Denver Legends: Soapy Smith

Early Denver was built on promise. The promise of fortune was to be had in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The promise of finding a fresh start by striking it rich on a claim. The promise of showing off your wealth with the comforts home in the middle of the Wild West.

However, the city did not look as wild as it was in the beginning. By the time the 1880s rolled around, wooden frame, buildings gave way to brick and mortar structures. Log cabins were razed for early mansions reflecting the wealth dug out of the Rockies. As new arrivals explored the city and passed by Millionaire’s Row on 14th street, it made them more earnest in their quest to be part of the action.

By now the boom city was witness to 20 years of a gold and silver rush, some who staked their claim are wealthy beyond their dreams, but many are eking out an existing and waiting for the chance of a quick score.

While the sidewalks were built out of wooden planks, but they were no less busy, carrying people to daily tasks. Many are visitors still searching for an easy score.
The dream of an ungodly wealth is why many still pour out of Union Station to find a quick rest bit in the town before venturing west to a mining town. A young man with a few coins in his pocket might get a room at the Oxford hotel, which is a few feet away from the station, while others might venture to Larimer Street to the Windsor Hotel, the most prominent hotel of 1880s Denver.

That young men traveling through Denver might see a well-dressed gentleman setting up shop on 17th and Larimer. Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was setting up shop for weary travelers. His product of choice was a simple bars of soap, at 25 cents apiece. Smith’s soft southern drawl would peddle the soap to newcomers who just came off the dusty trail, from either train or horseback. The neatly dressed, well-groomed unassuming man had a trustworthy face, something that was lacking for road-weary travelers.

Some would call his price for soap highway robbery since you could find the same bar of soap at some shops for 5 cents. In comparison, 25 cents back in the 1880s would be the equivalent to $5 or $6 today.

But many walking by will drop two bits for soap because convenience fancies practicality sometimes. Even through traveling by train was the fastest mode of transportations for the time, but you would still be on the road from point A to point B for days, if not weeks. Why not spend a little bit more for a necessity, not the first time anyone would pay for convenience, nor the last.

Later in the day, Smith would change his tune and put a higher value on soap. “Cleanliness is next to godliness, but crisp greenbacks in the pocket is a paradise itself. For $5 you get a bar of soap and maybe $100!”

During his speech, he wrapped money of various denominations $100, $20, $10, $5 and dollar bills around the soap and replaced the blue-paper wrapper. He tossed the re-wrapped soap into the basket and several onlookers stepped up for their chance at doubling their money, or possibly more.

The first participants unwrapped their soup and found $5 or $10 and then a loud yell would come out of the crowd from a man who won $20 dollars. The noise would draw the attention of more and hurried murmurs of the man who won it big would move from person to person until even more would drop their money in the southern gentleman’s hand.

But little did they know, aside from those on the take, that a fool and their money just parted. Many an unsuspecting visitor to Denver fell for one of the most famous cons in town. Soapy played an elaborate game to swindle what would be today’s equivalent of $100 from those fresh on the hopes of winning big with little effort.

He did wrap some of the soap with larger bills, but used sleight of hand to remove lower denomination dollars from the soap. For the ones that still held $20 or $100, he slightly crinkled these bars of wrapped soap so that his assistants would grab them to start the run on the unofficial lottery.

The fix was in from the very start any person peaked interest in making easy on the streets of Denver. The town was also built on the promise of con artists, swindlers, chiselers and miscreants fleecing visitors to town out of their hard-earned money.

If a person duped would cause a stir, some of Soapy’s gang would rough up or even kill them. This helped keep the wild in the Wild West on the streets, because even though civilization was creeping in from all sides, chaos still ruled downtown Denver.

Legend has it, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was born in Georgia in 1860. Following the Civil War, his family moved to Texas for better prospects. As a teenager he was a cowpoke on the Chisholm Trail, which made him acquainted with saloons, gambling halls and bunco artists in Texas and Kansas cow towns.

