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Brock Knight stands alongside the South Platte River in Sun Valley. Photo by Bob Wooley

Can an Ambitious Redevelopment Plan Remake Sun Valley?

Sun Valley, the poorest census tract in the state, is undergoing a historic transformation. For one boy on the cusp of adolescence, the changes to his neighborhood could be life-altering.

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Early this past winter, flatbed trailers hauled bulldozers and backhoes into Sun Valley, a neighborhood mostly made up of affordable housing projects that stands in the shadow of downtown Denver. Passersby watched from behind a wall of chain-link fence as the massive machines rumbled toward a row of homes. Many of the men and women there that morning had spent much of their adult lives within the roughly half a square mile that comprises the neighborhood, a semi-industrial zone between Federal Boulevard and the South Platte River that includes Broncos Stadium at Mile High. A backhoe cut into the corner of a midcentury public housing unit—one of dozens of homes to fall that day—the wall of brick and stucco crumbling onto a concrete slab. With each sweep of the metal bucket, the slow transformation of Colorado’s poorest neighborhood had begun.

When Brock Knight walked to the 7-Eleven with his mother a few days later, the 10-year-old stopped on the sidewalk in front of the fence. He’d seen the plans on mailers that were sent to his parents and on poster boards at one of the community centers: renderings of the midrise apartment buildings, wide streets, and grassy open spaces that would soon replace the acres of public housing he’d come to know so well. The Sun Valley projects were the backdrop for much of Brock’s brief life, and now they were disappearing—with the promise of something better, or at least different, for the nearly 800 people who called them home. Many of Brock’s friends moved away as the bulldozers began to arrive, relocating to seemingly faraway places like Aurora and Englewood. To Brock, the neighborhood already seemed emptier, lifeless. And here was further proof. The old buildings had been scraped from the land, the toppled remains hauled off and replaced by a patch of snow-speckled dirt. Staring into the vacant lot, Brock wondered why his world needed to change.

Brock lives a block away, on West 11th Avenue, in one of the two-story rowhouses across from Fairview Elementary School, a 95-year-old blond brick building where, this past spring, he was in fifth grade. Fairview has two large playgrounds, a community garden, and a blacktop basketball court with two hoops. A grassy field pushes toward a trio of soon-to-be-demolished water tanks and obscures a view of Denver’s skyline to the northeast. The nonstop whoosh of vehicles on I-25 to the east sounds like an ocean’s incoming tide. On Friday afternoons, volunteers from a community group called Hope in Our City bring boxes of granola bars and miniature oranges to the school playground. On those days during the school year, dozens of kids would spill out of Fairview and spend the afternoon shooting hoops or throwing footballs in the field or kicking soccer balls off the school’s caged windows.

Brock is always easy to spot among the crowd. He’s five feet tall and weighs 86 pounds, and he carries his size with confidence around the neighborhood. His features—sharp jawline, high cheekbones—are softened by his button nose, the dimples in his cheeks, the braces on his teeth, and the smoothness of his skin. He has dense, long eyelashes and expressive dark brown eyes. Many of Brock’s jeans have grass stains and holes torn in both knees. His shirts are often wrinkled. His sneakers are frequently untied.

Teresa Walker, his mother, and his father, Tatse (pronounced “Tah-shay”) Knight live with their son in a brick public housing unit with large rectangles of grass in both the front and back. Sun Valley’s affordable housing projects are among the oldest and largest in the state, and the surrounding area had long been forgotten as the rest of the city experienced an unprecedented economic expansion. While skyscrapers signaled the boom happening across the interstate, Sun Valley languished in its isolated, poverty-stricken past.

That Brock lives with both of his parents is an anomaly in a community where nearly three-quarters of the 700-plus children are raised in single-parent homes. According to the Piton Foundation, the neighborhood’s annual average household income of $14,460 is nearly seven times lower than the rest of the Denver metro area. Around a third of the adults are unemployed. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported in 2017 that Sun Valley was the poorest tract by average household income in Colorado. The nearest grocery store is roughly a two-mile walk; nearly one-fifth of the district’s children between the ages of two and 17 are obese. Elementary school test scores are among the state’s lowest. Rates of violent crimes, burglaries, auto thefts, robberies, and domestic violence are some of Denver’s worst. The second most frequent reason for emergency room visits for Sun Valley’s teenagers is attempted death by suicide.

