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Wayne Trujillo Headshot

An Endless -- and Escalating -- War at Home, Part I

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I've read a slew of real estate reports in the local media over the past year. A few have even presented relative good tidings and predictions for a select few Denver neighborhoods. Offsetting the positive vibrations, other articles relay a less enthusiastic prognosis, particularly for those areas unfortunately situated a distance from the city's hot spots or lacking the raw quaintness (and investment capital) that transforms certain barrios and ghettos from ugly ducklings into swans. Two of the latest transformations, the Five Points or LoHi 'hoods, are the latest locales worthy of the Brothers Grimm. Once destitute, dilapidated and shunned, speculators and trendsetters now serenade the neighborhoods, singing their praises to the tune of million dollar residences and multimillion-dollar businesses. While the overall production is still a tad off-key and unfinished, what with the swans still sporting and shedding patches of the ugly ducklings they once were, the makeovers are truly remarkable.

Is this a good thing? It definitely is for property owners and businesses. And not all businesses in the area are trendy upstarts. Establishments like Rosa Linda's Mexican restaurant, Pagliacci's Italian restaurant and Pierre's Supper Club (albeit under different ownership) survived their respective neighborhood's past poverty to assume their current vogue. And even though the real estate market crashed headfirst into reality a couple years ago, leaving casualties uncertain whether they'll be able to regain their footing once the wreckage is cleared, those fortunate enough to have bought into these areas decades ago are standing strong.

But the stars aren't aligned so propitiously for the rest of the 'hood holdouts. Whether they reside in the area's remaining subsidized housing or rent threadbare dwellings overlooked by developers (for now), their circumstances and stories remain stubbornly similar to countless other inner-city neighborhoods. On Web sites and in pamphlets, the City and County of Denver, real estate companies, businesses and travel guides all gloss over the neighborhoods' histories, correctly noting their strong strains of ethnic and racial diversity, but segue into rhetorical flourishes that neatly package the past, present and future into a polished publicity ode to happy endings. Largely left out of the recounts are the flesh and blood individuals who brought the buildings, businesses and streets to life. Sure, there are a few requisite characters and oddities sprinkled throughout the histories, but an overarching population, with its most visible possessions being poverty, drudgery and hopelessness, doesn't make for good publicity or casual reading.

This is why Bob Herbert's recent column in the New York Times revived the historical LoHi and Five Points neighborhoods (along with a few others) for me far more than the spate of abbreviated accounts populating the Web. Herbert wrote about the semi-serious and somewhat jocular exchange between comedian Conrad O'Brian and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. However, the substance of his column was anything but comedic. While the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts get the headlines, Herbert points out that a different kind of war is waged everyday on American soil. Inner-city life is a battleground as deadly as the conflicts overseas, even if less publicized. The wars fought in American inner-cities have no end in sight; even though LoHi and Five Points are seeing a rapid withdrawal of gangs wars and assorted other inner-city combat, thanks to gentrification, the hostilities merely relocate to a different depressed neighborhood. Herbert doesn't limit his observations to the dismal environment in Newark. His comments extend to cityscapes across America.

Dozens of boys and girls of school-age and younger are murdered in Chicago every year. One hundred were killed there last year, according to the police. The blood of the young is spattered daily on the stoops, sidewalks and streets of American cities from coast to coast, and we won't even take notice unless, for example, we can engage in the ghoulish delight of watching the murder played over and over again on video.

While the reputation of Denver's inner-city 'hoods never publicly competed with East or West Coast cities for sheer volume of brutality and violence, there was never a lack of opportunity available for resident youth to aspire to the dead-end criminal lifestyle taking up permanent residence in the nation's ghettos and barrios. And dead-end is more than a metaphorical phrase to describe that lifestyle. Even though I've seen only snapshots of that environment, interviewing others has offered a panoramic view of the inner-city landscape.

Tidbits and anecdotes offer a glimpse of the scenarios driving the devastation. A teenager recently told me about life in LoHi a decade ago. As a child, he watched the neighborhood activity spike when the local drug dealer swept through in his car. He said the exuberance with which people rushed the dealer, simultaneously appearing out of houses and apartments along the street, reminded him of the same excitement that sent him and his friends racing to the ice cream truck. The truly sad thing is that too often the drug dealers and ice cream vendors market to the same age demographic.

Other examples come through empirical experience. Years ago, I interned at KUVO radio station not long after its debut. Once a week, I journeyed from Boulder to KUVO, located on Denver's Morrison Road. The distance was less than 50 miles, but it seemed to exist in a different galaxy, actually a different dimension. A few years after my internship, a friend, his cousin and I ended up in a bar within eyesight of the radio station. While I was in a nostalgic mood, brought on by alcohol and proximity of the radio station, my friend's cousin was involved in a drug deal, purchasing cocaine. I was drunkenly oblivious to the transaction (and to everything else save my nostalgia). When a fight broke out at the joint, we split. Only after we left did I learn the reason for our trip down my memory lane. It wasn't a coincidence or chance that we ended up on that street.

Drug traffic was pretty heavy on Morrison Road in those days. When, a few years later, the Denver dailies reported a shooting in that very bar on Morrison Road, I overhead people talking about not only the shooting in particular, but also the area in general, stating that anybody who ventured there after dark was drunk, drugged or crazy. My immediate thought went to the children I'd seen playing along the street when I used to drive up to KUVO's parking lot. They didn't have to be drunk, drugged or crazy to enter or exist on that street. They just had to be born there. Or relocated there by parents. Granted, the chances of them ending up drunk, drugged or crazy improved with every passing day in that environment. Ironically, Morrison Road recently appeared in an article about potential up-and-coming neighborhoods. A writer for Denver's Westword named it as a prospective candidate for resurgence along the lines of LoHi and Five Points -- one of the "next hot 'hoods." After reading the article, I could only wonder if the people would change along with the neighborhood.