He became intrigued with the con artist life after he was cleaned out in a walnut shell game at a carnival in Abilene Texas. He went to a friend to borrow $20.
“You don’t mean you’re going to try again?” the friend asked.
“No” said Soapy.
“I’m going to join the show and learn that game.”
His mentor at the carnival was Clubfoot Hall.
In 1878, the carnival arrived in Leadville where he learned the soap scam from “Old Man” Taylor

Soapy and his associates moved to Denver in the 1880s to run any number of schemes in town. All bets were off for newcomers, but there was an ironclad rule that not even Soapy would break, “don’t steal from Denver residents.”

The rule was established by Denver’s boss of the underworld, Lou Blonger who said it was okay to run any number of schemes on others traveling through the city but leave the locals alone.

Reasons for this rule were simple: Strangers to a city are less likely to contact the police for fear of embarrassment. Nobody new to a city wants to admit they were bilked out of money from three-card Monty.

It was easier to take care of any complainers who were duped out of their money. There may not be a public outcry to find a missing traveler, but there would be hell to pay for any blue-collar worker not making it home from work that day.

The city government of that time also favored kickbacks and under-the-table deals with bunco artists than cleaning up town. Soapy flourished in this environment until citizens were pushing hard for reform.

But in 1892 there was a reformation movement going on in town. Soapy read the writing on the wall and moved to the southern Colorado mining camp, Creede, the latest boomtown in Denver to not only run the con games in town but the government itself.

Murder at Mount Carmel Church

Denver of the late 19th century wasn’t a city, but more a cluster of communities separated by economics and ethnicity. The dwellings west of the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek were the homes for some of the wealthy who wanted to escape the plumes of black smoke billowing out of the downtown area, and also a popular locale for newly-arrived Irish and Italian immigrants.
The new residents brought their faith and customs to the Mile High City and while Irish immigrants established St. Patrick’s church at 33rd and Pecos in the mid-1880s as a place of worship, Italians yearned for a sanctuary of their own.
Assistance would come in 1893, when Father Felice Mariano Lepore arrived from New York City to serve God and his Italian brethren. He was described as a champion for the poor Italian immigrants and became the face of the Mount Carmel Society, a group dedicated to bringing a Parish to the Italian neighborhood.
But his tenure in Denver came with plenty of controversy.
The effort to establish Mount Carmel Church wasn’t popular with everyone in the neighborhood. A rival Italian group, the St. Rocco Society, wanted to establish a parish as well. The conflict came to a head when a fire destroyed the first Mt. Carmel church in August 1898, some of whom believed to be an act of arson. In spite of the fire, the Church was going to be rebuilt and as Father Lepore helped lay the cornerstone for the new Mt. Carmel in 1899, he would not see its formal dedication in five years..
On a gray evening in November 1903, Father Lepore and an acquaintance, Joseph Sorice, were playing cards in the priest’s study. Lepore’s nephew, Frank, stepped in to the office to warm up from the cold and made his way to his room on the second floor of the church.
Lepore’s cook was also in the church and later told the Denver Republican newspaper that he hadn’t heard any signs of conflict until he heard gunshots ring out at about before 10 p.m.
Frank ran downstairs, half-dressed, and saw his uncle and the stranger struggling in the kitchen. Father Lepore was able to struggle the gun from Sorice and another shot rang out. Father Lepore broke away from the assailant and ran into the church’s sanctuary section, while the other man ran down into the basement.
