Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Sonny Lawson Park: Welcome to the neighborhood

For over a year, neighbors and stakeholders in the area just northeast of downtown -- the edge of the Ballpark neighborhood, Curtis Park, Five Points -- have been discussing how to improve this part of town. They've come up with some answers, and one big question: Why is Sonny Lawson Field, in the heart of the neighborhood, fenced off from the rest of it?

And not just fenced off, but locked up when there isn't a game on the field. And sometimes when there is. At a June meeting of the Community Coordinating District at Redline Gallery, the group guffawed as they watched a video of a female ballplayer scaling the twenty-foot fence in order to get to her game. And pulling down that fence -- lock and all -- became the top priority on a very long list of ways to improve the neighborhood. Why was the fence there, anyway? The Department of Parks and Recreation rep sitting in on the meeting didn't know the answer.

Here it is:

Baseball has always been big in this part of Five Points; in On the Road, Jack Kerouac describes going to a game on Welton Street one night, among "all humanity, the lot."

The park at 24th and Welton streets was the first ballfield in Denver to host Negro League games. And on August 9, 1972, it became the first park in the city dedicated to an African American: Sonny Lawson. Lawson was a Denver native who started the Radio Pharmacy at 2601 Welton Street and ran it for more than fifty years; he was also the district executive for the Democratic Party in east Denver for more than two dozen years.

But by the mid-'80s, the area around the park had gone downhill, and a game there always had unexpected hazards. Players would warm up on the sidewalks, which were usually littered with broken glass. And for spectators, the action off the field was usually more interesting than the game itself. "It was a crazy place to play because it was the only place I've ever played softball where you were panhandled almost every time you arrived to warm up," recalls Joe Rassenfoss, then an editor at the Rocky Mountain News, who played on a team with other journalists and some politicos. "The joke was we would go over there for the ceremonial throwing out of the first bum."

A low fence separated the ballpark from the basketball court just past the left-field fence, a popular place for neighbors to gather. And one night, the basketball players got tired of baseballs landing on their court, and accosted the ballplayers.

The ballplayers pointed out that they weren't good enough athletes to actually aim their hits at the basketball court. Any home runs were clearly accidents, they insisted. And that "sort of calmed everything down," one player remembers.

Long enough, at least, for some of the politically connected players to call the city, and within a few days, a twenty-foot fence, complete with padlock, had been erected to separate the ballfield from the rest of the park -- and the neighborhood.

The group that's been meeting to talk about the future of the neighborhood wants to remove any barriers to its continued improvement. These days, the area around Sonny Lawson Park has million-dollar homes as well as tiny bungalows; the park is deemed safe enough to host City Wide Sports softball league games five nights a week. But the fence remains.

On Monday, September 24, the group will hold a Community Potluck in Sonny Lawson Park from 4:30 to 8 p.m., where they'll show the work they've been doing on plans for the place, eat barbecue, watch a free performance by Ballet Nouveau Colorado and catch the unveiling of an artwork by Candy Change, Before I Die ____, will be unveiled. Find more details here.

Come see "all humanity, the lot."

For the past two summers, Joe Carabello has hosted a weekly ballgame at Sonny Lawson Field where all the players are homeless. Read more in Kyle Garratt's "Homeless Diamond, Joe Carabello stage softball games for people living on the streets (PHOTOS)."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun