A few weeks ago, I parked my car across the street from the house where I grew up in Park Hill. I do this once or twice a year when a bout of nostalgia sets in. This time, the last of the eight crabapple trees that once lined the perimeter of the brick ranch had finally been pulled up. No more pink fireworks. No more hard, then moldering, nubs of fruit. One more root to my childhood home lost to time. I felt a twinge of sadness as I turned the ignition and drove away toward my true destination: the intersection of Holly Street and East 33rd Avenue, where journalist Julian Rubinstein’s new book, The Holly, published earlier this month, takes place.
The Holly Shopping Center once stood at this crossroads. That is, until members of the Crips street gang burned down the strip mall—the social and economic epicenter of its immediate neighborhood— in 2008. The arson was in retaliation for a killing that turned out to have nothing to do with the rival Bloods, but that didn’t matter. The crime ripped the heart out of Northeast Park Hill.
Three years before the Crips launched their Molotov cocktails onto the strip mall’s roof, anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts had launched the Prodigal Son Initiative. Roberts had once been a member of the Denver franchise of the Los Angeles–born Bloods, but he renounced his gang affiliation, having had an epiphany of conscience in prison, and returned to Park Hill determined to offer alternatives for the boys and young men in his community. Prodigal Son’s mission: Address gang violence and, later, reclaim for the neighborhood the space that had once been the Holly Shopping Center.
For nearly eight years, Roberts did just that and became something of a hero in his community. But on an early evening in September 2013, the 37-year-old shot Hasan Jones, a 22-year-old Bloods gang member, who Roberts says came at him with a knife. As Hasan lay on the asphalt—not far from the new Jack A. Vickers Boys & Girls Club at Holly and 33rd where Prodigal Son was set to move its headquarters—Roberts shot him four more times. (He lived but was paralyzed.) Roberts later claimed self-defense because the Bloods had been targeting him as a police snitch. (He wasn’t.)
A work of dogged reporting, Rubinstein’s The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood wends its way through a genealogy of the Bloods and the Crips in Denver in the 1990s and peaks with Roberts’ 2015 trial for attempted first-degree murder. More than anything, though, The Holly reads like a fervent crime saga, with Rubinstein embedding with the gang members whose stories he tells.
It’s a compelling read, but I can’t help wonder: What gets lost for the sake of drama?
While gangs remain active in Northeast Park Hill and other parts of Denver, they often exist within their own bubble. “I think of it as a kind of membrane that separates us,” says Happy Haynes, who grew up in Park Hill and became the first African American woman elected to Denver’s City Council. She later served on the Denver Public Schools board and continues to reside in the neighborhood. “Occasionally, some of us will get bumped by some activity in the bubble and even more rarely, the membrane gets pierced, and the bubble activity spills out in perhaps some stunning and traumatic way that affects us all.
“The fire at the Holly was one of those events as well as the shooting involving Terrance,” Haynes says, “but honestly, I feel more frustrated and victimized by those that use incidents like these to create a false narrative about our community, something I don’t think happens routinely in white communities when equally traumatic and tragic events occur. Why?”
Rubinstein, who has written for 5280 in the past, grew up in Denver but returned from New York to report this story, drawn by media accounts of the shooting. The tale of a reformed gang member shooting a current gang member at his own peace rally was tragic. It was engrossing. It was—like so much Black trauma often is—ripe to be mined for drama. It was something straight out of, say, The Wire.
Remember The Wire? The HBO show about the heated tango between cops and drug gangs in Baltimore is number two on Rolling Stone’s list of Top 100 television shows (behind The Sopranos). Denver Film, the nonprofit theater that is sponsoring Rubinstein’s in-the-works documentary version of The Holly, certainly remembers it. “Told in the clear eyed style of the fictional HBO series The Wire,” the arts organization’s website reads, “this documentary climaxes with the dramatic attempted murder trial of Roberts, a third-generation resident of the community.”
The Wire has become a touchstone for a certain kind of culture consumer—namely, white ones. In 2013, Saturday Night Live took a swipe at the Emmy-amassing show’s popularity with hip, white audiences. Keenan Thompson, Jay Pharoah, and guest host Kerry Washington starred in a skit about a public affairs show called, “How’s He Doing?”—the “He” referring to then President Barack Obama. The punchline is that nothing could scuttle Black support of Obama. “Not the NSA wiretap scandal?” the host asks.
Pharoah: “I thought white folks would be more excited about having their phones tapped, considering how much they like The Wire.”
Thompson: “I like The Wire. They love The Wire.”
Pharoah: “White people watch The Wire like they doing us a favor.”
Thompson: “Right! You watch The Wire—ain’t like you volunteer at a school.”
Washington: “Have you ever been to a party and a white person approaches you with a smile and you know they gonna want to talk about The Wire?”
It’s been a spell since The Wire ended its run (13 years now), but the joke continues to offer lessons about the ways in which some white folks—allies even—gobble up the violent stories of disenfranchised young Black men as a way to understand “Black life.” A white person telling a person of color that he or she loved the show was akin to an unasked-for fist bump.