Both the cook and Frank said they had no clue why the two went from peacefully playing cards to a mortal struggle.
When the police arrived, they found Father Lepore at the altar, in front of the life-sized statue of Christ. His head was laying on a prayer cushion and his blood stained the carpet of the altar steps.
Both men were carried to an ambulance and transported to St. Joseph Hospital.
At the hospital, doctors determined that Lepore’s wound above his intestines was mortal. The bullet entered the left side side above the hip, passed through the abdomen and came out below the navel.The second bullet struck the right elbow and passed through the forearm. The third bullet struck him at the angle of the jaw and came out at the point of the chin. The one shot fired at Sorice struck him in the front of the abdomen and passed through his body.
There was enough time for Lepore to offer a deathbed statement, that was radically different from what the two witnesses reported. He said that he wasn’t playing cards but writing at his desk when Sorice came in very drunk and had some words for the priest. Lepore didn’t say what those words were, but Sorice shot him without warning or provocation.
“My name is Felice Lepore. I am 46 years old. I was shot by Joseph Sorice at about 9 o’clock tonight. I was sitting in my office working and he walked into the office. He said nothing to me. I saw him coming into the office and asked him to sit down. He said nothing to me, but pulled out a revolver and began to shoot. We had no trouble before and I did not expect him to shoot me. He came from Pittsburg about a month ago. I had no trouble with any of his relatives or friends, so far as I know. He had no relatives here that I know of.”
Lepore also said that he was afraid that Sorice was sent out from the East, presumably from New York, to kill him. He first met Sorice a month prior to the shooting. Lepore stated that there were no warnings from back East but felt that he was going to kill him from the first moment he met the man.
“He shot me three times and then started to run away out of the back door. I ran after him to the back door and I caught him and said: ‘You have shot me.’ Then, I grabbed the revolver which he had in his hand and turned it towards his breast and shot him. He held the revolver in his hand when I shot him. I could not pull it away from him. He had no friends here.”
The doctors who worked on Lepore had little hope for the wounded priest. His brother, Felice, and nephew were at Lepore’s bedside. The priest embraced and kissed his relatives and said to his brother. “Take charge of everything, my brother; I have only two or three hours to live.” He succumbed to his wounds early next morning.
In a nearby room, Sorice never said a word, but simply groaned all the time until he succumbed to his wound.
Father Lepore was interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. His funeral was described as one of the largest attended in the city’s history. Mt. Carmel was filled to capacity, while a large crowd of mourners remained outside.
The casket rested in front of the altar and candles burned above the lifeless figure. Following the funeral services within the church, the casket was placed in a hearse and the procession moved slowly, led by a large brass band to Union Station, where a special funeral train took the mourners to Mt. Olivet where Father Lepore was laid to rest.
Most would think that this is the end of the story, but following the funeral, conspiracy theories flourished concerning Lepore’s death.
The bad blood Lepore created didn’t end as he lay dying in a hospital.
“This shooting had to be just from the nature of the man,” said prominent community member Frank Damasclo the morning of Lepore’s death. “I did not know of course, who would do it, nor the reason for it would be done, but a man who lives as he has done is sure to be shot down sooner or later.”