The redevelopment of Sun Valley, including the razing of public housing projects, will transform the neighborhood. Photo by Bob Wooley

When they moved into the neighborhood eight years ago, Teresa and Tatse had been living in emergency housing with two of their sons. Brock was around three at the time, and the little brick home in Sun Valley met the family’s most pressing needs. Their hot water went out a couple of times and flying ants took over in the summer, but they did not complain. For less than $200 a month, they had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen with a gas stovetop. It was enough, Teresa thought, to raise a family.

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Brock is not particularly athletic, but he is bold in ways that so many preteen boys are. He climbs trees and fences. He walks on roofs. He does flips off the playground swings and the monkey bars. He is not afraid of the pit bull in the neighborhood that sometimes chases kids, he says. Brock moves easily among the many groups that occupy Fairview’s hallways. His smile is somewhere between warm and mischievous and makes girls in his class giggle. Around school he tries out his Spanish on some of the Spanish-speaking cafeteria workers; he does card tricks for the other kids; and he high-fives the janitorial staff, the physical education teacher, the school’s aides.

Only one of Brock’s three brothers has a high school diploma. One, who is 25, lives in Aurora; another served 13 months in prison for car theft. Yet another ran away this past fall and only recently returned home. Brock’s father recently observed that Brock is “like an adult mixed with a little boy” and that the combination could mean bad things on the street. Brock is quick to clench a fist in anger, to strike when he feels threatened.

Because of his situation, Brock is what most educational experts would consider “at-risk,” part of what today is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a subsection of mostly poor, mostly male, mostly minority American children to whom a great deal of attention is now paid. According to a 2018 study from Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the odds a child like Brock will become a college graduate are far lower than the chance he will drop out of high school, continue a life in poverty, and eventually wind up incarcerated.

To a developing boy, those concepts don’t mean anything yet. When Brock steps out of his house and onto the sidewalk, Sun Valley seems limitless. The recreation center is almost always open, and playgrounds are scattered throughout the neighborhood. His school is a few dozen yards away. The 7-Eleven is just up the hill. The store has his father’s favorite Red Bull energy drink and his mother’s Pall Mall cigarettes. On rare occasions, Tatse lets Brock take the family’s food-assistance debit card and walk the five minutes to get a Coke and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The convenience store’s cashiers don’t mind when Brock shoots a stream of orange nacho cheese into the foil bag.

Psychologists identify the years between 10 and 12 as a period when changes in the adolescent brain begin to equip children for the transition from familial dependence to independence. The span is marked by a drive for social connections and group acceptance, desires that manifest themselves in the forms of pleasure seeking, limit testing, and risk taking. In the cocktail of pubescent development, genetics, environment, and experiences complicate the matter, each knocking against the others during the chaotic transition from childhood to adulthood. In other words, it’s a difficult time for boys turning into young men, especially in a place like Sun Valley.

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At school one morning this past spring, Brock sat in the back of his literacy class and searched the internet for photos of Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, for a project that was coming due in a couple of weeks. The room was bright and airy, with a wall of six windows that were covered in translucent stickers of butterflies, Peanuts characters, and hot air balloons and overlaid with mesh on the outside that masked a view of the stadium. The windows were cracked open, and joyful shrieks from kindergartners on the playground intermittently pierced the room. Standardized testing, a tense time of year when the state measures student proficiency and progress in subjects such as reading and math, had begun. Fairview’s students typically score poorly on standardized tests, and among the 220 students and 25-person teaching staff, it seemed everyone knew what was at stake. “You have worked really hard this year!” read a handwritten poster that was stuck to one of the classroom’s whiteboards. “This is your time to show everyone what you know. Do your best and know we believe in YOU!!”

