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Walk This Way

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I've come to the 16th Street Mall with no other plan than to walk it, at noon and at night, to see how the mile-long stretch feels after a couple of difficult months. On February 17, the mall logged its first murder of the year when 21-year-old Stan Leachman was shot and killed just off Glenarm Street; that death followed a spate of incidents in and around the mall, including two rapes in December and a much-publicized murder involving a former Aurora cop, who allegedly gunned down his wife's lover just blocks away from thousands of New Year's Eve revelers watching the downtown fireworks display.

The mall has always felt innocuous to me. Tame. A repository for tourist dollars, a destination for would-be drunks and an outpost for tacky Colorado souvenirs. Four years ago, as a visitor traversing unknown territory, I disregarded the warnings of hotel keepers and friendly natives who told me to avoid areas south of Court Street, where the sleek veneer of the upper mall began to crack and danger supposedly lurked. I walked the strip, from the Tattered Cover on the northern fringe to the southern boundary of the Civic Center RTD station, that first day as a tourist and many times since, without incident or fear.

But lately the mall has taken on a more sinister tinge. In my mind, its longtime landmarks now compete with newly designated crime scenes and the curiosity and grim speculation they inspire. The lamppost at 15th and Market streets, where until recently a makeshift shrine marked the spot where 26-year-old Michael Garth was shot to death on December 31. The alley between Welton and California streets, where earlier in December a woman was raped after an attacker pulled her from her car. A parking garage near Stout Street, where another woman was raped that same month. The sentencing of "lingerie rapist" James Henry Gipson on Valentine's Day reprised stories of women lured from the mall to horrific scenes of sexual assault and violence in late 2000.

On this day, though, with the air cloudless and crisp, and views of the snowcapped Rockies shimmering through gaps between buildings, the mall looks like an idyllic urban expanse, a scene conjured up by the Metro Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau to match enticing tidbits about the city's uniquely fit populace and its preponderance of sunshine. The noon hour attracts both the business and leisure classes: students on break, office workers at lunch, tourists at play. Mounted police look on as street vendors hawk wares for every conceivable impulse or need: keys, sunglasses, hot dogs, inflatable Tweety heads, watches, cameras, maps.

The 16th Street Mall represents both commerce and culture in this city. After the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, it's the town's most popular tourist attraction. It's also home to a sizable population of the downtrodden, the temporarily and permanently homeless, the insane, the infirm and the unwilling to work -- including teenagers, known as "will-nots," who adopt street life as a lifestyle choice, kind of like camp. Even so, the area is touted as one of the safest in Denver, recent blights on that record notwithstanding.

"Statistically, compared to the crime rate of the rest of the city, you would find that the crime rate is very low down here," says John Desmond, director of the nonprofit Downtown Denver Partnership's downtown environment department. "There are more people interacting downtown, so all things being equal, there should be more incidents here, but there just aren't. I've got an eleven-year-old daughter; she's down here all the time."

Officer Tamara Molyneaux works for the Denver Police Department's mall unit on weekdays. During her shift, which ends at 6 p.m., she's rarely called to deal with anything more serious than complaints about panhandling.

"A lot of people are not aware that panhandling is not illegal. We have to let them know that those people are within their rights as long as they follow the restrictions," she says. "We have some drinkers who get an early start -- stuff like that. But you don't see the daily robberies, homicides and shootings like you do in some downtowns. We don't have bank robberies. It's a wonderful place to work and live."

"I think one of the reasons why the mall is such a great democratizing thing for our city is that you see street people and business people all together; no one is excluded," Desmond says. "But some people equate the feeling of seeing someone unlike them as feeling unsafe. They don't feel comfortable when they see someone who's very much different from them. They encounter people with different colors of hair, in groups, and they feel threatened. It's an urban environment, and it's very different from what some people encounter in other Colorado cities -- what they might expect in their ski towns."