The Denver Republican postulated that Lepore was shot from a previous feud between the two men dating back to the priest’s days in New York City and possibly as far back as the old country, since both came from the same province of Avellino, Italy.
Several weeks after the murder, Sorice’s companion, Pasquale Cortuso, was arrested by the police. He was found drunk, brandishing a stiletto and threatened anyone who would approach him. The police seized and took him into custody before any retribution could be taken out on him by Lepore’s supporters.
According to Pasquale’s interrogation, the pair did not have any ill will towards Lepore. In fact, Sorice was supposedly Lepore’s godfather. He did acknowledge that Sorice was a professional gambler who regularly cheated at cards. Perhaps this is one reason why an altercation took place between Father Lepore and Sorice.
Sorice and an acquaintance were rumored to have approached Lepore for $240 when they arrived in Denver just weeks before the shoo

ting. Lepore refused to pay the money, but got them a house to live in and work around town.
The Republican also reported that Sorice and Pasquale both came for Denver from Pittsburgh to get money from Lepore that they had lost from a banking business the priest was involved in.
Sorice quickly gained a reputation around the neighborhood as a shrewd gambler, a trait that both shared. Two weeks after their arrival, Father Lepore told the police that Sorice visited the priest with a revolver and demanded the money owed.
On the day of the murder, Sorice was seen at a card game in the back room of a neighborhood grocery store. He drank a quart of claret until the game was broken up around 6 p.m. At 7:30 Sorice walked into the home of Rena LaBatt, where he spoke to Frank about general topics with no indication of his future deed. He left the house at 9 p.m. where, shortly after, shots rang out less than a half hour later.
Another unusual incident came to light when prior to the shooting Eveyln Benns, a former employee of Lepore called a police captain and said he was the victim of a plot of his enemies. She gave no clue to who was behind the plot but, back in August, she had reported that she was attacked after leaving Mt. Carmel one evening.
Another part of the mystery was that the doctor who worked on both men determined Lepore wasn’t able to shoot Sorice in the way it was described by the two witnesses. Sorice told the doctor that Lepore didn’t fire the gun at him in close range and the shots inflicted would’ve made it unlikely that he could do that.
This brings up the question as to who shot Sorice? The only two men reported in the room were Lepore’s nephew and the cook. Was Father Lepore hiding the person that shot his assailant? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, since in his deathbed statement he said he was working in his study, but even his nephew stated that he was playing cards with Sorice. Is this the bigger conspiracy his former secretary was talking about?
Speaking of his former secretary, another secret made its way to the light. There was a fight for Lepore’s estate, which included several patents  he had for fire escapes between his brother and alleged wife Evelyn Benns, who also claimed that the priest had a son.
Evelyn said  that prior to Lepore dying at St. Joseph hospital, he told his secret wife, to get the papers to secure his estate. But following his death, Lepore’s brother produced a will created 12 years ago to show that he and his sisters were the rightful heirs.
After several years of litigation, a civil court judge declared Evelyn the legal widow of Father Lepore and Victor Mariano Lepore, born Sept. 15, 1898, the legitimate offspring of the union. The judge ruled that they had a common law marriage dating back to July 1, 1896.
Following the decision, the Catholic church told the Denver Republican newspaper that Lepore was never an ordained minister since he came from a discredited seminary school in Southern Italy. Since he was not elevated to the priesthood, the Church also stated that they recognized the marriage as legitimate.
While the estate wasn’t worth much, she felt vindicated that her son had a legitimate father.
The mystery of Father Lepore’s life and death brings remains unsolved to this day, but his efforts to help build Mt. Carmel church is a testament to his contribution to Denver’s fledgling Italian immigrant community.

Denver Amusement Park Tragedies

Always pay attention to the safety rules when you jump on Lakeside’s Cyclone roller coaster. Some of them are no-brainers, but remember that each rule is posted for a reason.

Case in point, “Do Not Stand up when the roller coaster is in motion.” It seems like an easy one to remember, but there was a time when this was commonplace

On June 18, 1954, a 19-year-old airman unbuckled his safety belt, stood up and flew out of the Cyclone.

The victim was Airman third-class Danny C. Coleman, 19 from Houston. He was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base and worked part-time as a brakeman for the Cyclone roller coaster at Lakeside.

Coleman was thrown out of the car and shattered two supporting posts for the roller coaster’s scaffolding. Jefferson County coroner said that Coleman died instantly and sustained a broken back, smashed skull and internal injuries.

Park officials asked that the ambulance not run its siren so it would not alarm other Lakeside guests. Coleman was thrown from the car as it sped down to the lowest point of the ride where the tracks were four feet from the ground.

Several of his friends had front-row seats of the horrific scene. Minutes before the accident, he told friend that he liked to stand up in the cars of the roller coaster because he got “more kick out of it that way.”

Park officials said that this was the first fatality reported for a rider on the Cyclone, but they must’ve forgotten about the time an 18-year girl was killed in an accident at Lakeside in 1944.

When Coasters collide

Bonnie Marie Hicks was killed and seven others injured when the Cyclone swept out of control around the final curve approaching the loading platform where another car was waiting to start the roller coaster circuit.

The 18-year-old woman died almost instantly of a skull fracture when she fell out of the roller coaster car and landed in a flower bed below the tracks.

Originally from Greeley, Hicks had only been in denver for a year and half and worked as a telegram sorter at Western Union Telegraph Co.

Lakeside officials said that a coupling joint in the brake system that slows the cars’ approach to the platform snapped allowing the car to approach the stopping point at full speed.

The two attendants attempted to slow down the malfunctioning roller coaster by using a hand brake and slowed down the car slightly, which may have prevent more injuries.

Miniature Train Derailment

Elitch Gardens wasn’t immune to death and tragedy when in 1965 a graduation party ends in tragedy when a 15 year-old girl was killed after a miniature train at the park flipped on its side.

The Denver coroner ruled the girl’s death due to a ruptured heart from fright. Gloria Kosciw also had a fractured skull and facial cuts.