Brock’s mother had taken a bus to the optometrist that morning then stopped by the school to deliver her son’s first pair of reading glasses. Brock stopped searching photos online for a moment and reached for the black case, pulling it under the table. He rolled it in his hands for a few moments, gathering his courage, then finally opened it and pulled out the clear frames. He scanned the room for anyone who might be watching. He slid the glasses onto his face and sank low in his chair.

“Yoooooo,” another 10-year-old boy named Eduardo whispered to Brock. “Those new glasses?”

Brock cringed.

Maaaaan,” Eduardo said, “those are tight!”

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“They don’t make me look like a nerd?” Brock whispered back. “Because I don’t want to look like a nerd. I don’t want to be going home and be like, ‘Mother, may I partake in a movie?’ I don’t want that.”

“No way, man,” Eduardo said. “They look great.”

A couple of girls in the front row peeked back at Brock. He smiled and sat up in his seat.

Brock’s teacher, 26-year-old Melinda Nagel, called his name. Brock gathered a small pack that included a worksheet and the first chapter book he’d attempted to read in the class; it was from the popular Goosebumps series and titled The Blob That Ate Everyone. Brock slowly walked to the teacher’s desk and slumped in a chair in front of Ms. Nagel. Pinned to the wall behind her were drawings that students made during the year. One was of a spray-paint can with the letters MFN, Ms. Nagel’s initials, shooting from the nozzle. A gift from Brock.

“I’m a little concerned,” the teacher began. “It’s been a month since you quizzed on a book. Are you staying focused during independent reading time?”

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Brock nodded.

“Really?”

Brock nodded again.

“Really, really?”

Brock shook his head.

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“OK,” Ms. Nagel said. “Thank you for being honest. If you stay focused, can you finish this book?”

“Yeah,” Brock said.

“I think you can do it too. I know you’ve got it in you.”

After literacy and recess, Brock’s class went to the white-walled lunchroom in the rear of the school. Kids lined up for chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes that were being served in paper bowls while an aide stood near the line of tables, pouring gravy out of a syrup container. Brock grabbed his food and a carton of chocolate milk and found a seat with a group of six boys. They were arguing with a classmate who claimed he lived in Colorado Springs.

“There’s no way!” one of the boys was saying. “How do you get here in the morning?”

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“Colorado Springs is only, like, 25 minutes away,” the boy lied. “Did you know there are a lot of horses down there?”

“And dead prairie dogs,” another boy added. The kids nodded in solemn agreement.

The conversation eventually turned to Sun Valley—namely, who was still living in the neighborhood. Most had moved away over the years, though these boys were finishing elementary school in the neighborhood before transitioning to middle school in the fall. Fairview doesn’t feed into a designated middle school, which means these students soon could go to any of the nearby schools, their nascent support system suddenly gone. Still, each of them was excited about the possibilities a new school might bring, of leaving behind their childhoods and moving on to something else.

Of the seven kids at the table, only Brock’s family had stayed in Sun Valley.

“Where’s your house?” one of the boys asked.

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“Just across the street,” Brock said. “A few houses in. It takes me less than a minute to get here in the morning.”

“Fuck that,” a 10-year-old with curly hair and wearing a Nike shirt interrupted. “I don’t live in this ghetto. I live in what you call the big houses.”

“Big houses?” Brock asked, dubiously, not bothering to ask the location.

“Yeah,” the curly haired boy said. “Not here. Not in this fucking ghetto.”

“Why does he always gotta be cussing?” Brock said to the other boys, then turned away, done with the conversation. While the others continued talking, Brock finished half of his lunch, smashed his potatoes with his plastic fork, and got up from the table. He threw the rest of his food in a trash can and stood alone in the hallway.

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After school, Brock shot hoops at Rude Recreation Center up the street. Later, on the walk home, he stopped on the sidewalk. The conversation from earlier in the day was still on his mind. Brock screwed up his face into what looked like a sneer. “I’m not poor,” he said.

