Saturday, February 16, 2013

Rejuvenation Plans Don't Please Everyone

In a Gritty Slice of Denver, Rejuvenation Plans Don't Please Everyone
By Dan Frosch
Published in the New York Times: Monday, November 26, 2007

DENVER — Colfax Avenue is often described as one of America's wickedest streets. Jack Kerouac wrote of its tawdry watering holes in "On the Road." In the movie "Every Which Way But Loose," Clint Eastwood's character and his pet orangutan, Clyde, came here looking for action.
     The broad, bustling thoroughfare is Denver's most famous and notorious drag - a refuge for poets, addicts, hipsters and hustlers that has been the Rocky Mountains' answer to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York. But while those neighborhoods have become gentrified, Colfax Avenue has largely retained its hardscrabble soul.
     But there are signs the avenue is changing, particularly the Capitol Hill section, where ambitious new zoning laws and an increased police presence are drawing businesses and driving down crime. And some residents worry that the resurgence will sanitize Colfax Avenue's legendary grit.
     "People always say they're trying to establish a sense of community here, as if it didn't already exist," said Walt Young, who has been cutting hair for 38 years at the Upper Cut, an old-time barber shop on the avenue.
     The Capitol Hill slice of Colfax Avenue was a haven for the wealthy before it fell on difficult times. Today it is among the city's most colorful and distinctly urban neighborhoods, a warren of apartment buildings where young, upwardly mobile transplants, low-income senior citizens and street-hardened addicts coexist.
     In the shadows of the Colorado Statehouse, the Roslyn Grill opens in the morning to serve beer to drunks and to delivery men fresh off the graveyard shift. At night, half-dazed homeless people stagger among college students going to see bands at Colfax Avenue venues.
     Drug dealers peddle heroin and crack as the young professionals who have flocked to the
remodeled Victorian-era buildings nearby walk their dogs.
     "The social configuration of the streets here is a reflection of the neighborhood itself," said Young, who counts street denizens and the Colorado secretary of state, Mike Coffman, as customers.
     Young fears that the dynamic could change. In September 2005, the Denver City Council approved more structured zoning regulations for Colfax Avenue, parts of which are blighted by abandoned buildings and vacant parking lots, with the intention of turning it into Denver's Main Street.
     The Capitol Hill area, where haphazard development is particularly apparent, was rezoned to encourage ground-floor businesses with residential units above them. The idea was to create a synthesis between people on the street and activity inside the storefronts, said Katherine Cornwell, the principal city planner. It is part of a long-term plan for Colfax Avenue that is meant to proceed without disrupting the neighborhood's eccentricities, Cornwell said.
     "We recognize that Colfax is one of those places where a lot of very different types of people can coexist together with good results," she said.
     Farther east, Colfax Avenue has been galvanized by a similar renaissance, mostly with the arrival of the spacious Tattered Cover Book Store, and the transition of a once seamy motel's ground floor into one of the city's most popular bars, Cornwell said.
     Already, establishments of a new breed are springing up in Capitol Hill, like the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer CafĂ©, whose expansive glass storefront allows passers-by to peer in at customers, just as city planners had envisioned.
     "The more you can do from a design perspective, the more participation you get from the community, the more likely you're going to see a decrease in crime," said Drew O'Connor, executive director of the Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods group.
     Cracking down on disorder has also been an integral part of the revitalization efforts. Last year, Mayor John Hickenlooper convened a task force to focus on areas overrun with criminal activity.
     "This is a beautiful area, but what's unappealing about it has been the drug trafficking and the punks that hang around here," Hickenlooper said of Colfax Avenue. He was once a part owner of the Red Room, one of the newer, sleeker bars on the avenue.
     The task force included police officers, city officials and community leaders, and it has used detailed crime data to help fight the "largest open-air drug market in the Rocky Mountain West," said Jeremy Bronson, public safety special assistant to Hickenlooper.
     The strategy seems to be working. According to city statistics, crime is down 40 percent in the area since 2005, and police calls responding to drug activity are down 34 percent.
     Crime was never a worry for Sheila Keathley, who has owned a popular gay bar, the Denver Detour, on Colfax Avenue for 24 years.
     "People who live here understand that Colfax is just very different," she said.
     Keathley's business will soon move because her landlord recently sold the property. But Cornwell, the city planner, pointed to the fact that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless had bought the building as proof that the neighborhood's social consciousness was thriving.
     She said the city would help pay for the Detour's move.
     Still, Phil Goodstein, a local author who leads walking tours of the Capitol Hill area, said he was skeptical whether the city's plans would work.
     With a wry smile, he pointed out some of the Colfax's more memorable landmarks, including an old optometrist's office, now abandoned, where customers could buy eyeglasses to better see the pornographic magazines that were also on sale.
     At the corner of Colfax Avenue and Pennsylvania Street, Goodstein stopped and surveyed the street. A young, smartly dressed couple walked home from work. A group of teenagers, draped in goth clothes, wandered toward the nearby Fillmore Auditorium. A haggard looking old man sat on a stoop, one hand gripping an oversize walkie-talkie, his eyes shut, mouth agape.
     "Just let Colfax be Colfax," Goodstein said.

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