The Rocky Mountain News reported that no cause was immediately known for the accident. Eight other people suffered injuries from the accident as well.

The miniature train followed a circular path through the flowered area near the park’s main entrance on 38th and Tennyson.

The 19-year old engineer said the when they were nearing a turn he heard a bang and screens. The train was going 18-miles per hour. Kosciw’s body was found nine feet away from the accident.

Next on Revisit Denver: Tragedy continues to strike Denver’s amusement parks including an accident on Lakeside’s Motor Speedway, a fire in Elitch Gardens Tunnel of Love and a hold up gone wrong for a cashier.

Fire guts Lakeside Swimming Pool

In 1973, parts of Lakeside itself became a victim to a fire that nearly destroyed the entire amusement park.

The Fire cut a trail through the old amusement the summer after a Jefferson County Grand Jury deemed the amusement park a public safety hazard.

Five fire departments battled a blaze that destroyed the park’s old swimming pool and two maintenance shops along 46th and Sheridan. There were no injuries but it took 100 firefighters to halt the blaze and prevent the entire park from going up in smoke.

The safety concerns stemmed from a 12-month investigation that found all of the buildings at Lakeside could be called dangerous due to numerous electrical and fire code violations.

In spite of the low water pressure and initial chaos of having so many different fire departments on scene, the fire was localized to the swimming pool and and workshops.

A Funeral for Denver’s Gyspy Queen

Since its founding, Denver’s sunny disposition hides an underbelly of con artists, grifters, fortunetellers looking to make a quick buck.

This was brought to light in the autumn of 1970, when Denver residents were witness to a rare event, a funeral befitting a Gypsy Queen. At least that is how it was described in newspaper stories recording the death and funeral of Kathryn Marks. Calling her a Gypsy queen was an inside joke to those within the community, but she was the head of a large family of “Travelers” within the U.S.

The matriarch of the 2,000-strong Marks gypsy tribe passed away at the age of 102. Her husband, Mitchell Marks, passed away in 1944.

While not all gypsies are con artists, their group were associated with several different types of crimes around the Denver Metro area including selling fake products, pitching various door-to-door contractor fraud and setting up fortune telling shops around town. Even Kathryn took an active role in her advanced age after getting arrested at 96 years-old for fortune telling. She was said to have owned fortune-telling shops on the 1700 blocks of Larimer and Curtis.

Following her death, her body was taken to Noonan Mortuary, on 2406 Federal and had a car ready to pick up any mourners flying in to town to pay respects.

Family members like her sons Little Rock John and Dewey Marks, eldest grandson Farmer John Marks, nephew L Marks and many others watched over their dead matriarch body, as part of their custom.   They sat with the brass coffin surrounded by wreaths proclaiming “For the Boss of Denver,” “Gypsy Queen” and “The Greatest Fortune Teller Ever.”

At the time, Kathryn left behind 12 sons and daughters, 110 grand and great-grandchildren and around 2,000 members of the Marks clan.  More than 200 of the Marks Tribe descended to the Mile High City for Katherine’s funeral. Mourners arrived from across the United States, Siberia and other Eastern European countries.

On the morning of the funeral, one of Kathryn’s last requests included live music as part of her funeral service.

“Bam! Outside the sunlit wintry air was suddenly shattered by the rock group, Reign, wailing into a bluesy “Son, there’s a Smile.” Soon the casket was borne out by grandsons past heart-shaped and palm-shaped and Cadillac shaped wreaths.”

A convoy of Cadillacs and Lincolns made their way to St. Elizabeth’s Church on 1100 Curtis, which is in the middle of Auraria Campus today.

The reporter described the funeral service in “the great high-domed churches yellow interior was filled with these incantations and also with the shattering music of Reign, playing madly on the sidewalk outside.”

The next stop, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, was the final one for Kathryn; the pallbearers carried the bronze casket a half-mile from the gates of Mt. Olivet Cemetery to the grave tie. The casket was opened again at the gravesite then the family started to file by to pay respects.

All the while, the rock band was playing in the background of the burial service including a “frantic solo” from the drummer. Mourners passed around bottles of wine and whiskey as the coffin lowered into the grave. More coins and bills rained into the grave on top and to the sides of the closed casket.