The playgrounds of Sun Valley are just a short drive from Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Photo by Bob Wooley

This past summer, the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) gave Brock’s parents the option to stick around and eventually live in redeveloped Sun Valley, to move to another DHA public housing site, to apply for a housing choice voucher, or to take a check to cover relocation costs. The DHA worker who met with Teresa and Tatse described the eight-phase teardown and rebuild in exciting terms, as a chance for residents of the neighborhood to restart their lives. Each of the 1,250 planned units (more than half of which would be affordable housing) would be spacious and inviting, with new appliances and large closets. Rather than the old, isolated Sun Valley, the new Sun Valley would be a walkable, business-friendly community, with shops lining the first floors of the mixed-use buildings. There’d be a low-cost grocery store with vegetables grown in the area. There’d be ample parking. Best of all, the community would be fully integrated, with apartment dwelling residents living next to each other regardless of socioeconomic status.

The demolition would happen, roughly, from north to south and would skip the school and about a dozen single-family houses that weren’t part of the public housing project. Brock’s row of houses would be leveled in the third phase sometime in 2021. During construction, there’d be temporary housing in an as-yet undetermined location in or near the neighborhood.

Brock’s parents imagined being assigned a unit with expansive views of downtown. They thought about the big park planned along the river. A local grocery store would eliminate the stress of bumming a ride or jumping on public transportation for a gallon of milk and a package of frozen chicken. Teresa and Tatse asked for the paperwork. They were staying.

DHA hoped the majority of Sun Valley’s public housing residents would remain in the neighborhood, but many of them were skeptical about the project. The idea of socioeconomic integration seemed like a lofty goal, but to some, the plan sounded a lot like gentrification. There were other considerations, too. Kitchen conversations in the projects turned to laughter when imagining a banker paying full rent having to step over dirty diapers littering the hallway. Would a young, childless white couple judge the single Hispanic mom with five kids? Would the Somali girls with headscarves suddenly feel self-conscious? Would cops get called when black neighbors got a little rowdy on a Wednesday night? If something went wrong, would poor folks get the blame?

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Brock wanted a lawn, but he was told that was impossible in an apartment. He wanted a safe place to store the bicycle he dreamed of getting. But he also wanted to walk to the South Platte and sit on a boulder and just chill. More than anything, he wanted his friends.

His best friend is Romeo, a 10-year-old whose father lives next door to Brock. The pair hangs out on weekends and sometimes after school, playing basketball and watching YouTube videos in Brock’s bedroom. They jump on electric scooters dumped in the neighborhood and try to ride them. They go to the 7-Eleven; they play with Romeo’s puppy, Gray.

On a trip back from the convenience store one afternoon, Brock and Romeo were tossing a Frisbee they’d found, seeing who could make it go the farthest. Brock reached back and let it go with a grunt. The Frisbee tilted against the sky, then slowly veered right—over the fence where the public housing units once stood.

“Oh, crap,” Brock said.

He saw the Frisbee on the dirt. Brock studied the fence for an opening. He found one, sprinted across the field, grabbed the Frisbee, and sprinted back. He doubled over, panting, his hands on his knees. The boys stared at the series of dirt mounds that had replaced the old homes. “That’s like a mountain, bro,” Romeo said. “What do you think it’ll look like when it’s all done?”

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Brock shrugged. “All I know is it’s supposed to be big,” he said. “Really big.”

Brock walked out of Fairview’s double doors after school one day this past spring and crossed 11th Avenue toward his home. His parents were on their couch in the family room when he opened the screen door. The room was cast in afternoon light, shadows creeping toward the kitchen in the back. An old wooden coffee table with Brock’s asthma medication was in the middle of the room, next to a stuffed chair and two large aquariums. There was a cabinet with a television on top of it. A worn rug covered the linoleum floor. A strip of butcher paper was pinned to the wall with the words “Was Here!!!!”—a way for Brock’s family to take note of the people in their lives. There were more than a dozen signatures, including Brock’s and Tatse’s. Under his, in green marker, Tatse added the words “Love Ya’ll.”

