August 25, 2008

Spiffy Five Points Ready for Dip, Twirl

Early Friday morning in Five Points and the last of the sweeper men are finishing up, putting a last bit of gloss on this once- forsaken section of the city.

This historic place where heavyweight champs once trained and jazz legends long ago wailed deserves its own dateline: Five Points. Yes, it has always been a part of Denver, but in its rich past, in its decline and now as it gentrifies, in many ways it has ever been viewed apart.

And now, here on the eve of the Democrats' grand, quadrennial nominating party, Five Points on this morning was not merely looking ready to fit in, but to grasp, headlock-style, this city and its visitors.

They were putting up the fences, cleaning the gutters and dabbing paint here and there on the northeast side of Welton Street - main street here - in preparation for the After Five Jazz & Blues Festival that starts today and runs all week.

Shopkeepers were hosing down and shining their front windows while restaurateurs hauled box after box of booze and foodstuffs inside in anticipation of an influx of visitors. Red, white and blue ribbons hung from lampposts.

Walking up and down Welton on this morning, I had never seen the place look so pretty. Yet, will anyone bother to come see - as folks here constantly fret and pray over - or will Five Points be just another girl with a new dress at the prom whom no one asks to dance?

Terry Butler, 49, was putting a second coat of green paint on a set of four garden chairs and a table at Washington Street and Glenarm Place.

"I'm sprucing things up for my mother-in-law, what with all of these people coming," he said. She is Grace Stiles, who founded and runs the Stiles African-American Heritage Center. She invited me in for a tour.

After retiring from Denver Public Schools, Grace Stiles, now 75, opened the center out of a belief that so many of the children she taught knew nothing of the history of their ancestors.

The two adjacent homes she purchased in 1998 - first kicking out the drug dealers and their customers who long inhabited both - are now filled with exhibits, books and artifacts she used every February over two decades to teach her students black history.

I must tell you, I learned more in one hour about black inventors and businessmen than I ever did in 14 years of schooling.

She has booked numerous tours for delegates and their families. They will be mostly self-guided. She is the only full-time employee.

"This is a work of art, of education," Grace Stiles says as we tour an upper floor. "All you need to do is walk through and read to learn. I am so proud of this, something that I am certain will be here long after I make my transition."

One can only pray.

By mid-morning Friday, there is already a festive atmosphere throughout Five Points. Vendors had already set up their wares beneath large, white canopies and were making sales.

Renee Bryant, 55, sat in the cool shade outside the Tubman Hilliard Global Academy and had already made repeated sales of the African soaps, perfumes and gift baskets she is hawking. She will be here all week, she said.

"Of course they will come," she said confidently of convention delegates and others. "They want to know of this place, of us."

It is occurring, she laments, decades too late. Five Points, where she was born, raised and still lives, has changed. Time and ongoing gentrification is rapidly changing its historic identity as a mecca for blacks. This is not all bad, she said.

"This is still Five Points. And you tell me, how great, how historic is it, that the first time this nation nominates a black man, a regular kid off the block, for president that it happens right here?

"Even if he was Republican, I would want to vote for him 17 times because he knows what so many of us know - what it is like to come from a broken home, to be called certain words. We should invite him up here."

It is why Sherry Allen, 51, has pitched her canopy right at the Five Points marker on Welton. She was born here and has lived here all of her life. She nearly cries, brush in hand and working on yet another painting, when she tries to explain the significance of next week.

"I hope people will come," she said. "I truly hope we will all prosper because that is what this coming week is about - change, a change of attitude and our prospects for the future.

"It is about bringing together all colors in a way that makes each of us change our hearts. Not our minds. Our hearts. From that, we will all move forward together."

Behind us, still more sweeper men pass. Five Points is looking good in the bright morning light.

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