Kathryn went to her rest with a spinach garden of dollars laying across her bodice and twined through her waxed fingers “traveling money,” one family member said and according to her wish, to the ear-shattering decibels of funky hard rock dealt out by three long-haired electric guitarists and a wild man of a drummer.”

You can visit Kathryn and her husband, Mitchell today at Mt. Olivet cemetery at Section. 15, Block 10. Leave a token of appreciation for good luck and leave none at your own peril.

 

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: Denver newspaper reporter explores marijuana scene

In the summer of 1951, Rocky Mountain News reporter Jack Gaskie went on a quest to see how difficult it would be for a regular Joe to buy marijuana in Denver. This was 15 years after the film “Reefer Madness” cemented the idea that marijuana was as dangerous as opium and heroin,
Gaskie’s journey confirmed that finding and buying illegal drugs, at that time, was framed to be as dirty a deed as the product’s effects on the mind.
He pointed out that marijuana had a lot of different names, hay, tea, reefers, muggies or mota. At first, he didn’t use these terms on his first attempt when he went to Five Points when he asked a teenager who bolted after the question.
He thought that at the very least he would be sold Curtis Park grass, a trick played on novices where they purchased grass clippings in cigarette paper.
Gaskie changed his strategy by venturing to an unnamed bar, had a few drinks and after awhile complained about how Denver was a “a dead, no good place where you couldn’t even line up for a ride when you were down.”
The bartender said he couldn’t help him but gave him a name of a bar on Larimer street that might assist. He made his way there and picked a fight to grab attention. After co

ntacting this bartender motioned to a man named “Louie”
Gaskie described Louie as a guy who wasn’t exactly the type that most Denverites would do business with since he smelled as if he hadn’t bathed for months.
Despite several attempts to win over Louie, Gaskie went home empty-handed the first night, but the next evening Louie hesitantly sold him two joints of marijuana.
But he couldn’t

take the joints back to the Rocky Mountain News newsroom and had to smoke them at the bar to prove that he wasn’t keeping them for evidence.
The next step involved Gaskie calling Louie until he answered the phone to buy more reefer, but it took another day of calling before he could set up another meeting.
Gaskie met him at the ballpark in City Park, when he saw Louie he demanded five dollars. Told him where to go and find it, on the top of a box in the men’s room. Went in and found a dirty old sheet of paper with five sticks of marijuana.
After further review, Gaskie reflected that buying marijuana wasn’t worth the effort in time and effect it had given.
“The marijuana itself was just about as dirty as Louie. It isn’t chopped very fine,” he wrote. “The growers and middlemen in the business aren’t very much concerned about competition so no great effort to pamper their clients.”
The marijuana was just a dirty paper wrapped around chopped-up weed that burned acridly, pungently and irritated the the nose.
“It’s supposed to take you for a ride. I found it was at best a walk. It’s supposed to get you “high” It didn’t get me any higher than a bottle of beer.”

AnalysisThe story reinforced the idea that marijuana is one of many vices found in Denver’s underworld of dealers and grifters, preying on good and naive citizens of the city. Gaskie noted that only the most addicted would go to the lengths he did to buy marijuana.
It’s doubtful anyone from that time would see that medical and recreational marijuana would fuel another boom 27 years later. The marijuana trade in

Colorado is one of the strongest across the U.S..
Today, customers don’t need to hang out with a guy named Louie, but simply be over 21 years-old and walk into a shop to purchase marijuana legally. The emphasis on quality control and customer service Gaskie complained about, could be found at any of these shops.

Ink! Coffee Continues the Tale of Two Denvers

“The West is an interrupted dream. Different groups of people that have come to the west have interrupted the natural evolution of the groups that they found there. We have a constant metting and migration of groups and the real story is how the groups affect each other.”

I heard this on a recent viewing of Ken Burns documentary, “The West.” This can be applied to Denver, our city is an interrupted dream from those who are happy with the city as it is versus those who want to imagine a great city.

That slogan, “Imagine a Great City” is attributed to Mayor Federico Pena, but this has been Denver’s unofficial slogan since its founding. There is a Denver that isn’t satisfied until we are considered a major league city like New York, Los Angeles Miami or Chicago.

