Julian Rubinstein opens “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” describing the arrival of Ernestine Boyd, who would eventually become Terrance Roberts’s grandmother, into a segregated Denver in 1955. She was 19, escaping Arkansas with $110 and a small bag. Discriminatory lending practices by banks, and redlining zones, largely required Blacks to live in certain areas, where vacancies were rare. The Stapleton airport was named after a five-term Denver mayor who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
Within five years, Ernestine and her husband had managed to buy a small house in Denver’s changing Northeast Park Hill neighborhood. The area was being touted as an experiment in integration, with two new shopping centers, including The Holly. Yet real estate agents encouraged white residents to move to the suburbs, saying the arrival of “Negroes” would eventually destroy their home values. Within ten years, the area changed from 98 percent white to 90 percent Black, with high unemployment and overcrowded schools. A white supremacist organization announced its presence in the 1960s, and several members of the local police station were said to be members.
A group of 15 leaders, including Colorado’s first African American state senator and a Denver Bronco running back, asked the mayor to leave policing in the area to them to de-escalate what had become a tense relationship between angry youth and aggressive police officers. The mayor launched an investigation into police brutality. In that summer of 1967, when 100 American cities saw rioting largely provoked by lack of opportunities and resources in Black communities, Denver remained quiet.
In 1969, the nearby Dahlia shopping center in the area was put up for sale and a group of local community members worked to raise money to buy it and continue Martin Luther King’s legacy toward Black empowerment. The Presbyterian Economic Development Corporation gave them a loan, but then cut the residents out of establishing a Black-owned co-op structure as intended.
A local activist objected to efforts to incentivize Blacks to move to a new community further east, with few trees and near a former chemical weapons manufacturing site and was labeled an anarchist who was dropped as a Denver Model City representative.
In the meantime, with few jobs and high poverty rates, youth became engaged in basic robberies, which eventually escalated into bonding as gang members as drug sales became available as a money maker.
Rubinstein writes that the subprime-mortgage crisis in 2008 especially hurt low-income Black communities, which hastened the expansion of gang activity. Gentrification of cities was also leading to Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows police efforts, which seemed to encourage racial profiling.
After The Holly shopping center was burned down in 2008 in retaliation for a rival gang member’s death, Roberts attended a community meeting about the space. Most of the 125 attendees were white, and he suspected did not live in the area. Some of them wanted to build a charter school on the site. Terrance proposed a workforce training center. Other suggestions: a drug and alcohol treatment center, a supermarket, an incubator for startups.
Ultimately the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), a nonprofit real estate development company that bought space in distressed neighborhoods and built them in partnership with the city, stepped in. Its director earned $190,000 a year, had a board with influential people, and raised the money easily. A 2009 article quoted him saying that future plans had already been discussed with the community — which was not true.
He was having trouble getting personal pay and anti-gang grant money, which had enabled him to hire outreach workers as mentors for local youth. Roberts told Rubinstein that he was hurt and angry that civic leaders “used to tell me how to dress, how to run my events. They hated on me because they couldn’t control me.”
He and a friend found a separate piece of property to buy, where he could set up his Prodigal Son operation. After he mentioned to ULC his interest in buying it, its price was raised out of range and a high-end condo developer bought it.
Someone expressed his opinion to Rubinstein that the city powers that took over The Holly used Roberts to get the credibility they needed, eventually developing “a white thing sitting in a Black neighborhood, using the concepts generated by the mind of Terrance Roberts.”
In the meantime, city redevelopment projects continued. Roberts’ father was given three weeks to move our of the area in 2018, to a freeway location “in the most polluted zip code in the country.” The ULC took down Roberts’ basketball courts, making room for a charter school.