Throw the Bums Out

Like most attractive public spaces, the Pearl Street Mall has been the site of an ongoing battle between merchants and transients. Sometimes it seems that unusually belligerent or obstreperous street people have made themselves at home on the mall. But Boulder also has more than its fair share of merchants and strollers who have a profound and unreasoning dislike of the disenfranchised.

Within a month of the mall's opening, Lewis H. Conarroe wrote a letter to the Daily Camera declaring that this splendid place "must be protected from panhandlers, drifters and crackpot cultists who are gathering like parasites..."

Two years later, teenage toughs went on the attack, cruising by groups of street people and yelling abuse. On occasion, they attacked with knives, bats and broken bottles. A young woman, four months pregnant, was beaten so severely that she lost her baby.

Although some Boulderites supported the transients, in general there was a marked lack of sympathy for their plight. Residents said they were afraid of the street people; some said they'd stopped visiting the mall or wouldn't let their children go there because of them. And one merchant complained, "I've seen people yelling and screaming, four-letter words being used profusely, with officers just standing there."

The daily paper received hundreds of letters expressing dislike for transients. "They serve no purpose," one resident said. "I say get rid of them."

Students from nearby Boulder High formed a Rat Patrol, which they defined as a "patriotic, self-defense, clean-up-the-streets organization."

But the then-manager of Häagen-Dazs had a different approach: "They're just people," he said. "Live and let live." One transient, however, explained that he was not just a person from this planet, but created from the light of a distant star.

Although the furor eventually died down, every few years the controversy over transients erupts anew. In 1994, members of the Rainbow family arrived in force. There were complaints that people were taking baths -- using soap -- in the courthouse fountain. A 69-year-old woman was injured after being pushed by a transient. Some of the mall kiosks were set on fire.

The police acknowledged that it was unlikely the Rainbow family was involved in the violence. The Rainbows were pretty peaceful, one officer admitted, but "the street drunks are doing heroin and the kids with baggy pants are doing a lot of acid."

Merchants urged the police to crack down hard -- and they did. When they arrested a group of Rainbow people who were distributing free donuts and asking for donations, community members protested, blocking one of the mall intersections after the Rainbows had been taken to jail. Eventually, the ACLU became involved. There was a tumultuous meeting of members from all factions; the controversy ultimately was settled without a lawsuit. "All we're doing is loving each other," said a nineteen-year-old Rainbow woman.

The last few years have been more peaceful, with far fewer transients on the mall -- no one is sure exactly why, according to Deputy Police Chief Jim Hughes. Policies toward street people have not changed, he says, although he adds that the department is maintaining a stronger police presence on the mall.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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