Every Mayor since has helped transform Denver into a destination city. Not since post World War II has this town been transformed in such a short amount of time. You can’t deny the change that occurred in northwest Denver, aka the North Side. Portions of downtown Denver is unrecognizable to even the most native Denverite. Real estate developers are tearing through Five Points.

Real estate agencies have turned historic neighborhoods into an acronym soup, LoHi, Rino, SloSo and the name Highlands has been used to describe other neighborhood, East Highlands, South Highlands, East by Southeast Highlands. Anything to increase the property value through uncreative branding.

Denverites do not need a reminder about gentrification, but we got one last week when Ink! Coffee posted a sign that read “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood since 2014.” The sign was on display at Ink! Coffee’s 29th and Larimer location, part of what is being called the RiNo neighborhood.

This neighborhood is the latest to transformed from a working-class neighborhood populated by a once predominant African American population to another trendy place for yuppies to hang their hat.

Five Points isn’t the first neighborhood to go through a radical transformation. Just look on the other side of I-25 and witness what once Northwest Denver. It’s now LoHi, the HIghlands, a home away from home for young professionals who love yoga, fusion bistros and generic mixed-use condos standing where multi-generational families once stood.

It’s difficult to describe how I feel about what’s going on in Denver without bringing up the history of my neighborhood. Northwest Denver, or the Highlands, Sunnyside portion of town has been home to several different ethnic groups. First the Irish and Italian community called it home, then after a while Mexican-Americans moved in when the suburbs became more appealing to the white middle class.

Learning to live with each other wasn’t easy, cultural differences and stereotypes would be chipped away on an individual basis. Each group understood the value of hard work and pursuing the American Dream.

In the early 2000s, if not sooner the next wave moved in, not looking to maintain the community spirit, but create a vision of their own. House-by-house, realtors purchased parcels of land to transform single-family homes into mixed-use condos. Instead of having five families many times more would live on the same plot of land.

Rent and property value went up, forcing many families who had older family members determine if they can afford to live their or sell to realtors and cash-in while they could. So many of the institutions have been razed or rebranded, Subway Tavern, Dickinson Plaza, Pagliacci’s, Elitch Lanes and many others exist only in memory.

The Ink! Coffee fiasco stings at the heart of many old school Denverites who are losing a piece of their city block-by-block. Not every building is sacred but the wholesale change going on in the Mile High City is nearly unparalleled.

Some would ask what is a Denverite and the simple answer is that it’s any person who is living in Denver. They have moved in for a week or 80 years and they should be considered a Denverite.

The more interesting question is what makes a Denverite? Is it the collective experiences that we share and the places we frequent. This is more difficult since each generation has a different vision of Denver. I grew up during a time when the neighborhood still had Elitch Gardens on 38th and Tennyson, Elitch Lanes across the street, Rock Island, a downtown that wasn’t a trendy hub but full of warehouses. A Chubby’s where you had to wait in line for 45 minutes and an additional half hour for smothered green chile cheese fries.

Weeks after the protests about Ink! Coffee, we will be left with the tale of two Denvers, one who has a foothold in honoring the past and another who wants to keep imagining a great city. Not everyone who has moved to Denver wants to shape our town into something completely different, but Ink! Coffee’s insensitive campaign represents those who neither care or want to attempt to learn about the Denver that was.

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Murders in Denver’s Red Light District

Murders in Denver’s Red Light DistrictBack in Denver’s early days, Market Street was the only road that could make Colfax blush. So wicked that was it renamed two times. Finally, the civic leaders settled on Market, reflecting the “fresh produce” sold by vendors. But Market Street, or as citizens of the time coined it, The Row, was where civilized society... Read More »

James Comeys: Denver’s Spider-Man

James Comeys: Denver’s Spider-ManFor a brief time in the 1940s, a two-story Folk Victorian home in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood spooked residents and vexed police. Neighbors jammed the operator lines for the police department on their rotary phones to report “ghost lights’’ coming from the home with the peaked roof and windows that resembles eyes. Two would-be housekeepers... Read More »