The Holly E-book Overview: Denver’s Northeast Park Hill, Gangs, Gentrifiers, and Regulation Enforcement

News and story should be consumed together. Even in the most carefully compiled news story, the starting point neglects context and major events.

“The Holly,” released this week by Denver-based writer Julian Rubinstein, begins in the 1950s, but it’s really about the world today. It’s about the ups and downs of a lively sense of place that is familiar to anyone who feels that their part of Denver has changed, accelerated by an outside force.

In “The Holly,” these outside forces are clear and powerful: the harsh historical limits on which Denver blacks have existed and thrived, and the sometimes violent efforts to undermine the routes out of those limits.

Rubinstein connects historical points between two fleeting and externally operated cycles of birth, death, and rebirth on a central block in Northeast Park Hill. He also draws parallels between the late 1960s and the present era, times of fear at the intersection of black politics and police surveillance and provocation.

The author returned to Denver from Brooklyn to share the story of Terrance Roberts, a former Bloods gang member who turned anti-gang activist and whose acclaimed work was discontinued in 2013 when he shot and killed a gang member whom he became said it threatened his life – in peace rally that Roberts had organized himself.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

Many people in Denver think they know this story. But Roberts lived through many eras and had many identities, and the block that once housed the Holly Shopping Center had more. For people who didn’t know the story when the shooting was on the news, Rubinstein is transforming that day from a caricature into a Renaissance painting. A passage about the seconds after widespread shooting directly confronts our hunger for a proper narrative:

“For many, these recordings were the end of an era. For Terrance, the scene was still active. “

At that moment he was still worried about 15 or 20 Bloods in a block of his trying to kill him before the day was over.

People who live in Park Hill typically don’t refer to the neighborhood in sections, but simply name the area between Colorado Boulevard and Quebec Street Park Hill. But the city technically divides this area into three parts: South Park Hill, North Park Hill, and Northeast Park Hill.

NBA legend Chauncey Billups is known as the King of Park Hill. A well-known, glorious photo of him hoisting an MVP trophy for the NBA finals was taken outside the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Rec Center, technically located in Northeast Park Hill.

South Park Hill is 9 percent black, and the median household income in the area is around $ 100,000 in 2017 and 2016. It’s just east of City Park and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, bounded by Colfax and 23rd Street. North Park Hill, 27 percent black, median household income in the area of ​​about $ 80,000, is located between 23rd Avenue and MLK Jr. Boulevard. Northeast Park Hill, 42 percent black, about $ 35,000, is between MLK Jr. Boulevard and 48th Avenue on I-70.


The sharp divide between Northeast Park Hill is neither subtle nor accidental, and it comes with the historical tensions, lack of resources and opportunity, crime data, and everything else that has been seared into a century of racist federal housing, as well as local politics and activism. Like other historically black neighborhoods of Denver, Northeast Park Hill is becoming less black, and like much of Denver, the neighborhood is changing and quickly becoming more expensive. People who can’t afford it have to go.

The Park Hill Center near the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street in Northeast Park Hill.  May 8, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

A bird flies out of a hole in the Horizon bar sign near the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street in Northeast Park Hill.  May 8, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

In the book, Rubinstein makes key moments in the history of the neighborhood intimate and familiar, from the shooting of a black 17-year-old by a white Denver cop in 1968 to the destruction of the Holly Shopping Center by gangs to his arrest by Roberts in his role in Aurora protests for Elijah McClain. Readers learn the storylines of a room filled with Denver cops and gang members before an incredible confrontation between anti-gang activists. We’re filming a National Geographic TV segment about the Denver gang situation, which feels insignificant until it absolutely isn’t.

Rubinstein claims great differences between the external, “official” narratives and the realities of the last five decades of the life and death of Denver blacks. He criticizes the reporting from several local outlets as well as national references to the gang violence in the city.

After Roberts decided to quit gang life while in prison nearly 20 years ago, he vowed to fight gang recruitment.

With success and recognition, he found that his relationships became more complicated and strained, his life more political and paranoid. The story speeds up to a high-stakes chess game in which key characters suspect each other of being linked to gangs, gentrifiers, law enforcement, or, in Roberts’ case, all three. Roberts and other well-known gang members call him and offer to sell him a gun. On several occasions, Roberts hangs up feeling chased – by law enforcement, by gangs, by a combination of the two. In any case, he bought a gun himself.

After the shooting, broke and frustrated waiting for a trial, he moves from house to house, worried if too many people know his whereabouts. In one scene, Rubinstein writes that Roberts tells him to fall to the floor while Roberts checks out a suspicious noise in the house they are in.

Current and former gang members know there are informants among them who work for the police, the DEA, or the FBI, and Rubinstein notes how the people in Northeast Park Hill might conclude that one of them is now with law enforcement cooperates. You might notice a suspicious lack of charge following an arrest for a crime many in the neighborhood know about. The defendants may see legal documents during the trial showing whose information they have compromised. Or sometimes suspicious behavior just seems to reveal informants.

And Rubinstein writes: “Terrance believed that they were also recruited by law enforcement agencies to undermine and intimidate activists.”

He notes that studies show informants are notoriously unreliable and lead to many false beliefs. Rubinstein also quotes a sociologist who believes that the use of informants exacerbates gang violence, especially violence within the gangs. Law enforcement’s unregulated methods of acquiring and using informants are central to increasingly nervous moments in later chapters.

“The Holly” points out moments when the speech appears to be punished – the district attorney’s pretrial trial in the shooting case tougher after Roberts posted negative posts on Facebook about the prosecutor and mayor. Rubinstein quotes the well-known anti-gang activist Leon Kelly as saying: Yes, there is a cause-and-effect relationship.

That is not the only explosive claim in the book, and few have been specifically resolved. Rubinstein describes the reporting work he has done to find links that would conclusively show that active law enforcement informants have committed violent crimes with little or no punishment. In closing, he admits that despite seemingly damn quotes and events, he couldn’t quite confirm it (unsurprisingly, it’s quite difficult to get something like this on the record).

The Boys and Girls Club building on 33rd Avenue and Holly Street in Northeast Park Hill.  May 8, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

The Center for African American Health near the corner of 33rd Avenue and Holly Street in Northeast Park Hill.  May 8, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

While the book jumps to Los Angeles or Ferguson, Missouri for a critical context, its devotion to a short list of specific Denver settings is one of its greatest strengths. Denverites will recognize many central and less central players in “The Holly,” including activists, current and former officials, and professional athletes. But the list of “Performers” at the beginning of the book could well have included the Holly Mall itself. Combine this book with NK Jemisin’s 2020 novel The City We Became for a summer of meditation on the life of places.

Or just combine it with your daily news consumption and let it change your reading of current events. Just don’t expect loose ends to be tied. That is the domain of fiction.

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