Brock breezed past his parents. “Where you going?” his dad called after him. There was a rustling sound from inside the kitchen, where cans of pinto beans and diced tomatoes were stacked on the shelves. Brock emerged moments later with a black and red scooter. He’d found it, he told his parents, in the street a day earlier. Or maybe it was a park. He couldn’t remember. “It’s mine now,” he said. “Finders, keepers.” Brock wanted to take it outside.

“Just be careful on that thing,” Teresa told him. “We don’t need you getting hurt.”

Brock and his parents, Tatse Knight and Teresa Walker, have lived in Sun Valley for eight years. Photo by Bob Wooley

Brock called it his “pro scooter,” and he brought it up the hill to the 7-Eleven, where he got a Coke and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Afterward, he rode the scooter down the hill, over a ramp of concrete on the sidewalk. “Ohhhh, man, I got air on that one!” he yelled.

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He walked back up the hill and flew over the jump again. “My pro scooter is so cool,” he said.

Brock wound through the neighborhood, zipping up and down sidewalks, past lines of cars parked along the streets, thinking out loud.

“I want to be an architect when I grow up, but if that means going to extra school, then forget about it.”

“I think some girls in my class like me, but I’m not sure. There’s an eighth-grader a couple of doors from me. She gave me a hug once.”

“I want to have a kid when I’m 16 or 17. That’s when that happens, right? Who wants to be old and raising a baby?”

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“I’m visiting my aunt in Washington, D.C., this summer. We’re going to check out the museums.”

“When I’m an adult, maybe I’ll move in with my brother. I don’t know yet, but I still have time to decide.”

Brock rolled down to the trail that runs along the South Platte River. He rocketed across the concrete, made a left, then another left onto Decatur Street—the main road through the neighborhood. There was a youth center housed in an old church, a nonprofit called EarthLinks, and a restaurant that doubled as a community center. A low-income apartment complex with a couple of police cars parked outside its entrance was across the street.

It was almost dinnertime, and the enclave had settled into semi-quiet. Brock was on his scooter near Fairview when a white truck pulled up and stopped next to him. A child’s voice called out.

“That’s my scooter!”

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“Where’d you get that?” another voice, this time belonging to an older woman, yelled out the window to Brock. “You gonna give him that scooter? It’s not yours.”

Brock looked at his pro scooter, then at the truck, then back to the scooter. He dropped his head. The truck’s passenger door swung open, and Brock handed it over. The door slammed, and the truck sped away.

There would be no Sun Valley for Brock when he got older, his mother promised. The neighborhood was a bridge for him, a place where he could transition to another part of his life and then leave. Middle school was coming soon, then high school and graduation and a job and a family and a home—his parents hoped—away from here. Teresa and Tatse would probably always stay here, but they wanted something else, something better, for their youngest child.

Tatse thought he needed to work on himself, too, to be a role model for Brock as he headed into adolescence and the confrontations he might face on the streets—regardless of whether or not the new, improved Sun Valley turned out to actually be new and improved. Teresa and Tatse worried about Brock, about the choices he might make as he got older, about the people he might attract. With the final days of elementary school approaching, Tatse could already see the trouble his impressionable son might find with the free time that came with summer. He’d already chased off a couple of older boys who’d stopped by, kids who’d recently moved in. Teenagers, Tatse thought. He didn’t like their look, the way one of the boys wore a hoodie over his head even when it was 75 degrees outside; how one of them had a cigarette tucked behind his ear and never seemed to look adults in the eye. “We can’t have Brock get sucked in,” Tatse said.

One of Brock’s hobbies is painting, and lately he’s especially intrigued by the gleaming towers of downtown Denver. Photo by Bob Wooley

Real and perceived slights affected Brock as he found his way through Sun Valley each day. There was the boy who called his mother a “bitch,” the boy who threatened a friend, the boy who simply seemed to want to fight and was looking for a reason. “I’m gonna beat him,” was a mantra for Brock throughout the final months of the school year, though he rarely acted on that instinct. His parents wondered if they were seeing the beginning of something, whatever it was.

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Tatse and Teresa told their son to defend himself, that a young man in the projects who ran away would forever make himself a victim. Tatse showed Brock how to throw a punch in defense, to stop the aggression and then back away. “I want Brock to know that if someone’s coming after him, that’s the only time to get physical,” Teresa says. “With one punch, maybe, he can stop it.”

Brock’s father was trying hard to set an example. Early this past spring, Brock had been play-fighting with a classmate after school when a man rushed in to break them up. In the ensuing confusion, the man grabbed Brock’s arm and scratched him. When Brock went home and Tatse asked about the scratch, Brock explained. Tatse burst out of his front door toward the school and rushed at the man, who was still outside. “I was ready to flatten him,” Tatse recalls.

Neighbors watched from the sidewalk as Tatse confronted the man. Tatse demanded a meeting with the school principal to sort things out, and the man eventually apologized. Tatse shook his hand and walked away. “At another time in my life, things might have ended differently,” Tatse says. “I can’t risk showing that side to Brock. I can’t lose my son with that kind of nonsense.”

A couple of days later, at Brock’s 11th birthday party, Teresa put a cake in the refrigerator and Tatse boiled hot dogs on the stovetop. Brock was at the school playground with some cousins and friends digging tunnels in the sand. One of his brothers, Eric, was visiting from Brighton and was up the street, installing speakers into the trunk of his old Chevrolet Blazer. Eric had been out of prison for about six months and was rebuilding his life with his girlfriend and her daughter.

“I just want something else for Brock, because there’s not much of a life here,” Eric said. “He’s got to get out.”

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Brock appeared from behind one of the brick rowhouses, saw Eric, and threw his arms around his brother. A white Corvette passed on the street.

“Someone’s bringing the nice car through Sun Valley,” Eric said.

“About time,” Brock said.

He asked to start the Blazer’s engine.

“Push down slowly,” Eric said. “I don’t need you blowing this out.”

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Brock hit the gas and laughed.

Over the engine’s whine, Eric called to his little brother.

“What do you do if a cop tells you to freeze?” he asked his little brother.

“I dunno,” Brock said. “Talk to him?”

Brock’s grandmother had recently purchased him a small set of brushes and acrylic paints as a gift, and he kept them in a wooden box atop his bedroom dresser. His work so far consisted mostly of animals and abstract designs, but now he wanted to paint things that were part of his world. Teresa encouraged her son to find places and things that meant something to him. He was considering the concrete DHA building, Fairview Elementary and its hard right angles, the flowing river with rusting industrial buildings in the background. Most of all, though, Brock wanted to find the perfect spot to see and capture the city skyline.

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One day a couple of months ago, Brock banged on the door of Romeo’s dad’s house, but no one answered. He walked up the sidewalk, in between the public housing units rising on either side. Up ahead, a man scavenged through a trash bin. Brock didn’t seem to notice.

He cut through a wide lawn. He ducked under a clothesline, pointed out where a drug dealer once lived, then passed a playground and went down a small embankment to the South Platte. Below him, a circle of large rocks formed a small pool off the river’s edge. Five years ago, a three-year-old had wandered from his house and drowned there. A memorial with the young boy’s photo was tacked to a tree that stood on a rise a couple of dozen yards away, near the South Platte River Trail. Downriver, a park bench memorialized another child who was swept away in a flood.

A memorial along the South Platte River Trail for a three-year-old who drowned in the river. Photo by Bob Wooley

Brock sat alone on a boulder overlooking the city. He was fascinated by the tall buildings, how the cranes across the highway seemed to pop up every month, new metal and glass towers rising and changing the view. At the right time of day, beams of light from the setting sun reflected off the skyscrapers’ windows and seemed to wink at the neighborhood.

A gentle breeze tousled Brock’s hair. Summer was almost here, the big changes in his life suddenly not so far away. For the moment, though, he was content with being still. He leaned his back against the boulder and studied the view for his next masterpiece. “This is it,” he finally said. “Or is there a better place?”

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