A few of my white friends have already asked if I’ve read The Holly. The question isn’t exactly virtue signaling—I trust their interest is genuine—but I’ve seen first-hand how little curiosity they’ve shown in the history of Park Hill’s once more robust Black community. It seems that Black working-, middle-, and professional-class lives strike too many progressive white folks as dull, not quite “other” enough. It’s easier to be fascinated—infuriated even—by violence than to be implicated in and do the work of actively listening to the more nuanced lessons of possibility and frustration of Black lives lived in a more quotidian fashion.
Rubinstein’s own shorthand and reportage reflect this myopia. The Holly makes it easy to conflate Black life with gang life, never teasing out Park Hill life beyond police-engineered strife and gang conflict.
Rubinstein, for example, cranks up the volume on the gangs and their “war,” referring to gang members as “teen soldiers” and likening Roberts’ section of Park Hill to “Baltimore or Ramallah or South L.A. or any neighborhood where an underground war was being waged.” He lets gang members like Roberts cast themselves as the protectors of the neighborhood—quoting Roberts as saying, “People like Granny need us”—without interrogating their boasts. Did grandmothers need teen boys waving guns, really? Did selling drugs bring actual economic vitality to the nabe? Rubinstein needed to create a space between his subjects, their narratives, and his own in order to pose these sorts of questions.
The simplest way to do that would have been to introduce some sources who pushed against the notion that the Bloods-versus-Crips-versus-cops conflict defined daily life and challenges in Northeast Park Hill. No doubt a few of these voices would have been women (yes, even grannies) who poked a hole in the book’s unsurprisingly male-centric narratives. Maybe then tiresome passages—such as, “Terrance hopped into his car. He wasn’t going to let any woman bring him down. That, too, was part of the code of the hood”—wouldn’t have gone uninterrogated.
It’s vital that journalists go about the business of finding bubbles, tracing their contours, reporting from them—but also recognizing them as such and pricking them. That includes their own bubbles.
Rubinstein was tugged toward the story of Roberts, Jones, and local gangs in part because the narrative didn’t resonate with the Denver he knew coming of age in the city’s southern suburbs. As for me, I’ve been frustrated with The Holly in part because his telling doesn’t entirely jibe with the Park Hill that formed my sense of possibility.
It was in that Park Hill that my folks bought their first home (from a Black Realtor featured in Jet magazine) when my father was relocated at Lowry Air Force Base. His cousin was a Church of Christ minister there. Our neighbors were the Avilas (self-described Hispanic), the Smiths (Black; retired military), the Evans (ditto), the Jensens (white; Mr. Jensen had an eye patch; Mrs. Jensen took an active interest in my reading).
It was that Park Hill that boasted the Crest movie house, which introduced neighborhood kids to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also Sounder and Cooley High and Sparkle. It was in that Park Hill where I got my hair pressed—and later relaxed—by Miss Irma at her beauty shop. My sixth-grade teachers at Philips Elementary were two Black men who could not have seemed more different (one was a demanding, empowering Republican; the other was a demanding, empowering Black pride hipster with a ‘fro) or more dedicated to the students in their multiracial classrooms.
This Park Hill pre-dated but also ran concurrently to the one of Rubinstein’s saga, yet it gets scant mention. The short shrift given to Black life in Park Hill—with its rhythms of joy, labor, and diversity—may not have aggravated me so much had Rubinstein not landed on his guiding trope: “Invisible Denver.” The author tags the turf of The Holly and its denizens as such, and it’s catchy, to be sure. But it also inspires—or should—the retort, Invisible to whom? And why?
In her favorable review of the book in the New York Times, Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University, writes: “Throughout his book, [Rubinstein] uses the word ‘invisible’ to mean neglected or ignored, but in doing so he fails to confront what exactly is not being seen and why and by whom. For the gentrifying whites who began moving into the areas surrounding the Holly in the early 2000s, Black people are not invisible at all. In fact, their visibility causes their new white neighbors to appeal for more policing. Indifference and invisibility are not one and the same.”
But even that observation only gets at the half of it. Sure, there’s rightful concern that the white consumer-ready packaging of gang violence in The Holly lets white readers avoid questioning their roles in the land grab that has eaten up much of Park Hill. I fear white readers will cling to the incidents of violence and too easily ignore where they themselves fit into Rubinstein’s more thoughtful backstory of systemic racism, the brutalizing and gaslighting effects of policing, and the erosive effects of redlining and gentrification.
In purportedly making visible a neighborhood, The Holly actually renders many of the neighborhood’s denizens unseen in so far as their stories go unheard. “The kids who were at the Boys & Girls Club [at the time Roberts shot Hasan] were momentarily shocked and scared,” Haynes wrote me, “but they have continued to go there every day since to participate in programs and get the support to help them succeed in school and in life.” Those kids, their parents, and the people keeping them secure—they, too, are central to the story of that section of Park Hill.
Late in the book, Rubinstein offers this circumspect thought: “When I began reporting this book…I started with a basic question: Why did Terrance shoot Hasan? It wasn’t long before I understood that an answer wouldn’t come easily.”
But what if that was never the right question to ask?
What if Rubinstein had wondered how the members of the Northeast Park Hill community not entangled in that made-for-the-screen event continue to love their neighborhood? How do they fight for its history and future in the face of an unrelenting land rush? How do they persevere? How will they still? What sort of Denver would those questions reveal?