Officer Molyneaux has come to know many of the brightly-hued young people who generate complaints -- scruffy kids who spread out in anarchic tribes from Skyline Park to the Rialto Cafe to bum change and smokes and sometimes terrify passersby. Lately, though, she's seen less of them: Cold weather forces some to seek shelter indoors, while some just head back to normal life.

"You wouldn't think that some of them go to school, but a lot of them do," she says. "We do get complaints from people who feel bothered by them because of what they say when they walk by. But a lot of them are really good kids. If you take the time to know them, you find out that they have a lot of talent. Some of them just want to be free."

At a public chess table near California Street, two gutter-punk types play a game with two businessmen in suits. From the looks of it, everyone is getting along just fine.

Public attitudes toward the 16th Street Mall often fall into the divide between fact and fiction, perception and reality. Downtown's boosters are looking to close that gap.

In January, the Downtown Denver Partnership distributed questionnaires to eight mayoral candidates, as well as to nineteen individuals vying for eleven spots opening up on the Denver City Council this year, asking for their ideas on how to improve issues of public safety "both real and perceived" in downtown. Athough the responses, posted this month on www.downtowndenver.com, vary widely, most stress the vital importance of the area's continued development; for that to occur, people must feel at ease walking downtown streets.

Mayor Wellington Webb has been saying that for a while now. In 2000, aided by the Downtown Denver Safety Task Force, Webb announced a slate of proposed actions to improve safety along the 16th Street Mall. Among his recommendations were enhanced cleanup efforts, a boosted police visibility and the 24-hour availability of Denver CARES to swoop the overly inebriated into a temporary detox shelter. Later that year, the city council passed an ordinance banning "aggressive" panhandling; among other things, it prohibited street begging and busking after dark.

But the downtown task force's vision has yet to be fully realized, Desmond says. In addition to finding ways to reduce public trepidation about coming downtown, the group's members hoped to aid -- and disperse -- transient populations that contributed to many of the mall's more unseemly elements. They envisioned a synergy between various health, safety and advocacy organizations, such as the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Urban Peak, Denver CARES and the DPD, which in 2000 began training mall-unit officers on how to deal with people suffering from emotional distress, substance abuse and other problems that can accompany life on the streets. But that proved a tall order.

"I would say that the mall isn't necessarily any safer than it was in 2000, when that task force convened. It's just about as safe as it was then," says Desmond. "There are just so many components that go into making improvements. You have to look at the trends going on in society. There have been significant cutbacks of social services, no cutbacks to cost of housing or increases in the availability of low-cost housing, and some of that may offset any positive trends. It's a constant issue, something that we have to be dealing with all the time. We'd definitely still like to see improvements in the availability of social services for people downtown who need them."

Still, Desmond says, downtown Denver is a safe place to be, day or night.

"We've got great sight lines, it's well lit, it's populated," he explains. "And many of the things that have happened recently could have happened anywhere; they weren't a product of the downtown environment. Anytime there is an incident downtown, it's going to cause a big reaction and draw a lot of attention and publicity from the public and the media."

Over the past few months, the area around the mall has given the media plenty to pay attention to.

At 10:30 p.m., I'm doing something John Desmond tells me I shouldn't be afraid to do: walking the mall, alone, following the same route I'd taken ten hours earlier. Part of me knows Desmond is right. Stores are closed, but bars are open. The street is dark and almost deserted in spots, but there are always people within earshot, and a lot of eyes watching over things. Two motorcycle cops have propped their bikes in the middle of the mall, between shuttle lanes. Drinkers and diners fill the Cheesecake Factory, Rialto, Marlowe's and the Paramount Cafe. Movie-goers file down the staircase at the Denver Pavilions. I pass a young woman crouched on a bench with a backpack, three groups of kids who ask me for money, and one elderly and disoriented-looking man who stops me on the corner: "I am looking for some birth certificates," he says, reeking of alcohol and old smoke.

At Court, I feel myself hesitate. Somebody's moving around in the shadows near the RTD station. When the next shuttle arrives, I'm glad for the ride.

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