formed, and three years later, Historic Denver Inc. was created to save the Molly Brown House from the fate of some of its neighbors. Brown's home is now a museum that contains many of her furnishings. At the moment, the lot next door is a dirt pile that will soon be transformed into the Bartholomew, a building of six "elegant flats" ranging in price from $389,000 to $421,500.

When they created their neighborhood organization, the Capitol Hill activists wanted to commemorate Brown, the famous Titanic survivor. But they also chose the name "Unsinkables" because they consider themselves to be unsinkable. After all, they return year after year to fight what might be a losing battle against crime.

8 p.m.,
14th Avenue and Washington Street

The group stops in front of an apartment building to wait for some stragglers. There's a man on the steps talking on a cell phone, and he isn't sure what to make of all these people standing around with a cop. "I don't know what the hell is going on," he tells the person on the other end. "Oh, maybe it's the Cinco de Mayo thing."

The "Cinco de Mayo thing" may explain why it's unusually quiet. At this hour, the drug dealing and trick turning normally start to heat up. Or maybe, as Goss speculates, things are calm because it's early in the warm season.

Once the Unsinkables are together again, they continue down Washington, where a man Goss saw huddled suspiciously with a group of people earlier in the evening passes by, brushing up against a bush. She shines her flashlight into the bush but doesn't find anything.

Unsinkables president Kathi Anderson and neighbor Beth Ostlund, who'd been walking farther back, catch up with the others. They start talking about Bonanza Liquors, an establishment the group would like to see shut down. "You should buy it and turn it into a wine-and-cheese shop," Anderson tells Ostlund.

As the neighbors make their way down the street, Guardian Angel Anthony points out a first-floor apartment; a man used to peer in at the girls who lived there. "There are zillions of them," he says of the Peeping Toms in Capitol Hill. He once caught a man looking through the window of one of the apartment buildings he manages in the neighborhood. "Every building has a story."

Every person has a story, too. Like Kenneth Marion. The first time the Unsinkables saw him two years ago, he was wearing a flashy, green leather suit with no shirt underneath, matching pants and cowboy boots. The one thing he wasn't flamboyant about was drug dealing.

"I called the police once a week to say that Kenneth was out in front of my house. Everyone in the neighborhood knew who he was," Nachtigal recalls. "But I never saw him actually sell drugs."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon